(photo courtesy of monsterfresh.com)
The Vancouver Jazz Festival has developed into a very important date in my calendar. Not only is it synonymous with the first appearance of warm weather , it also gives the opportunity to saturate my ears with sonic explorations by modern masters of improvisation. Although not my most coveted JazzFest 2015 overall experience (that’s a tie between The Stanley Clarke Band and The Bad Plus playing with Joshua Redman) I was nevertheless struck by the performance delivered by Dutch drummer Han Bennink when he played with Joe Williamson and John Paton. I have been very lucky to witness various free improvisations of very high levels of depth, but I don’t think I’ve ever been graced with such an entertaining, charming, and funny approach. Bennink had tremendous and flashy chops that bored intense rhythms into the seated Ironworks audience. What impressed me more was how many times the audience couldn’t help chuckling at Bennink’s cheeky approach to typically stern and introspective music. A flying drumstick, released from a sweaty flurry of limbs came to land precariously on a tom-tom, and Bennink halted his onslaught of percussion to scrunch up his face while he pointed accusingly at the balancing piece of wood. All noise in the group ceased and the drummer’s greasy fingers unabashedly altered the course of the piece of music with a startling accuracy. Among other acts that left the audience giggling, Bennink remarkably didn’t come off as a comedian and he executed every musical decision with expressive conviction. I found myself discussing this show with my friend Ridley Bishop, a fantastic reedist, and he remarked how the fact that the musicians at this show were clearly not using their performance as a vehicle for expression against oppression, like players such as Ornette Coleman would, it made sense that there was a certain element of showmanship with a hint of tongue-and-cheek from the Dutch drummer.
I recalled a special gig that I played almost two months ago with Key to Abyss, a free-improv quartet that enjoys making explosions of abrasive interactions with contrasting beautiful soundscapes, that employed a lighter approach to . KTA was joined onstage by the aforementioned Ridley Bishop in a double tenor saxophone brawl with Mike Allen. The lengthy pieces featured elements of skits, shenanigans, screaming, “saxophone sex”, and other traces of hilarity that I don’t normally experience when performing music of the improvised philosophy. As seen in this live video:
Big EviL is another project of mine that approaches free improvisation in this manner. This is the first group that I played in with musicians met through Capilano University’s Jazz Studies program and takes the tongue-in-cheek theme of this blog post and applies it to the music composition itself by playfully improvising over styles ranging from grindcore and noise, to funk and reggae. Big EviL is of the most thrilling groups that I have the honour of playing with and this is mainly due to how exciting and unexpected the performances can be.