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I’m back!

September 23, 2011

It’s been more than a year since I’ve written something for this blog. The last piece I wrote, dated September 2, 2010, was a review of a Michael Bublé concert. Why the silence? I’ve been busy at work and with life in general. Whenever I thought about blogging, something told me it wasn’t an essential use of my time, so I wrote nothing.

But saying I was busy is just a lame excuse. I could have blogged if I really wanted to. It’s not like there was any shortage of topics. As always, I went to many concerts in the last year, and I could have reviewed any number of them. In case you’re wondering, since that Bublé show, I’ve seen the following artists:

The National, The Walkmen, Arcade Fire, Calexico, Broken Social Scene, Big Boi (the last time I had to accompany Miles to a concert – no more hip hop and metal for me), Sufjan Stevens, Gorillaz, N.E.R.D. (Pharrell Williams), Lila Downs, Concha Buika, Junip, Galaxie 500, Rufus Wainwright, Teddy Thompson, Grinderman (Rufus/Teddy and Grinderman, featuring Nick Cave, on the same night!), Leonard Cohen, Black Dub (Daniel Lanois), the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (doing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21 and Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, including the Vancouver Bach Choir singing “Ode to Joy”), Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses, Owen Pallett, Donny McCaslin, Orrin Evans (McCaslin and Evans in NYC), Ernie Watts and the Capilano University “A” Band, Salif Keita, Robert Plant, Fleet Foxes,  the Pixies, Imaginary Cities, Tonbruket (Dan Berglund), Robert Glasper, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Trombone Shorty, Lucinda Williams, Ana Moura, The Bad Plus, Colin Stetson, Christian McBride & Inside Straight, Richard Galliano & Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Atomic, L. Subramaniam, Spirit of the West, Dan Mangan, Gillian Welch, Rosanne Cash, The Jayhawks, Solas, Kathryn Calder, Jenny Whiteley, James Cotton and numerous other artists at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Bon Iver (along with the Rosebuds in Raleigh, North Carolina), Beirut, the Decemberists, Okkervil River, Charles Bradley, Iron & Wine, Marketa Irglova (of the Swell Season), Devo, the Pointed Sticks, the Lewis Nash Quintet, Karkwa, and Aidan Knight.

Some photos I took:

L. Subramaniam at Summer Live:

L. Subramaniam

Gillian Welch & David Rawlings at the Folk Fest:

Gillian Welch & David Rawlings

Kathryn Calder at the Folk Fest:

Kathryn Calder

Okkervil River at Malkin Bowl:

Okkervil River

Devo at the Vogue:

Devo

And that doesn’t include the band I play in, OEQ, performing at Kits Neighbourhood House and the Kitsilano Showboat, and Miles performing with the TD High School Jazz Intensive band at David Lam Park and the UBC Senior Jazz Band at the Chan Centre.

But no, I didn’t write a word. Until now. Although simply posting a list of concerts doesn’t really count. That’s more bragging than blogging. (I thought it would be an interesting exercise to go through Google Calendar and make a list of all the concerts I went to in the last year. My conclusions: I go to a lot of “alternative” shows where most of the audience is half my age – will I still be doing this when I’m 64?; I have no idea whether my concert-going is slowing down or keeping pace with past years; I’m a lucky guy to be able to see so many shows; and no wonder my hearing is going.)

I’m still not going to write anything of substance about those concerts, most of which were wonderful. But this is my way of easing back into blogging. I was wrong to think that blogging isn’t a must-do for me; writing has been a big part of who I am since Grade 9 (when I had an epiphany, in English class, that I could write), so I NEED to do it. Stay tuned for some actual writing.

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2011 Vancouver International Jazz Festival: Part 2 (and a Rush detour)

July 11, 2011

As the jazz festival came to a close, us members of the High School Jazz Intensive (HSJI) had one more free show left – Christian McBride! But before that, I took a detour and went to Rush. Two very different shows, but both musically amazing.

Rush
Yes finally, THE HOLY TRIUMVIRATE! The time had come for Vancouver to experience the Time Machine Tour. Since June 29, 2010, Rush had been playing the same setlist, consisting of new and old material, as well as Motion Pictures in its entirety. Coincidentally, even though my friend and I had bought tickets ourselves, my other friends who had bought tickets were sitting really close to us. It was the set-up for the perfect concert. With the humorous video opener that led to the band opening with the anthem “Spirit of Radio”, I actually ended up sitting back for most of the first set. The first set consisted mostly of newer songs from Snakes & Arrows and Clockwork Angels, as well as songs from most of their 80s albums. I was surprised at how many fans knew most of those songs by heart. However, I was so glad that they ended the set with “Subdivisions”, which got the entire crowd singing along.

