Heavy Snow

Rumours of the demise of the CD format continue to come up against the hard reality that not only is the format alive and well, there are labels still dedicated to investing in cover art. ECM comes to mind as one of the great independents still dedicated to the format but worldwide there are small independent labels like Japan’s White Paddy Mountain who also maintain a busy release schedule and take equally great care in the presentation of the music.

This is a new release from Chihei Hatakeyama called Heavy Snow and I’m delighted to have provided the cover art culled from a series of images from Vancouver’s somewhat rare severe winter of 2016. I have listened to Chihei’s enveloping soundscapes for nearly a decade and it was his music that helped soundtrack my unexpected hospital stay after an accident in 2010. That we should eventually come to work together is a real joy and I’ve just completed a video to go with this release.


Here is a still from the video for the track Heavy Snow II:

And here is the full, fifteen minute video. Please take the time to watch it on a big screen and keep the volume low. Enjoy!

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This latest CD cover project is for composer Colin MacDonald’s Saxophilia, a saxophone quartet dedicated to playing and commissioning new works for saxophone by Canadian composers. Recently, on a cold, grey afternoon at the venerable Ironworks Studio on Vancouver’s working waterfront, we convened to photograph Colin, the quartet and to get some images of Colin’s sax for the new CD. And here is the result. It also offered the perfect opportunity to use the ornate display face Restraint, designed by my good friends Marian Bantjes and Ross Mills. The very name of the group practically demands it! Look for a December release of this. Available on Redshift. More info to come…

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Ben Monder’s Power of Now

Ben Monder is a musician who reminds us how important it is to focus within, re-imagine time and bring discipline and lightness to what some would call the practice of playing an instrument. And despite the prevalence of technology in contemporary music making, the electric guitar still retains a preeminent position as the most common starting point for much great music we hear across many genres. With Ben it’s easy to see why this remains the case.

At his recent master class in Vancouver as part of the always great Vancouver Jazz Fest’s free workshops at Tom Lee Music, Ben offered an intimate look at his process. It was unvarnished, unpretentious and enlightening for both the technically minded and the merely curious. A quiet, patient, and occasionally very funny man (he could be the Zen Steven Wright of jazz guitarist comedians!) he played Jule Styne’s I Fall in Love Too Easily (also covered by the great Ralph Towner) and took us back to the origin of his most trusted instrument; an old Ibanez semi-hollow body that he bought decades ago because, as he tells it, it looked cool in a picture he’d seen! There seems to be a mutually rewarding loyalty between instrument and player and he was clear in allowing that this loyalty was key to developing what might be called “his sound”. If you come across an instrument that is not perfect, you can still make it yours.

I have always liked players who take the sound of the guitar as a starting point for creating other worlds, ones which might not instantly be recognized as being guitar-based. So as a result, the likes of Christian Fennesz, Terje Rypdal, Eivind Aarset, and, more recently, Chihei Hatakeyama have become some of my favourites. And because I have very little knowledge of traditional jazz guitar history I usually buy in when players start to go towards the “outside”, when the instrument is used to craft unfamiliar landscapes. So it wasn’t surprising to find that Ben had studied the music of various 20th Century new music composers, citing Olivier Messiaen’s influence at one point.

I had always known Ben as part of a trio or as a sideman in jazz settings. And I only recently found out that he was the guitarist on Blackstar, David Bowie’s final album (which I now feel compelled to revisit). I was waiting for a purely solo guitar recording. So while not technically a solo release, his recent recording on ECM, 2015’s Amorphae, is as close as you’ll come. It is spare and measured, yet occasionally reaches escape velocity. It pulls and pushes at time and expectation within several tracks including the old Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut Oh, What a Beautiful Morning. But his handling of that one standard on the LP does not render it unrecognizable the way Derek Bailey would have (thinking of his Ballads LP on Tzadik). And yet it fits in well within the recording’s overall ethereality. It is an austere, beautiful set that delivers a cumulative, understated power. It slowly demands that you be present for it, rather than succumbing to a state of ambient bliss.

There are numerous videos available on YouTube of Ben playing everything from adventurous, extended and distortion/sustain-drenched solos to a lovely and fairly straight rendition of Wichita Lineman with his trio. Please take the time to search them out. And if you have the opportunity to catch one of his masterclasses you will likely emerge a better player and you’re guaranteed a smile!





