improvised jazz has the ability to grab my mind whole, shake it, and set it back in place. i’m left pleasantly disoriented and mentally exhausted. the convergence of george lewis on trombone, marilyn crispell on piano, miya masaoka on koto, and hamid drake on drums was one of those blissful events.

george lewis does things to a trombone that are quite gross to watch, yet you can’t take your eyes off of him. every few moments he seems to be emptying his spit trap, and between songs he mops himself down with a towel. the man has a great deal of saliva, and he needs it to do what he does. rumbles, moans, squeals, low whistles, and whispers.

patient and adept, lewis has no problems finding his entrance points or knowing when to sit back and groove to what someone else is doing. lewis represents what i love about improvised music. he is jazz.

crispell does fine work on piano. she, too, is a patient player, never forcing the music together. her presence on the stage is understated, though her output is serious.

while we sat waiting for the show to begin i puzzled over the koto on stage, not having a clue what it was doing there. masaoka did things to a koto that i wouldn’t have imagined. i perceive it as such a traditional instrument, and yet here she was thumping on the bottom of it while she forced it to surrender all of its possible music.

i didn’t focus enough on drake’s percussion, unfortunately. it was there and it was fitting. lewis is a captivating figure, and it was difficult to see that there was anyone else on the stage.

june 28th, 2003, 8pm, vancouver east cultural centre

susie ibarra (and trio)

after listening to a couple of ibarra’s cds on the tzadik label i wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. she has some mainstream sensibilities (‘azul’ is a crowd-pleaser that i’m nearly sick of now), but focuses primarily on an improvised jazz sound. we had the chance to catch her at a jazz workshop at this years jazz festival here in vancouver, and it was insightful into her technique and philosophy.

susie’s roots are in piano, which she played for years as a small child. later on she played drums in a punk band. then she moved to new york to be a painter, but saw sun ra play and was converted to jazz. i read somewhere she played under milford graves, something that comes through in her sound. she perceives percussion as a melody, and after hearing her say that it shifted the way i listened to her albums. i’m no jazz aficionado, nor am i particularly musically trained, so it’s always fascinating when i pick up some conceptual background for how to listen to music. susie had a bunch of other percussionists in the room come up and get a bit of a lesson. she is a warm person, though seriously shy. her voice is barely more than a whisper.

the first time we saw her on stage was with her trio as an opening act out at the vancouver east cultural centre. she was quieter, more nervous, and exhibited several disturbing obsessive compulsive ticks: constant tucking of hair behind ear, though there was no hair to tuck. rubbing of forehead. fidgeting with clothing. incessant tightening of same cymbal.

besides the strangeness, susie is a hummingbird percussionist. force, precision, and swiftness. she’s engrossing, her arms moving at a blur pace. the appearance of mastery.

as a trio, however, they are lacking something. i’m not positive i know what it is, but there is an element not quite right. one of the factors i think affecting them is that they often play from a score. they don’t look comfortable with this, and any improvised moments feel dangerously controlled. i think susie might be a bit of a control freak, something that makes her studio recordings sound so good. jennifer choi can throw out the tunes with flash, though showy violinists kind of irk me because they feel very pretentious (showy fiddlers, conversely, are stylish). craig taborn is good on the piano, but he looks very restrained by the parameters of this trio. he looks as though he wants to explode into moments of complete freeform.

we had a chance to watch them play again the next day. same thing. this time we had bad seats and spent most of the show watching taborn pull his pants up. this time round, however, i could appreciate the sound of the performance better. they’re a band i’d rather not see live. i spent most of the first show wanting to bearhug susie so that she’d relax a bit. that said, i’d happily dish out for their next album. i think they’ll get better on stage with experience.

june 28 & 29, 2003, roundhouse
june 28, 2003, vancouver east cultural centre

valerie dee naranjo

as part of the 2003 vancouver international jazz festival we attended valerie dee naranjo and drum heat out at capilano college. sal ferreras, who heads the local group drum heat, looks like an intense guy, with incredible concentration while playing. valerie is even more intense. her day job is as lead percussionist and arranger with the saturday night orchestra. she is a highly professional musician, which comes through in every motion she makes on the stage. she is almost scary. the other musicians seem to tremble under her gaze, as though one missed note will lead to some kind of punishment.

i think it’s probably the level she plays at that intimidates. a highly proficient performer, this night she played the gyil (african parent of the marimba) and the marimba. the gyil has incredible reverb, a peculiarity that sounds to have been ironed out in the evolution of the marimba.

one of the most remarkable things of the evening was the amazingly annoying man behind us that insisted on gabbing on about music theory, world music, and a thousand other things he professed to be an expert on. he sounded like a semi-intelligent arrogant knob. why do people have to go to events and talk about nothing but their shallow knowledge of the event at hand? if they must make small talk can’t they do it about something else? and why am i so smug as to get annoyed over other people’s stupidity?

the main thing was valerie and her gyil playing, though. and sal playing a wooden box. and the other fellow playing various hand drums. good stuff.

daniel lanois and language use

daniel lanois has been getting a lot of press recently due to his new album and touring dates. the interviews have been kind of strange, however. one in the georgia straight was ok, but left me thinking lanois was a bit arrogant. whether or not this is the case is another matter.

the interview in the vancouver sun with kerry gold was very peculiar. i get the impression that she’s pleased to have gotten her fingers bitten by lanois. makes good copy. the article begins well enough, with gold praising lanois and outlining his career. at one point lanois makes a comment about being “drawn to greatness”. the reporter seems to think this means that lanois is a whore who will work for the most popular star of the moment. the interview goes all wrong.