After the intermission, Motion Pictures started and the rest of the night turned into an air-drumming frenzy, for myself and everybody else in Rogers Arena that night. At one point, somebody dressed in a Canucks jersey appeared out of nowhere onstage, as well as somebody dressed as a bear in a Bruins jersey, which resulted in a hilarious fight as Rush played on. Ending with a video featuring the Rush-loving characters Peter and Sydney from the movie I Love You, Man, the concert came to a close with the sudden realization: are these guys ever gonna stop being amazing?!?!

Christian McBride
Straight off the bat, I was totally blown away at this concert by the solos by everyone in this quintet. Warren Wolf (vibraphone) and Ulysses Owens Jr. (drums) were especially demonstrating their incredibly dynamic abilities on their instruments. Wolf played licks that I didn’t even know were possible on the vibes, and at one point during the set, McBride called him the “Mike Tyson of the vibes”. Owens Jr. really stood out to me mainly for how dynamic his solos were. It was a great concert that inspired all of us from HSJI that were in attendance.

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2011 Vancouver International Jazz Festival: Part 1

July 1, 2011

Yes it’s that time of year again. As most of you Vancouverites know (hopefully?), the 2011 Vancouver International Jazz Festival started June 24, and it’s a time to enjoy the experience of seeing great jazz performances. I’ve actually had the good fortune of being a part of the festival, as I’m a member of the TD High School Jazz Intensive (HSJI) like I was last year, playing drums and percussion. Our director, flutist Nicole Mitchell, is an incredible musician who is masterfully rehearsing us on traditional and contemporary big band pieces and teaching us new musical concepts and ideas to help approach the pieces.

One of the best things about being a part of the jazz intensive is you get free tickets to select shows. These are the shows that I’ve seen so far:

Dan Berglund’s Tonbruket
After I arrived at Performance Works for the second set of Dan Berglund’s Tonbruket, I walked up to the venue to meet with the other members of the HSJI who had just gone to see the first set. As much as they had tried to describe the performance, they were mostly at a loss for words. I felt the same after seeing Tonbruket. If you recognize the name Dan Berglund at all, it might be because he was previously the bassist for Swedish trio e.s.t. (Esbjörn Svensson Trio), which came to an end after the tragic death of Svensson. Tonbruket is completely different from e.s.t. The array of sounds and tonal subtleties coming from all kinds of genres combined to create something incredible. The addition of pedal steel to the mix changed the vibe as well. As a drummer, what I took from the performance especially was the nature of the groove, which was always there. And I definitely cannot complain about the fact that this was an extremely tight-knit band. Thank you Tonbruket for a great start for my jazz festival experience this year.

Robert Glasper Trio
I cannot explain how stoked I was for this show. Ever since my friend introduced me to pianist Robert Glasper’s music last summer, I have been in love with his music, which draws on influences from both jazz and hip-hop. With a good sense of humor to get the audience engaged, Glasper and co began the set with ease and confidence. Drummer Mark Colenburg’s style is very similar to regular Glasper drummer Chris “Daddy” Dave in the way that they both love demonstrating their abilities to use the whole kit, while also playing very “beat-based” grooves for most of the songs. The trio seamlessly played through songs from Glasper’s albums as well as some classic J Dilla beats. Another great crowd-pleaser was how the trio transitioned through popular songs, going through tunes such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Changes”, “Time After Time” and “Kiss From A Rose”. Although I loved the way all three of them interacted that night, what stood out for me was Glasper’s consistency, playing beautifully in context within whatever style he was playing.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society
Wow. If I could really sum this up somehow: a perfect accumulation of innovative sounds and moods for the modern big band. I don’t have too many words to describe this performance, but I can say that all the songs were very cinematic, as each song had an interesting backstory which Argue explained and obviously had a very thorough understanding of. The highlight of the performance was actually during the encore, which featured a solo from Ingrid Jensen on trumpet. She just went insane and blasted through the complex changes, while maintaining musicality. I thoroughly enjoyed Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, as the music was like nothing I had ever heard before from a big band (and did I mention that Argue is a native British Columbian?!).

Brasstronaut
As hard as I tried to enjoy this show, I just could not. Brasstronaut was just average for me, if not less (maybe it was the fact that all the concerts I had already gone to were amazing?). Walking into this concert, I only received the vague description that they were “indie rock/jazz”. I didn’t feel like the music was very jazz at all really. I mean, sure there was a trumpet and a clarinet but they rarely got a chance to solo, plus most of the time they were only playing harmonies over the already pretty generic sounding songs. There were definitely some unique moments because of the instrumentation, but sadly these moments were almost ruined by various technically difficulties with the sound.