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Dry Falls


One of my favourite spots in Washington is the Grand Coulee/Dry Falls area that lies roughly in the middle of the state, east of the Cascades. It can get blisteringly hot and the landscape is more desert than rainforest. The geological history of the area is fascinating and I’ve explored and photographed it extensively over the past few decades. I’m so familiar with the land that it’s become more interesting to watch people interacting with it than carry on doing endless variations of landscape shots from the same viewpoints. This was taken in the summer of 2016. I will be doing some more shooting there this summer.

BBC did a nice piece recently that provides some background on…the background! It’s not often the area gets much international attention and this piece is pretty good. All the photos are taken from easy access viewpoints and were likely taken in spring as there’s some greenery and water flow at The Palouse Falls location.

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Point of Order


I’ve been a fan of painter Etienne Zack’s work for years and was pleased to learn he’s moved from LA to Point Roberts, Washington. Not exactly Vancouver, but close enough! I’m going to be very interested in how the more rural setting will affect his work which, for a number of years has involved the detailed rendering of fantastic rooms of books and documents lit by fluorescent tubes. I met up with Etienne to catch up and chat about his work for VR Media. This portrait was shot in his backyard, a far cry from his usual urban environs of Montreal or LA.


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Anja Lechner & François Couturier

anjalechner Munich-based cellist Anja Lechner and Paris-based pianist François Couterier are two musicians whose body of work has exemplified the diversity, delicacy and unapologetic beauty of the “ECM sound” over the past 20+ years . They have played with (among many others) Argentine bandoneonist Dino Saluzzi, Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem, together as a duo and as part of François’ outstanding Tarkovsky Quartet (formed in part, as tribute to the great Russian filmmaker). As a duo they have a current CD out titled Moderato Cantabile (featuring the music of Komitas, Mompou, and Gurdjieff) and the Tarkovsky Quartet has just released Nuit Blanche.

On February 21st they performed on a bill with the incomparable guitarist Ralph Towner at the Seattle Art Museum. I traveled down for the concert and to stay for a photo shoot with Anja and François the next day. The SAM and the Earshot Jazz crew were incredibly accommodating and Anja and François were delightful company throughout the afternoon. If they make it to these shores again you simply must see them. Theirs is a special chemistry in live performance.


And from the rehearsals on the day of the performance, here is a photo of Anja playing. François was a little harder to shoot during the performance due to the lighting arrangement. I don’t usually do performance photography but this moment during rehearsal allowed for me to be in an ideal spot on stage.




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emerson-masterMany years ago I bought a Deutsche Grammophon box set of the complete, recorded cycle of Bartok’s string quartets. The musicians were none other than the great New York-based Emerson Quartet, who I’ve subsequently enjoyed in concert countless times. Through my association with Friends of Chamber Music I’ve had the privilege of meeting, interviewing and occasionally dining with some of the greatest chamber players in the world, the Emersons among them. I’m also a fan of music packaging and posters so it has been a great deal of fun doing a series of posters for this august organization which has entailed coming up with a new look for the organization and a new marketing strategy for the 2016/17 season.

Postering has enjoyed a huge comeback in Vancouver so it was decided to get Friends of Chamber Music into the fray alongside DJ events, Rocky Horror revivals and everything else out there using the classic 11 by 17 poster to entice people through the doors. My first exposure to this street advertising format was during Vancouver’s punk heyday when I’d scan hoardings and lampposts for announcements of concerts by the Young Canadians or Subhumans. Since those days I’ve mostly worked with ambient, pop or jazz musicians on projects like this so it’s nice to finally come around and work with some old school, truly class(ic) acts!

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loscil 2016

scott-morgan72Scott Morgan (aka loscil) has a new release out on Kranky Records called Monument Builders. Somewhat darker in tone than past releases it bears all the hallmarks of a classic loscil release. I’ve written more about this on the VR Media site here:

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Mats Eilertsen

If you came of age in the vinyl era you may have expanded your musical horizons by scanning the credits on record sleeves and booklets. You may have noticed that certain musicians, engineers and producers’ names kept coming up time and time again. These were often signposts for new paths to follow that would lead to further discovery of new music. It’s like looking at a healthy root system that eventually leads you up and out to broader vistas. In the jazz world, sometimes you’d just look for a label. Maybe it’s ECM, or Blue Note, or Verve. But root systems are varied and you need to pay attention.

What am I getting at? Well, I like many musicians on the ECM label. Many are from Norway and they frequently work on others’ projects. As you’ll note from the recent glut of portraits of ECM artists I’ve posted, a few of these fine players have come through town recently; Thomas Strønen, Tord Gustavsen, Anat Fort and Avishai Cohen. After failing to scan the credits on their releases in recent years, I missed the name Mats Eilertsen.

