On May 16, as the scent of apple blossoms and bulbous rhododendron shrubs played with the calm evening air, I made my way to the the Lido, a handsomely modest, retro-chic watering hole on East Broadway, to listen to an up-and-coming Vancouver-born band, the Jen Kim West Coast Collective. Bassist and bandleader Jen boldly led the way in showcasing the group for their first official gig together. The moving parts of the group are Julian Borkowski on trumpet, Todd Stewart on drums, Patrick Kao on guitar and Connor Lum on saxophone — each of them already lead their own trios and quartets outside of Jen Kim’s group.
Now within the Lido’s doors, I see the band setting up in the effortlessly cool way that we less musically-abled groupies are inexplicably transfixed by. As they tune up and give each other affirmative nods, I’m grateful even for the occasional strumming of those guitar strings under their players’ scrutiny.
Perfectly harmonizing — my mood, the band and the room are practising pathetic fallacy. Our surroundings emit an amber warmth allowing me to sink into the wooden, varnished furniture. A peachy glow trickles from the upper spotlights, muffled by a netted ceiling adorned by flora and fauna. There are so many aspects of the outdoors that the room, although not huge, feels airy and fresh. Wide, arched doorways add dimension to the space and a soft-spiced incense encourages us to forget that we are in a bar and instead, maybe in a wooden cabin.
The curator introduces the band swiftly and without further ado, the 4-way-nod reappears and the seventy-odd table-sitters turn their heads towards the stage. The opening piece begins as a sax-less trio — a floating, upbeat but weightless sound — no swanky snares or singular governing instrument in earshot. Harmonic and unobtrusive, contained energies through gentle drumming, smooth cello, and obedient guitar maintain the stage and its eager audience.
The music progresses, it becomes a story. I feel myself inching closer to the stage, not wanting to miss a scene. The trumpet is blaring in conversation with the sax, both rising in a crescendo. The melodic discussion is quick, it’s testing and provoking, and although predominantly accordant, certain notes give away that there is a deliberate dispute or rupture within the storyline. Emotions and rhythms grow in intensity until snares quickly sweep in and smooth over this playful undercurrent, until we’re redirected to a fluid, mellow rendition of the piece. Purposeful muffling effects distance us from the dramatic scene and there’s a unilateral sigh of relief from the audience following this deceleration.
The group’s talents are unbounded (at least to the amateur eye). It seems that their talent is innate independently and exaggerated as a group. I feel lucky to have watched this first gig of theirs and to have noticed an innocence that may be found only within new groups — the inter-band exchanges of smiles of encouragement, the sweet reluctance to completely let loose with one’s instrument, and the holding back from ad-lib risks and escapes into improvisation. I also can’t wait to be able to return to them in a few months and witness the subtle leaps in total assurance that this brand new band will undoubtedly take; each member is boastingly capable, something revealed as they all take turns for solo sections.
Speaking to Jen Kim after the set’s wrap up, she emphasizes that the group wanted to create a blend of renditions by famous modern players in the likes of Chad Lefkowitz–Brown, Nate Smith and Robert Glasper to compliment their self-composed works such as “Venturing”. The main ambition was to ensure that all the music they would play should fit into the jazz tradition but usually with a new twist to it for a modernized effect.
Elegant yet playful, carrying about them a lightness which will be adjusted with the greater risks they naturally start to take, the Jen Kim West Coast Collective is one to keep a beady eye on, especially if in search of a night of shoulder swaying and finger-clicking. — Anoushka Todd