One of the primary exponents of an eccentric school of free vocalisation, British improviser Phil Minton has a range of clicks, pops, tweets, gurgles and cries at his disposal sufficient to bewilder the most devoted phonetician. In his mid 60s, Minton performs at a compelling level of physical intensity, his feet twitching and head jerking as, seated, he uses his whole body to produce the desired sounds. Minton came to Vancouver to perform at Coastal Jazz and Blues’ Time Flies festival, alongside fellow UK improviser and saxophonist John Butcher, Toronto drummer Harris Eisenstadt, and locals Peggy Lee and Torsten Muller. For three nights, the musicians played in rotating combinations, often pushing their instruments beyond normal boundaries. Danish guitarist Hasse Poulsen occasionally played his guitar with a bow—or a Slinky. Butcher produced effects with his horn that often didn’t require him to blow into the instrument. Seattle-based violinist Eyvind Kang impressed me in particular; he was extremely gifted at treading a line between free playing and almost folk-like themes, passionately stated.
There were moments that didn’t work. Poulsen seemed off the third night, and Dutch pianist Cor Fuhler, though clearly gifted, appears not to have mastered whatever skill it is that allowed his fellows to sense when a piece is ending. These are small things compared to the exquisite beauty of the music; it can be a revelatory experience, to be present as improvisers craft organic and unique compositions out of little more than their attentiveness to each other and their craft.
The high point, though, occurred before the festival proper started, at a sparsely-attended free show at Main and Hastings’ Carnegie Center. Wearing a floral shirt and spectacles, Minton led and performed alongside a “Feral Choir” of six Vancouverites, including a man in his 50s in a bandana, reminiscent of Jodorowsky in full beard, and an instantly likable older woman with a turquoise scarf around her head and a bright pink one around her neck. As the seven produced an unclassifiable and ever-changing tapestry of sound, a few of the Carnegie’s more downtrodden regulars ventured in, and then back out, stirring free coffee and scratching their heads. A gruff male attendee skeptically muttered to his buddy that the people on stage were a “bunch of cuckoos”—but stayed to watch. Toward the end, Minton led his choir in a little dance. As things quieted, I briefly mistook the gurgle of the coffee machine behind me for part of the performance.
As the applause died down (surprisingly loud for a crowd of perhaps 20), a middle-aged woman in the row ahead turned to me and looked up, looking not at all like an art geek. “I liked it,” she said, with just enough emphasis on the word to suggest that you could call her crazy if you wanted to, “but…” Then she smiled, looking somewhat puzzled. And that was the best part of the night.