With two large stages bookending the stately Vancouver Art Gallery and a student showcase by the Robson Square ice rink — plus a wall of food booths lining Howe Street — the Vancouver International Jazz Festival transformed downtown Vancouver into a fairgrounds Saturday and Sunday, attracting an all-ages, urban crowd in sunhats and shorts to a wealth of free shows.
There, and in ticketed events on Granville Island and at Ironworks, a late-night Gastown venue, the 12-day festival stayed true to its mission of presenting a challenging menu of international acts.
For whatever reason, for those first few days, the ladies ruled.
Refreshing among them was British art song stylist Norma Winstone. Call it the World Cup effect, but Winstone’s bounteous, lived-in delivery of unusual pop and jazz tunes Saturday — from Dave Grusin’s “It Might Be You” to Tom Waits’ “San Diego Serenade” — made Granville Island’s Performance Works feel like it was suddenly part of a larger universe. That international feeling was enhanced when she sang in the Friulian dialect to honor an Italian Vancouverite who helped bring her and her Italian pianist, Glauco Venier, to town.
Friday, the quietly original Chilean tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, accompanied by bassist Pablo Menares and the brilliant Cuban drummer Francisco Mela, made a similar impression at Ironworks. With a burry, sometimes vibrato-free tone and a pointed attack, Aldana recalled both the focused architecture of Sonny Rollins and the romance of Stan Getz, while sounding like neither. Her improvisation on the ballad, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” was stunning.
Downtown, on Sunday, Ethiopian-born Israeli singer Ester Rada revealed herself to be an Afro-funk arena star, pumping her arms, prowling the stage and whipping the crowd into a frenzy with a Chaka Khan-sized voice and a sizzling horn section.
Hometown gals did themselves proud, too. Cellist Peggy Lee, a festival stalwart, led her free-improvising “Film and Music” octet in a program rich in cinematic melodies as well as fun-to-follow, pointillist group improv, though virtuoso bassist Torsten Müller needs to find a more musical way to solo than reciting an inventory of extended techniques.
North Vancouver-bred Brandi Disterheft, now living in New York, turned in a muscular, masterful performance on acoustic bass Sunday on the outdoor Robson Street stage, though her singing was less impressive.
Not that the men didn’t shine. Vancouver-bred band leader and composer Darcy James Argue, a longtime Brooklyn resident now internationally hailed as a bright new voice in jazz, offered a scintillating new work for Vancouver’s Hard Rubber Orchestra, led by John Korsrud, as well as bringing his own big band, the Secret Society, for a delicious, better-than-three-hour double big-band program at Performance Works.
Vancouver free-improvising pianist Paul Plimley was typically ebullient, and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s group, Gamak, delivered a dazzling swirl of improvised South Asian rhythmic asymmetry.
There’s more ahead this week, including bassist Christian McBride, tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd, vocalist Cassandra Wilson, drummers Harris Eisenstadt and Jeff Ballard, Cuban-inspired Canadian reed player Jane Bunnett; another free weekend of jazz in David Lam Park; and more free shows on Granville Island Monday, June 30 and on Canada Day, July 1.
Through July 1 in Vancouver, B.C.; venues and prices vary (604-872-5200 or coastaljazz.ca).
Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247; email@example.com; on Twitter @pdebarros; or at http://blogs.seattletimes.com/soundposts.