A look back before the Vancouver jazz festival’s last fling

Greg Buium
June 30, 2007 at 3:19PM EDT

-Jon Ballantyne-Solo Concert
-Jon Ballantyne with Francois Houle

VANCOUVER- As the 2007 Vancouver International Jazz Festival turns towards its final days- Saturday and Sunday at more than 20 venues around the city-you can’t help sifting through the past seven days, trying to take stock of the music you’ve heard.

The marquee events-singer Norah Jones at the Orpheum Theatre on Thursday, or saxophonist Joshua Redman’s trio on a double-bill with The Bad Plus at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Tuesday-arrived all neatly done up, just another stop, perhaps, on the increasingly homogeneous North American jazz-festival circuit. Historically, however, the so-called headliners have revealed very little about what makes the VIJF resonate. You need to look elsewhere for that.

Take the evening shows at Performance Works on Granville Island. Despite its throwaway title (Songs Etc.), this series has been a kind of flesh-and-blood answer to the ever-present genre questions: What fits into a jazz festival, and what doesn’t? Well, how about a nifty Bulgarian-Turkish dance band (Lubo Alexandrov’s electric Kaba Horo Ensemble from Montreal, which performed Tuesday) or a Vienna-based Tunisian, melding Sufi mysticism and modern Euro ambience (singer-oud player Dhafer Youssef, who performed Sunday and Monday). The series has been eclectic and accessible, and not exclusively what some still call “world music.” The 350-seat space has been filled nearly every night.

Youssef’s first set Monday was perhaps one of the highlights of the festival so far. With tabla player Jatinder Thakur and Divine Shadow Strings, and Austria-based quartet, his music was an especially hypnotic hybrid: North African rhythms delivered by Euro-Indian instrumentation, layers of often wordless vocals (processed through electronics) soaring overtop.

While the VIJF has always been fuelled by its own polyglot tastes-jazz purists, I suspect, shudder to think of the Commodore Ballroom’s Urban Groove series-it’s also kept Canada’s jazz and improvised music community front and centre every year.

Saskatoon-raised, New York-based pianist Jon Ballantyne, a somewhat underappreciated figure in recent years after his sharp ascent in the late- 1980s, performed a provocative if not altogether satisfying solo concert at the Western Front Thursday. While some of his tunes were familiar (say, Sonny Rollins’s Oleo), he often piled on these dense, rumbling left-hand figures, reworking ideas over and over, turning his sources into thick, complex abstractions-quite beautiful in some cases, jarring and elusive in others.

Canadian musicians have been scattered throughout the festival’s seven series, and Lower Mainland players, in particular, have dominated the Vancouver East Cultural Centre’s program, thrown in among more famous Americans (pianist Vijay Iyer’s quartet) and Europeans(Finland’s UMO jazz Orchestra). Bills have included Vancouver trumpeter Brad Turner’s quartet (Monday, cellist Peggy Lee (Tuesday) and two groups led, or co-led, by guitarist Ron Samworth (Talking Pictures and DarkBlueWorld, with singer Elizabeth Fischer, on Friday).

Quebec-raised, Vancouver-based clarinetist Francois Houle fronted on one-off all-star tentet at the VECC Thursday night. Houle, a mainstay of festival programming since arriving on the West Coast in the early 1990s, was commissioned two years ago to write a large-scale piece for the VIJF’s 20th anniversary.

This time, he selected six Vancouver players, including trombonist Jeremy Berkman and violinist Jesse Zubot (whose own trio, ZMF, opened), plus three out-of-towners -American French horn player Tom Varner, Swedish reeds player Fredrik Ljungkvist and Jon Ballantyne.

It was an absorbing, hour-long set, as the piece swayed from these grave, highly managed scores (Varner’s tentatively titled Heaven and Hell: The Combo Platter) to jazz tunes (by fabled soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy) to Houle’s own bare-bones improvisational strategies.

The colours were often terrifically beautiful, with the combination of Varner, Berkman and Zubot adding a level of depth and ambiguity to the otherwise familiar palette. And while many of the soloists stood out (trumpeter J. P. Carter, for one, or Ljungkvist, who’s keening, seething tenor saxophone was especially vivid), bassist Tommy Babin was the linchpin: rugged and exact and tying everything marvelously together.

The Vancouver International Jazz Festival continues at more than 20 venues through Sunday. There will also be free performances on various stages Saturday and Sunday at Concord Pacific Place and on Granville Island.