There exists in the history of art criticism, an idea that only those educated in the history of a subject can understand and appreciate it. Keats and the romantics, and the modern postmodernists widely claim that this knowledge is not so important. Keats would argue the beauty of an object, its story, its life can be appreciated without any knowledge at all, and post-moderns argue to a similar tune. Some argue history, reference, the author are all equally unimportant, as all art, literature, and music exists in the viewer, reader, and listener. I, however, must admit in a Greenberg line, that I am a peasant when it comes to free jazz. I do not know if it is because of this ignorance that I did not particularly admire Tony Wilson’s musical work as it was played on Friday night. But based on audience reaction, and other reviews, it is slightly more than a possibility. So, this piece can only be a peasant’s view of Tony Wilson’s music, an uninformed explorer attempting to identify plants and their value in an unknown land. With this disclaimer stated, I begin.
Ironworks, located in the downtown eastside, is perfect. The squeezed lobby gives way to a large, warm space, set with round tables arranged to view a small stage in the left corner, and rows of black chairs to the right. Opposite to the stage, along the wall from the lobby, past the chairs is a doorway into a bar and lounge. Simple, with old world elegance these rooms were largely empty before the show, as people arranged themselves in the front room. Candles lit every table. Tony Wilson was introduced as a cornerstone of Vancouver’s music scene. He has been playing the guitar for the past twenty years, composes original works, and leads and participates in three bands. This past Friday, as invited by the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, Tony played with A Day’s Life Band, with fellows JP Carter on the trumpet, Jesse Zubot on the violin, Peggy Lee on the cello, with Russell Sholberg on the bass, and Skye Brooks on the drums. Unfortunately Carter was missing from the first half of the set. Playing mostly original compositions, with some interesting covers and tributes, the music was meant to invoke an atmosphere suitable to the reading of Wilson’s first novella ‘A Day’s Life.’ For this effect to be achieved, Wilson requested the audience to withhold their cheering, and clapping till the end of the set. The audience broke this rule only a few times.
The first two songs took me aback, as free jazz to most of the unaccustomed probably does. In its attempts to move away from the stricter structures of classical jazz, free jazz abandons regular rhythms, and swings back and forth, like waves. Tony Wilson’s A Day’s Life Band was gorgeous, and melancholy as it began. Much of Wilson’s work has been described as being laced with recurring threads of aching sadness. In these first few moments, the music was beautiful. However, as the set continued, it droned. While different from much contemporary music and original on a whole, the songs themselves seemed repetitive. The solos were drawn out, and over the top. Furthermore the readings from Wilson’s book were stagnant in theme and depth. Describing the life of a homeless busker, this chosen passages offered little insight, and were heavy on description of garbage, and dirty buildings. At moments its descriptions, while surely representing a dark reality Vancouverites are aware of, are cliché, and thus lack any strong emotive power. The attempt at integrating the music with spoken word, and the writing becoming another part of the performance largely failed, as the reader’s voice did not fit well with the words or subject matter. It was brash and confident, whereas the voice of the main character was sad, lonely, and on the verge of giving up. The performance could have been improved if shorter passages were read, perhaps even just sentences combined with shorter solos in between. Or, the voice could have spoken over the music, even for at just moments. This would, along with perhaps Tony himself reading, would have created a better symmetry between the two art forms.
There were definitely moments during this performance, that this reviewer felt missing something, and thus bored. The references in the music were largely lost on me. This inaccessibility is perhaps desired by Tony Wilson and fans, as his music is largely described as intelligent and knowledge based. It is, however, worth mentioning that the final song was particularly wonderful, and was the song during which the band played the most together, instead of taking turns providing background to each other’s solos. Tony Wilson has said that he plays and writes music for its own sake, this much was apparent.