Jazz Up Your Weekend at the Banff Centre

Alex and I have been seeing each other for a couple of months now, and we felt it secure enough to try something a little adventurous: a weekend away from the city.

Exactly how we found out about it, I’m not sure (I think Alex had a pamphlet or flyer), but we decided we would go to Banff (Bamf!), specifically to see a jazz concert at the Banff Centre. As an additional bonus, the Banff Centre offered something called “Jazz Up Your Weekend”, which is a package including the tickets to the show and a discounted rate for a room in one of the Banff Centre’s rooms. (They have a sort-of hotel. Not quite a real hotel, but it’s close enough.)

We discussed other activities to engage in, but the key reason was the concert. So imagine the disappointment when we found out that tickets were all sold out. But the clerk told me that I could call back later in the week, on the off chance that someone would return the tickets. I “neglected” to tell Alex that. (Hey, I gotta put some mystery into this relationship.)

Friday finally rolled around and we were off to Banff (Bamf!). After taking a detour through Market Mall to get a bite to eat, hitting the local 7-11 for a Slurpee, and driving out through Cochrane (only because we could). We finally hit Banff (Bamf!) just after 21:00, and found our way to the Banff Centre. Alex figured it out almost as soon as I turned off Banff Ave., though she didn’t find out about the concert until later.

After checking in, we stopped briefly at the coffee shop on campus for a chai latte (apparently not too bad) and a hot chocolate (which was little more than steamed chocolate milk). I say “campus” because that’s about the best way to describe the place.

The Banff Centre is a large complex of a couple dozen buildings, ranging in size from small huts to multi-wing dormitory/meeting buildings. The Centre itself is devoted to education and advancement of the arts (including music, fine arts, new media, and dance). Within the Canadian jazz community, it’s apparently the pinnacle of talent and advancement (as we would find out the next night). Situated on the slopes of Tunnel Mountain, it’s far enough away from the townsite to be isolated, but close enough that you can walk there in about 10 minutes.

We debated on sleeping in the next morning, but decided to give breakfast a try. Our room came with four coupons, good for a “complimentary breakfast”. We had no idea what it was, but figured if the Saturday breakfast was no good, we’d sleep in on Sunday. Figures that it was a full buffet, including Belgian waffles and fresh omelettes.

Our primary target for the day, concert notwithstanding, was the summit of Sulphur Mountain, tackled by foot. We would walk there, which was a few kilometres from the Centre. We started by heading down Tunnel Mountain Road, following the bend of the Bow River. Or at least that was the plan.

Barely 10 steps onto Tunnel Mountain Road, we spotted a trail leading off into the forest. As we weren’t in a hurry, we opted for a slight little detour. The detour took us considerably out of our way (we didn’t realize this until later), but we found the north side of the Bow River to be quite a bit more interesting (and quite a lot less travelled) than the south side (which is where you’ll find the Banff Springs hotel). The view of the Bow Falls from the north side is also a little harrowing, the slope down into the rapids is high, and quite steep.

We arrived at the base of the trail up Sulphur Mountain about an hour and a half after leaving the Centre. We would take a trip through the Sulphur Mountain Gondola base station to get something to drink (you don’t climb the mountain without liquids) and something to eat (some delicious fudge). Then it was up the hill.

The last time I’d tackled Sulphur Mountain was almost three years ago (see [[Visiting Bragg Creek and Elbow Falls, Canada Day in Banff (Bamf!)]]) with Stuart and Therese. It was on a nice, warm, sunny day long after all the snow had melted off the mountain. This time, it was cloudy, a bit cool in the upper climbes, and despite the park rangers having said the path was clear, finding numerous banks of snow (naturally, in all the bends in the switchback path, one of which I got stuck in trying to climb over) and large mud patches.

Along the way, we ran into acquaintances. First was Christian, a fellow Critical Masser, up for the day with his girlfriend for a hike up before the Calgary Flames game that night. Then we ran into an ex-student of Alex’s (as part of her job, Alex has students work with her to train them to be x-ray technicians) about 3/4 of the way up.

The climb was long (the signs say about two hours) and tiring. I was considerably more tired than I thought I should be, but didn’t know why until we got to the top. Just over 90 minutes. Alex probably would have killed me for that pace, had she the energy to do so. (The pace, incidentally, was not intentional.) After resting a bit at the top, we headed back to the base station.

By gondola.

We hiked back down to the Banff Springs, taking a “short cut” through the forest. We bypassed the hotel, and found ourselves in the middle of a large field, to the south of the golf course. Alex tried to romp through it, but the grass was a little rough. That, and there was plenty of elk dung all over the place. You couldn’t walk anywhere without running into it (either fresh or long-since dried). We laid down a while, in a relatively dung-free area, before heading along the river and back into town.

We ate a very late lunch (or an early dinner, depending on your point of view) at Bruno’s. One of the best corned beef sandwiches I’ve had in a long time, and bar none the best sweet potato fries Alex or I have ever had. We recovered from our massive hike, listening to the Flames fans driving up and down Banff Ave., honking their horns. It seemed that even the little resort town was gearing up for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals.