Eivind Aarset Sonic Codex Orchestra
The sight that immediately struck me as I entered the Roundhouse Performance Centre: 2 drum sets! Should I also mention all the percussion/electronics surrounding those drum kits? Of course the table for guitar effects and the Mac laptop caught my attention as well. The first song began slow and spacey with mainly guitar noodling, but caught me out of nowhere as both of the drummers established a great groove. I’m usually a little skeptical about two drummers playing the same thing at the same time, but it only added positively to the thickness of the groove. There would be times when there were shots that the drummers would both catch, and the fills that each drummer would do in between contrasted really nicely, to my surprise. The performance evoked feelings that were totally otherworldly.

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Me and Mr. Bublé

September 2, 2010

I’ve been waiting months for a reason to blog about Michael Bublé. This is it. A week and a half ago I somehow found myself at one of the two shows that Bublé performed at Rogers Arena. “Somehow” is the operative word because something possessed me to impulsively plunk down $275.05 to Ticketmaster for two prime seats.

My official excuse for this reckless behaviour: I did it all for my mother. She’s a fan, so I bought the tickets for her birthday. Mom obviously couldn’t go by herself, so I was just volunteering myself to accompany her.

Here’s my dirty secret: Weeks before my wife suggested giving the concert tickets as a present, I actually thought about buying myself a ticket. I even went as far as searching for a ticket online and finding one before pulling myself back from the precipice of the “Submit Order” button. As someone who has embraced alternative music for most of my adult life, I couldn’t picture myself enjoying a whole evening of his music or partaking in the lovefest that would be a Bublé concert in his hometown. But I didn’t hesitate to click “Submit Order” the second time around. Why?

In 1997, when I was writing a bi-weekly column about Vancouver’s jazz and world music scene for the Vancouver Courier, I did a piece on Bublé. I heard him sing at BaBaLu (now Doolin’s Irish Pub), where he had a regular gig, and interviewed him backstage. I ended up doing a favourable column, as this excerpt shows:

“With his well-coifed hair and sleek blazer, he exuded the image of a swingin’ entertainer. Bublé also sounded like the real thing. He confidently crooned tunes like “Pennies From Heaven” and “The Lady Is A Tramp”. He even succeeded in doing “Danke Shoen,” a Wayne Newton hit, without reducing it to kitsch.”

I wish I could say I predicted stardom for him, but I didn’t. At the time, nothing really stood out about meeting Bublé, other than him being friendly and easy to talk to; it was just another interview of a local up and coming artist. But when I feel like celebrity name dropping, I tell people about what happened some time after the article was published – Bublé called me out of the blue. Just to chat. Really.

My Bublé encounters from 13 years ago prompted me to pay more attention to his ascending career than I would with other name artists. I also developed a guilty pleasure in listening to his pop tunes like “Home” and “Haven’t Met You Yet”, not to mention his silky version of “Me and Mrs. Jones”. So forces were conspiring to get me to Rogers Arena, regardless of my reservations.

Bublé doing “Home”, my ultimate guilty pleasure song by the Burnaby boy, at Rogers Arena:

What I liked about Bublé’s concert:

  • The swing songs and classic ballads – that’s what he does best, despite what my naysaying wife is murmuring in the background as I write. She says Bublé is too “smooth and breezy” and lacks “aching soul”. (Isn’t the wife supposed to like Bublé and not the other way around?) My view: He intuitively understands the genres he sings in and has a credible delivery that sounds effortless.
  • That he employs a large group of young musicians who have legitimate jazz chops.
  • His jokey manner – he makes people (like my mom) laugh and be happy, and I even allowed myself some smiles.

What I didn’t like:

  • His take on rock tunes like “Heartache Tonight” – do we really need to hear him cover second-rate Eagles songs?
  • The woman sitting behind us who kept whistling and screaming at a high-pitched, piercing level.
  • His jokey manner – I get that he’s an entertainer but after awhile the banter feels overwrought.

I generally enjoyed the show. It was a huge step up from the last concert I went to with my mum, André Rieu, which was beyond horrid! I took Bublé’s performance for what it was – pleasant, tuneful music, good value entertainment (despite the ticket price) and not profound art. But now that I’ve closed the circle from BaBaLu and that phone call, I can move on. While I’ll keep listening to him as a guilty pleasure, I won’t be tempted to click “Submit Order” again.

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High School Jazz Intensive: a great experience

July 22, 2010

A couple years ago, my dad took me to see a band of young musicians called the TD High School Jazz Intensive. My dad told me that the high school musicians in the band had to audition to be in it, starting in grade 10. I actually can’t remember too much from that concert, but immediately I thought that when I reached grade 10, I would not be at the same musical level as the musicians performing in front of me.

