Musical journeys into secret Vancouver

Why do I love these concerts? They’re original, committed, self confident, unsentimental—and hearing musicians like Taylor and François rip up The Apartment, the superlatives just keep coming.

Taylor Ho Bynum, cornet. Photo courtesy Kelly Jensen
Cornettist Taylor Ho Bynum

It’s good he had energy to spare—he’d need it. Cornettist Taylor Ho Bynum introduced himself a little nervously, put cornet to face, and improvised a kinetic volley better than words could ever have conveyed anyway. We were off! This concert marked numero uno of his Acoustic Bicycle Tour—a compositional journey from Vancouver to Tijuana, which would blend performance art as both a philosophical statement and an exercise in extreme physicality.

The last time Taylor Ho Bynum played Vancouver he was featured in the 2012 Vancouver International Jazz Festival, but this time his presence was much more low key and entirely on his own steam. Both acoustic and human powered, his tour was planned as a way to unplug and collaborate with local musicians along the way. In Vancouver, he was joined by clarinettist François Houle whose ad hoc concert series at The Apartment was but one example of why some of the least marketed concerts, held in tiny venues (or private homes), offer some of the best music Vancouver has to offer. Welcome to secret Vancouver.

Suffering is like riding a bicycle

I should have known better than to suggest to Taylor that the best art comes from suffering. I’d met up with him in a Kerrisdale café before he departed Vancouver on his bicycle journey south, and he dismissed the idea of suffering out of hand. “That’s an old perception”, he said, “I think the reality is that you have to embrace challenge to grow as an artist.” Taylor admitted to a “fondness for the outliers” and cited his bike tour as an example (most people would sooner drive or fly). People who are risk averse wouldn’t like his mode of creativity either (avant-garde jazz strongly inflected with avant-garde classical music), but “it’s a small niche and those who love it, love it so deeply”.

Taylor and Francois with bikes at The Apartment
Cornettist Taylor Ho Bynum and clarinettist François Houle with their bicycles at The Apartment in Chinatown. Photo courtesy François Houle

He described a mentor who turned him onto the avant-garde by assigning him the task of listening to American avant-garde jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler. In the pre-Internet days, finding one of his records was no small feat. “I had to hunt down a recording, which cost $15 dollars”, Taylor said, “Initially I didn’t like it. It took work and several listenings before I began to understand where it was going and to like it.”

But he persevered and eventually came to revere the avant-garde. “It’s not so hard to get from Vancouver to Tijuana by car or plane, but by bicycle that’s hard work”, Taylor said, again finding a way to turn challenge into a growth opportunity, “And the rewards are extra-ordinary…all the experiences, all the challenges, all the people I’ll meet.”

Taylor embraces risk in music the way a long distance cyclist embraces the open road. “If I’m going to bring people together to play music, it’s irresponsible not to present them with a challenge.” And then grasping the promise of his road ahead he added, “I do what I love and I do it with the people I love”.

Music journeys

There’s a lot of optimism at the outset of a journey. Fresh off the boat from Stockholm, Nils Berg was only a couple of weeks in town when François invited him to join the more-or-less impromptu concert at The Apartment. Nils, a tall fair tenor saxophonist with husky Lester Young/Stan Getz leanings, had come to Vancouver as a lucky recipient of The Swedish Residency Project, a grant designed according to Ken Pickering of Vancouver Coastal Jazz to bring Swedish musicians to Vancouver to collaborate. François and Taylor had already torn up The Apartment (musically speaking) before Nils joined them, so when he made it a trio, Nils’ laid back sound complemented Taylor’s hyperkinetic energy and François’s virtuosity nicely.

House concerts—making the rafters ring

When composer Lisa Cay Miller blew out a wall separating kitchen from living room, she was specifically renovating her East Vancouver house with concerts in mind.  And instead of a house warming party, she naturally opted for a concert to “bless the space with music”. It’s not just a casual group of friends with guitars and spoons; she welcomes into her house some of the finest local and visiting musicians available (such as Nils Berg as it happened recently).

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