After a bit of shopping in town, we walked back to the Banff Centre and got ready for the concert. (We both needed showers quite badly.) We then headed over to the Margaret Greenham Theatre, and prepared for a night of jazz.

Yes, we went to a concert instead of watching Game 6. That’s not to say that we were the only ones missing it. Thankfully, the performers were aware of this and tried their best to provide scores as they became aware of them.

The style of jazz was mostly improvisational. Aside from two pieces (“Pannonica” and “Bye-Ya”, both by Thelonius Monk), the rest were composed either by the Director of the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music (Dave Douglas) or by visiting composer and trombonist, George Lewis.

The first set was “Mountain Passages #1-5”, written by Douglas, and performed by seven people who came out on stage tied together in mountain climber fashion. This was because the piece (introduced by Douglas) was written to be performed at 10,000 feet elevations. The piece was quite interesting and very intricate. Not at all the kind of jazz I’d been expecting. It was a prelude of what to expect. Even stranger was the choice of instruments, which included a cello and a banjo.

Upon completion, the group left the stage and a new group came out, approximately 14 people playing two pianos, two cellos (until that point, had never heard of cello in a jazz band), several saxophones, horns, electric guitar, and a double bass. Then Lewis walked out on stage, presumably to take his position as conductor.

I was about to argue against his presence. Why would there need to be a jazz conductor? I’ve always wondered about the need for a conductor (having never been in a band myself, I should add), since the musicians should know how to play the music. Interestingly, enough, Lewis felt quite the same way, and said as such to the audience, adding: “I’ll be back when I feel I’m needed”. He promptly left the stage, and the band began.

Lewis’s pieces (“Smashing Clusters” and “Hello/Goodbye”) are significantly stranger than the jazz music I’m more familiar with. But from an artistic perspective, it was interesting to watch the performers play such an odd piece of music. I have a great deal of respect for jazz musicians, since they are able to play such eclectic works, and yet still embellish their own style on it (which is more or less expected of them).

A few minutes into the first piece, Lewis came back out on stage, and started directing the band, cutting some people off, encouraging others to play solos, or completely changing the music around. Suddenly, I saw how a conductor (especially the composer) can radically affect the sound. At times, watching Lewis was more entertaining than listening.

The intermission came, and we headed out into the lobby. (The game was tied 2-2, going into overtime.) We shared a ginger ale, to make up for the higher, drier altitude, and for the lack of liquids as a result of all our walking around earlier in the day. About 20 minutes later, the lights blinked, and we headed back in.

As we’d been informed near the beginning of the show, the performers would be joined by “Shorty”, one of George Lewis’s inventions. Shorty is the combination of a player piano and a software program that runs off a laptop. Three musicians, Dave Douglas (on trumpet), Jason Moran (apparently, a well-known jazz pianist), and Lewis (on trombone) would play with Shorty (for the first time). Shorty is an improvisational piano player, and would adapt to the music played by the other three.

For the record, I’m not a huge fan of improvisational jazz. I need a melody. Improvisational jazz, to me, is little more than a random series of notes that don’t really blend together. I don’t mind improvisation on top of melody, but the melody must exist. Otherwise, it’s random notes.

That said, watching the three people and one machine play (the piece was titled “Trip Music for Humans and Non-Humans”, but I suspect there is no defined score for it) was quite fascinating, especially for someone in the computer field.

Eventually, Shorty was turned off and a dummer and bassist entered the stage, and the five players went into the Monk pieces, and a third by Muhal Richard Abrams, called “J.G.”. They blended the pieces so seemlessly that you couldn’t tell where one piece ended and the next began, if you didn’t already know the tunes (which I didn’t). Those last three pieces were the kind of jazz I needed to hear, and it sounded amazing.

Concert over (sadly, with the Flames having lost), Alex and I headed up to the Upper Hot Springs, which are open until 23:00 during the summer season. It was good to climb into the 39-degree water to bake out the stiffness and soreness we could probably expect the following day. We weren’t the only ones there — several of the patrons were Japanese tourists, the rest appearing to be locals (including several teenagers).

We stopped at the Mac’s on the way back, picking up some snack food, so we’d have something to eat while we shared a bottle of wine back at the hotel.

Breakfast got us out of bed early again, though we had French toast instead of waffles this time. Having no particular plans for the rest of the morning, we took things slowly, eventually heading downtown to do some shopping. I didn’t end up buying anything (though I was looking around).

Around 14:00, we headed up to the Banff Springs to partake of Afternoon Tea. I’d always heard it was a great place to go, and really wanted to see what it would be like. Unfortunately, it would be something we’d have to experience another day. The activity of the day before had caused Alex to experience a bit of a headache, which since waking that morning blew up into a full-blown migraine. The only thing we could do at that point was go home.

Summer has arrived in southern Alberta (finally), which means that this won’t be the only time Alex and I go to Banff (Bamf!). Hopefully, you’ll see more entries from that area, replete with additional tales of … well, stuff.