As his smoking hot trio played here at Ironworks in June as part of the Jazz Fest, I noticed Thomas Strønen was on drums! I’d seen Thomas with his duo Food and only just recalled that Mats was an original member of that group. Then later, after photographing Tord Gustavsen, I saw that Mats was the bassist on his two most recent ECM quartet albums. In short, Mats has been an integral part of so many great recordings and his trio is a delight.

And now he has his first release on ECM as leader. It’s called Rubicon and it’s out this month. On first listen it’s both classic ECM and a fresh reach with a large cast of new-ish players. I’ll be scanning the credits a little more carefully from now on.

Here’s the trio:



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New Cathedrals – Simin Tander and Tord Gustavsen

SiminTanderThis past June, Coastal Jazz brought a very unique trio to town that defied my expectations to deliver one of the most sublime concerts of the year at Christ Church Cathedral.

Tord Gustavsen has led a traditional piano trio for many years now, one which normally serves up a very pristine and beautiful (if often mournful) music. It’s almost out of place within the ECM catalogue because it is, on first impression, so very softly melodic, yearning and romantic. There is little in the way of abstraction, improvisation or inverted and toyed-with melodies that are typical of so many ECM recordings. His first trio outing for ECM was 2003’s Changing Places which features a gauzy curtain-like image on the cover which fits the mood almost too precisely. It would be dinner background music if you failed to listen carefully. But do. It’s so lovely!

Along with bassist Harald Johnsen (and more recently Mats Eilerstsen) in his usual working group is drummer Jarle Vespestad, who was previously with the insanely talented improvising Norwegian supergroup known as Supersilent (which they certainly were not, which was one reason he headed to the fold with Gustavsen). I’d seen him in 2008 with Supersilent and was initially surprised at hearing him settle into a far less abstract jazz idiom. With Gustavsen’s material, Vespestad frequently sticks to fingertip, brush and soft mallet. He’s a subtle master and his restrained style leaves no hint at the power and fury he’s capable of generating in other settings.

And that becomes the point. Gustavsen seems to cherish restraint and all of his recordings follow a similar path. Nothing is underdone or overdone. Everything seems considered and polished, but not to the point of preciousness. I’d previously avoided seeing him live because as much as I enjoy the recordings, I couldn’t imagine it translating well to the concert hall and generating much excitement. But that was a mistake, and I nearly did it again this year.

The new CD is called What was said, and in place of a bassist, it features Afghan/German singer Simin Tander. It is a unique set because it has Tord reworking traditional Norwegian Lutheran hymns (with which he was raised), creating new pieces around the poetry of Rumi, and otherwise creating delicate, gem-like fusions around themes of grief, longing and unbound faith. Simin sings the pieces in English, Pashto and an improvised, imagined language where translation isn’t necessary…or possible! However, a quiet room and a good sound system is. It almost comes at a whisper at times, so much so that I imagined the music risked being so delicate as to float away in a venue like Christ Church Cathedral when performed live.

On the evening of the concert I had a front row seat, right in front of the minimal drum kit. The trio emerges and right away there is the feeling that something special’s going to happen. And it does. Jarle comes out in a dark, snug suit and eventually brings out a glass of red wine. A class act, and he is a joy to watch in performance. Tord also cut a fine, gentlemanly figure and stopped on occasion to speak (softly) about the music and the international and interfaith nature of some of the pieces.

Most of the new CD is performed, but offering versions that make it a live tour de force! Simin Tander is magnificent and lets fly several times during many ebbs and swells of the evening which are bathed in a subtle electronic soundscapes and given added weight with Tord playing synth bass parts with the left hand. Simin was most riveting when she employed singing techniques which I cannot name but I assume are typical of, or adapted from, her ancestral homeland. The Cathedral, under tarps and scaffolding while restoration and construction carry on, was not only the perfect venue but felt like the perfect place for discovering a new faith in the live experience of a music steeped in several.

TordFinalThe next morning I met Tord and Simin at The Sandman Inn, one of the least appealing looking hotels in the city’s least appealing downtown zone. An aging 1980s sports architecture aesthetic dominates the area and I was at a loss for location options. Oh, and I had 15 minutes before they were to be picked up to be taken to the airport. Gracious and generous, they arrived at my makeshift spot by a shelter on the QE Theatre plaza, coffees in hand. They looked effortlessly great. We enjoyed a brief chat and were able to get these portraits done in time for them to make the connection for their show that night in Rochester! Sometimes you just need a little faith!

Check them out here:

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