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Friday, July 4, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Vancouver festival just oozes hipness

Seattle Times jazz critic

The poster image for this year's Vancouver International Jazz Festival, which ran from June 20 through last Tuesday, captured the spirit of the event well. A woman in a red dress — slightly whimsical, unsmiling, but with something substantial, even secret, in her almond-shaped eyes — holds a trumpet against a cloud-blue background.

It's not just that it's a woman in the picture; this festival always has showcased strong women, from cellist Joelle Léandre to homegrown vocalist Diana Krall. The real beauty — post-feminist, perhaps even post-jazz — is that the trumpet player in question has this blithe expression that seems to say, "So what? You were expecting something less than the hippest jazz festival in the world?"

From the opening shows two weeks ago, by American pianist Jason Moran and Cabo Verdian diva Cesaria Evora, to last weekend's closers by trombonist George Lewis and the reunited Senegalese dance band Orchestra Baobab, Vancouver delivered exactly what that mysterious woman's gaze promised. Even the weather looked kindly on the festivities, with unseasonably hot, sunny days bathing the nearby mountains with light.

It was hard to stop smiling, particularly at Baobab's packed, generously long set at the Commodore Ballroom Sunday. Wearing black checked pajamalike outfits and occasionally breaking into a dance step, these 10 Afro-pop performers from Dakar rolled through their salsa/reggae hits with aplomb, grace and style.

Though they've slowed down a bit since their heyday in the '70s and '80s, the stinging licks of lead guitarist Barthélemy Attisso and the hammy flirting of saxophonist Issa Cissokho were youthful as ever.

Trumpets and saxophones usually overshadow trombones in jazz, but the slide instrument had its day this year, with improvisers Paul Rutherford (from England) and George Lewis (from the U.S.) appearing in multiple settings. Rutherford's Octet created compellingly tactile sound sculptures with an ever-shifting surface at the Roundhouse Saturday, with guitarist Ron Samworth dropping silvery dollops into the mix.

Rutherford's trio at the Western Front offered a quick-witted, lyrical set. Lewis took a dandy outing with Vancouver's New Orchestra Workshop last Friday at the cozy Vancouver East Cultural Center, using the "conduction" method — improvised cueing of players — on "Chicken Skin II," a wonderful piece that returned to a declamatory theme. Lewis' quartet with pianist Marilyn Crispell was not as compelling, though he played some good and greasy licks.

By contrast, Crispell's celestial, ringing performance Sunday at the Roundhouse, with Léandre and Vancouverites Dylan van der Schyff (drums) and Francois Houle (clarinet), nearly levitated the crowd. In a melodic performance and informative workshop at the Roundhouse Sunday, New York drummer Susie Ibarra gave an object lesson in how the jazz drum set could incorporate Asian and classical percussion, with violinist Jennifer Choi offering a dazzlingly rich sound.

Vancouver traded the somewhat lived-in Vogue Theatre this year for the sterile, but better-sounding and more comfortable Centre for the Performing Arts (formerly the Ford Theatre). Brazilian singer Marcio Faraco's set at the Centre was, disappointingly, more sweet than tart. British sax man Iain Ballamy (formerly of the Loose Tubes), made a stronger impression with a trippy Norwegian electronica trio called Food. Their trumpet player, Arve Henriksen, coaxed elephantine roars and flutey trills from his instrument.

As always, the expansion of jazz beyond American borders was a festival theme. So just as the Scandinavians introduced bleak, beautiful snowscapes, French Canadian guitarist René Lussier played jazz with the rollicking, scronky feel of a Quebec carnival at the Vancouver East Cultural Center June 26.

The Vancouver Festival offers dozens of well-attended free shows, but patrons also came out for the high-ticket concerts in better-than-expected numbers, according to Executive Director Robert Kerr. This was the last year of tobacco sponsorship from du Maurier, but Kerr said a new title sponsor is in place and will be announced in October.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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