The cello is rare in jazz, but Peggy Lee is a musical master

Peggy Lee is busy with six shows going on at the 2022 jazz festival.

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TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival

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When: June 24-July 3

Where: Various places


Long associated with classical music, the cello is increasingly heard in jazz. A small but growing number of instrumentalists are introducing the instrument into the world of improvisation with admirable results.

Vancouver’s Peggy Lee is one of the best, combining an almost telepathic connection to the music and employing a treasure trove of techniques to get the most out of every performance. This explains why she will lend her considerable talents to a range of very different projects at the 2022 TD Vancouver International Festival. In 2018, she had eight different concerts. In 2022, she is the festival’s most requested player with six shows booked. Among these are a pair of headliners on June 30 at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. at Pyatt Hall with the Peggy Lee Band.

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Lee currently splits his time between Vancouver and Melbourne where his partner and drummer Dylan van der Schyff teaches. She finds the scene in the music hub of Down Under quite similar to the one here.

“I’ve heard amazing improvisers in Melbourne who, like here, only play jazz but also pop and folk,” Lee said. “There were also some really amazing classical string performances. That’s where I came from, once upon a time, though not now.

A graduate of the University of Toronto School of Music, Lee had no idea classical music wouldn’t be her career. Her degree was split between UT, solo studies in Atlanta, as well as a year at the Banff Center for Arts and Creativity. There she gained her first real exposure to the vast world of improvisational potential. Initially, she participated as part of a string quartet, but this changed as the term lengthened.

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“We were playing, rehearsing and taking masterclasses, but I knew I didn’t want to play in an orchestra and the violinist wanted to be an opera singer,” she said. “There was a collaborative program called Inter-Arts and I ended up doing an installation in a gallery with some media arts people and it made me think ‘So what?’ Most people I knew in Toronto played regularly in pit bands during the musical boom of the time, so I came to Vancouver.

Most people wondered why she chose a much smaller stage with much, much less opportunity. That was true in 1989. It probably still is.

But Lee had met a number of local players in Banff who were of the same mind to come to the coast and see what was going on. The first gig she got was by answering an ad in the Georgia Straight to join the indie rock band Memory Day. But she had also connected with the improv scene, including guitarists Ron Samworth and Tony Wilson and others. She anchored herself to both Wilson’s group and the Talking Pictures group, where the emphasis was on composing original material.

In 1998 she formed her first band playing her music. Today she leads three different bands – the large orchestra Echo Painting and two octets with the Peggy Lee Band and Film in Music. She is also a member of the chamber jazz trio Waxwing, nominated for a 2022 Western Canadian Music Award for Instrumental Artist of the Year.

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“I also have two other trios, Handmade Blade and one with guitarist Cole Schmidt, who have rotating drummers, who will be recording a new album in Montreal and Vancouver,” she said. “And then there’s Gran Kasa by guitarist Alvaro Rojas and a band with Erika Angell and Róisin Adams from Montreal called Beatings Are in the Body. Honestly, I don’t really know how I keep it all together sometimes.

Clearly, something has happened in Vancouver since it arrived in the late 80s. Not only are there great new voices coming out of Capilano University’s renowned jazz program, but the local scene is also regularly performed on festival stages across North America, Europe and beyond. Lee says it didn’t happen in a vacuum.

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“The Jazz Festival’s incredible support of the late Ken Pickering and (now Artistic Director) Rainbow Robert has had a huge impact that is not repeated in many other places,” Lee said. “There has also always been a lot of collaboration with improvisers, dancers and theater artists, which gives the scene more exposure to new audiences. Although I can’t speak directly to other places , I can be sure that this openness to working together has produced excellent results.

Incorporating strings into projects is now incredibly normal and that means a new generation of players have the opportunity to explore new ways to add instruments like cellos, violas, violins and more to jazz. , rock and other projects. By her own estimation, Lee believes there are at least four new recordings due from the local string bands she plays in, as well as the Sick Boss record and others. The Peggy Lee Band will enter the studio immediately after performing at this year’s festival.

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Can an Australian group be far behind?

“I improvised a lot there on the last visit, but I’m not there yet,” she said. “But there are some great musicians out there, who we should get to know either by coming up with a new project of mine or something of their own. I can’t wait to see if anything develops.

For the local show, Lee will present a series of compositions written in Georgian Bay in a cabin built by his late father. She went there after his death and had plans to record it which were cut short by COVID-19. Documenting it will be another item to check off his incredibly busy list of projects.

“It’s not all sad, I promise,” Lee said. “It’s just influenced by all the memories I had of that place and my dad, etc.”

For the full list of Peggy Lee performances at the Jazz Festival, grab a Festival Schedule Around Town or check the website.

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