Top Jazz Journalist’s Take on What to Hit at the 30th Annual TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival

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Tourism Vancouver’s Jorden Hutchison interviews DownBeat Magazine reporter James Hale.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2015, the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival is set to take over the city, June 18 to July 1. Bringing some of music’s most well-known edge-pushers, mainstayers and international ambassadors to Vancouver, the event features performances by some 1,800 artists – ranging from jazz, funk and Latin to fusion and world music – at 300-plus concert venues across the city.

image001-(2)---croppedHere, we sit down with James Hale – contributor to DownBeat magazine, one of the top publications dedicated to musicians, jazz and blues fans – and get his take on the upcoming festival.

Active in the music industry since 1978 as a print and broadcast journalist, lecturer and promoter, James is also co-author of the Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues and has contributed numerous entries to the Canadian Encyclopedia of Music. He has written about, and participated in, jazz festivals throughout Europe and North America.

What performances are you most looking forward to?

At the top of my list is the Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra. No one at DownBeat recalls when the last Canadian-bred recording was awarded five stars —the mark of a classic album — but it’s safe to say it was a long time ago, probably something by Oscar Peterson in his prime. But Christine Jensen’s Montreal-based big band did it. That’s due to her astounding compositional talent, the way she brings out the best in her musicians, and the contribution of her big sister Ingrid on trumpet and electronics. It’s rare for a Canadian big band to tour this far afield, and the West Coast is where the Jensens were born, so this is going to be a big homecoming for them. It’s going to be something special.

Beyond that, I’m looking forward to a full afternoon and evening of performances organized by Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, which will feature some of the best Nordic improvisers playing in small combinations and as a large unit. I’m also looking forward to another drummer, Antonio Sanchez, and his band. Sanchez did the music for the Oscar-winning film Birdman, and he’s also the long-time drummer for guitarist Pat Metheny. The trio The Bad Plus are touring with saxophonist Joshua Redman this summer, and that’s going to be a really interesting combination — coming at music from several different directions and traditions. I’m also looking forward, after all these years of chasing this music, to finally hearing saxophonist Jimmy Heath in person. He’s 88 and still making interesting music; no one else sounds like him. There are several musicians I always enjoy seeing — French pianist Benoit Delbecq, American drummer Gerry Hemingway, Vancouver pianist Paul Plimley — and it will be great to reconnect with them and hear what they’re up to. And I’m always looking forward to hearing something great that I didn’t expect; that’s a big part of the fun of any jazz festival, but especially in Vancouver, because the city presents so many opportunities.

There’s a great selection of free events taking place throughout the festival. What are some of your top picks?

Needless to say, it takes great commitment for a music festival to program concerts that don’t require an admission fee. It’s a real investment in both the music and in growing the audience for it. For festivals of its size, Vancouver is a real leader in this area, and it has paid dividends in how it has developed a connection with the city.

On Granville Island, I’m looking forward to seeing Curtis Nowosad, a young drummer I’ve been following since he was in university. He’s one of the bright lights of the Winnipeg jazz scene and a real up-and-comer internationally. The Campbell Brothers are going to blow the roof off Capilano University’s performing arts centre with their performance of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme — one of the great suites in contemporary American music. On the Downtown Jazz stages, I’m looking forward to Zony Mash with horns, Tony Wilson’s tribute to Jim Pepper and Eli Bennett’s quartet. At David Lam Park — in addition to Paal Nilssen-Love — Michael Occhipinti’s Sicilian Jazz Project with clarinetist Don Byron is going to a real treat.

What distinguishes the Vancouver International Jazz Festival from other festivals around the globe?

Three things: its location, the vision and commitment of the people who run it, and the connection between the festival and larger Vancouver cultural community.

Every great festival reflects the character of its location, and the Vancouver International Jazz Festival really succeeds at that. It showcases different parts of the city, like David Lam Park, Granville Island and the downtown core, as well as some great indoor venues. You never forget you’re in this spectacular location.

The vision and commitment are reflected in the way the festival has gone after unique bookings you won’t find anywhere else. The festival made its international reputation by bringing to North America a lot of European artists who rarely came over here, giving them prominence and putting them onstage with artists they hadn’t previously collaborated with. And they have continued to do that. Outside of a few of the very best festivals in Italy and Spain, you don’t see that. The curatorial nature of the Vancouver festival is exceptional.

Third, the festival has really connected with the local scene. Some festivals feel like they set up tents like a travelling circus; they’re here for 10 days and then they’re gone. When you come to the Vancouver jazz fest you know right away that it is an integral part of the community, and when you look at what the festival does year-round, you see that play out.

Who would you like to see perform at next year’s event?

That’s an extremely difficult question because a festival is shaped so much by the vision of its artistic director and who’s available. One of the great things about the Vancouver festival is the fact that its artistic director, Ken Pickering, is a co-founder and has been one of a small handful of people to shape the festival and make it what it has become. To be a truly great artistic director, you have to be passionate about the music, have huge ears, and expose yourself to music around the world. Ken qualifies on all counts, and through his 30 years of building the festival he has won the trust of his audience. They trust him to seek out interesting new artists and combinations of artists who he intuits will create something interesting together. Musicians trust him, too, and because they do he’s able to make interesting bookings happen. So I trust his taste, but if I could influence him for next year, some of the artists I would suggest include: Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret, Henry Threadgill, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Mathias Eick, Cassandra Wilson and Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog with Mary Halvorson. Make that happen, would you, Ken?

Top insider tips for visitors coming to the festival?

For me, the best parts of any jazz festival are the conversations that happen before and after gigs. I’d recommend that people coming to the festival strike up conversations and get to know the Vancouver jazz fans. Each city’s jazz fans are very different — kind of like sports fans — and Vancouver’s are very knowledgeable and can tip you to local artists you shouldn’t miss. Also, visitors should budget their time so they have a chance to get out and see this gorgeous city.

Tickets for select performances at this year’s 30th annual Vancouver International Jazz Festival are still available at www.coastaljazz.ca.

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