from the way lanois was talking earlier in the interview it seems he was referring to being attracted to working with people like brian eno, who he cannot praise enough. in other words, lanois is “drawn to great musicians with great ideas” not “drawn to the bag of cash”.

gold suggests that lanois turned sour after lanois accused her of being part of the evil corporate radio machine (she works in print).

it looks like these two kids completely misunderstood each other on several points. feathers ruffled. guns were drawn. what could have been a solid interview gets flushed. lanois looks like an asshole. gold looks like she got the scoop. the reader isn’t impressed.

lesson learned: phone interviews are a dangerous sport. so are in-person and email interviews, but that’s another story.

vancouver jazz festival 2002

gavin bryars is one of those few beasts to whom the word ‘lumbering’ is entirely accurate. he walks as though it were an involuntary action, imaginary rope pulling his mid-section along without the express consent of his legs or arms.

that said, his compositions are dreamy. drifting and heavy, pulsating with emotion.

while many double bassists tend to exhibit serious facial ticks and body twitches, perhaps due to the shocking physicality of the bass itself, gavin bryars does not. he is an enormous statue, quietly dwarfing his instrument. an instrument which, incidentally, he resembles in every way.

holly cole, on the other hand, is quite a lot smaller than i imagined. she is slim and dainty, and even her female tom waits voice was tinier than i would have thought.

all said, last night’s performance was fulfilling.

this was preceded by another great year of jazz at the roundhouse. while i did not suck back du maurier cigarettes (still the sponsor), i took in a few decent acts.

the eivind aarset trio combines rock instrumentation and electronics, most of this played over by a frippish guitar player. while there were some moments of serious cheese with this group, it was mostly interesting. it was the live instrumentation that saves these guys, with the drummer giving the group extra kick.

the matthias lupri quintet was like stumbling across some musical group masturbation session. too many skilled musicians playing together apart. while the vibraphone rocked, and the bassist was neurotically polished, the combined effort of the group was drivel.

this was followed by the combined improvised efforts of torsten müller, françoise houle, and dylan van der schyff. this was a lot of fun to watch. we sat across from müller – he left an impressive puddle of sweat, pouring from his large, bald, dome onto the stage.

the efforts of these three collaborators was another window of insight into the improvisational process and how musical communication. while there were some awkward moments, such as waiting for houle to find his entrance point in the third piece, it was rewarding overall.

finally, this day was capped with a performance/discussion with jason roebke. roebke definitely falls into the category of bassists who display spastic facial expressions while playing. his were like a combination of facial surgery and having a limb falling asleep (very impressive).

roebke is a highly articulate musician, and was capable of answering all of the audience’s questions/attacks regarding improvised music. it is the first time i’ve heard someone express such coherent thoughts about the form. if you get a chance to see him, do so.

stereolab. les bons bons des raisons.

saw Stereolab last thursday, whatever date that was, at the Commodore.
summary: lots of shoe-gazing, mod youth, bopping heads in time.

summary of the performance: shoe-gazing, head-bopping tunes. the lead singer plays trombone, moog, and sings. quite a stunning performer. if only i could have heard her over the drums.

they played some classics (the remixed stuff from Emperor Tomato Ketchup kicked ass), a bunch from Cobra, among others.

whatever way you slice it, Stereolab spells f-u-n. if i could have heard the singing better, it would have been sublime.

ok, they did seem to be lacking a certain oomph, but i write that off to the fact that some of their shit must be difficult to emulate live.

it is great to see bands – at least i had the next day off. methinks i’m getting too old for this.

this is illustrated by the fact it is halloween and i have long since retired from any kind of seasonal activity. sigh.

hussain vs. shankar

Zakir Hussain, Shankar, T.H. Vinayakram, Gingger at the Vogue theatre in Vancouver. after hearing their work on recordings, i wasn’t sure how it would come across live. it was amazing, naturally. we ordered our tickets online and ended up with front row, left centre seating. we had a really great view of Hussain and Vinayakram, but couldn’t see Shankar or Gingger as well. although Shankar is a consumate performer and Gingger is quite the looker, i really went to see Hussain. it worked out well.

here is a scene from the performance:

a high-pitched sound comes out of the monitor. it visibly annoys Hussain.

Hussain: please turn the monitor off.

continues playing. monitor continues to buzz.

Hussain: (louder) please turn the monitor off.

continues playing. monitor continues to buzz. Hussain bats the microphone out of his way in frustration. he plays for only a few minutes before Shankar comes over to move the microphone back in front of the tablas.

Shankar: (smiling nervously) they can’t hear you.

Hussain: yes they can. it sounds better this way.

Shankar: no, no, they can’t hear you.

Hussain: it sounds better this way!

they push the microphone around a bit until Hussain gives in and continues playing. some time later he tries to nonchalantly push the microphone a little further away.

in Hussain’s defense, the tablas sounded great with minimal amplification.

in the end, few things stand up to a 10+ minute ghatam solo by Vinayakram. what an intense little man.

Gingger looked nervous and out of place. it was interesting watch her watching the chemistry between the other players. she was too shy to take a solo, even as Shankar prodded her to do so. Gingger appears to be trying to learn more about improvised playing even as she takes part in the performance. it would be freaky as hell trying to improvise with players who have decades of experience together.