Here I am today, a couple years later, having finished playing the jazz festival with the TD High School Jazz Intensive. It was a crazy week of playing in the jazz intensive, and I learned a lot from our director Nicole Mitchell and the people I played music with. We played songs by composers ranging from Duke Ellington to Maria Schneider. From day one, I knew that it was not only going to be a challenge for me, but for everybody as well.

Miles HSJI 2

Ever since I started playing drums, I’ve mainly been a rock drummer. My high school stage band plays songs that aren’t as challenging as what this group does, so I was pretty nervous going into this. But for myself, it was interesting to learn from the older drummer and see what he was doing stylistically. Sure, I didn’t have nearly as much experience, but I felt almost guilty at times for not knowing exactly how to play a certain groove, or know what to do in a certain musical situation. I watched and listened carefully so I could really understand the musical form and also the musicians’ interpretation.

HSJI band

I was also introduced to the music of Anthony Braxton. The song we played by him was “Composition No. 58”, which starts as a march, then turns into a really crazy time signature changing monster of a song. Although it sounds complicated, it was fun and interesting going between the different time signatures and also with the free jazz solos, including one I did.

Miles HSJI

Now that’s only one song, there were other songs that were just as complicated, if not more. From what I heard from the other musicians, Nicole chooses harder songs every year. I had never seen musicians around my age work so hard on songs. After this experience, I feel like I have to step up my game to play the best I can if I get into the band again next year. Many of the students from this year are graduating, so I’m not sure how the list of songs for next year will turn out. Whatever the songs are, if I get in, I’ll be ready.

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An ending and a beginning

June 2, 2010

This time it really is the end. I’m sure of it.

I’m talking about my career as a music journalist. Just over a year ago, I wrote about my watershed moment of not writing about our jazz festival for a newspaper for the first time in years. That turned out to be a false alarm. Writing that blog post, and flagging it in Facebook, circuitously led to a gig reviewing the festival for the Globe and Mail. But that was then. I haven’t received any emails or phone calls asking if I could review this year’s festival for a publication, and I’m not expecting any. It’s just as well – it took about eight months for me to get paid for that jazz fest piece. It was great to be published in Canada’s national newspaper, but not worth the stress.

I do, however, have something exciting to look forward to at this year’s jazz fest: Miles got accepted into the High School Jazz Intensive big band that will perform at the festival. The band consists of 20 high school students from grades 10 to 12 in the Lower Mainland. They all had to submit an audition CD to be accepted into the band, so I guess Miles’ disc featuring his performances on Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” and Miles Davis’ “Freddie Freeloader” did the trick. There’s only room for two drummers, so kudos to Miles for working hard to bring his playing to the high level that this band will demand.

What’s the reward? The young musicians will rehearse under the direction of Nicole Mitchell, a wonderfully creative and inspiring flautist, composer and bandleader from Chicago. They’ll get free tickets to festival concerts and attend workshops. Finally, they’ll perform July 4 at the Roundhouse Community Centre’s Festival Hall in a free concert. Two years ago I took Miles to the concert of that year’s HSJ, and I was hugely impressed with the music.

So the upcoming jazz festival represents both an ending for me and a beginning for Miles. I’ll gladly take that ending so I can fully focus on Miles’ own watershed moment in music.

Miles (check out his Justin Bieber hairdo) with the great jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb at the Iridium in NYC:

Jimmy & Miles

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Band geeks are cool!

May 4, 2010

I was happy to hear last week that the VSB backed off, at least temporarily, from the lunacy of axing our city’s elementary school band and strings program. The threatened cancellation of the program made me think about how my passion for music began. I trace it back to Grade 5, when I started playing trombone in the school band (after an unsuccessful attempt at trumpet). Three years of blowing air through the bone was enough to convince me that being a band geek was a good thing. That led to a high school life that was all about music: stage band, concert band, my own jazz group, vocal jazz ensemble, concert choir, and musicals. Post-high school, many good musical things came my way: playing in the UBC jazz band, becoming a music journalist, and now playing with my pals in OEQ. It all started with school band. (I don’t consider piano lessons with stern “Sister Mona” in an East Van convent, back in kindergarten, as my start in music. Not an inspiring experience.)

I thought about this some more while recently attending talent shows at two high schools. One of the shows was a benefit concert for that school’s music program, entirely organized and performed by students. While the quality of performances varied at both shows – from impressive to barely listenable – I was struck by the confidence and fearlessness of the kids in getting up on stage and doing their thing. More evidence that school arts programs are worthwhile.

Miles played in three very different groups in the two shows. Check out the vids:

Casual Blizzard doing an original song: “What Kind of Friend”:

The B2B dectet doing “Rock Around the Clock”

Nigel & Miles doing Chick Corea’s “Spain”: