BY IRWIN BLOCK
The irrepressible Vic Vogel was on the phone from his home near the Jacques Cartier Bridge, searching for words to explain what he does with Cuban music.
Words failed him, so he put down the phone, went over to the piano and played a few bars of the languorous love ballad Claudia by Chucho Valdes.
Then he turned that same melody into a Vic Vogel special, punctuating it with some percussive chords and giving it the bebop edge that is characteristic of much of his musical language.
“I gave it a heart transplant,” is how he finally put it, finding the Vogelesque way to describe what he loves to do and why he has been a headliner at every Montreal International Jazz Festival but one since its inception 33 years ago.
Vogel’s leitmotif, on stage and off: “It’s gotta swing.”
He has a pronounced romantic side that underpins his frenetic and syncopated exterior, and it comes out when he plays solo ballads on his beloved Steinway.
Vogel’s back on Friday, June 29, with his Big Band, at l’Astral, the lovely bar with mezzanine in the Blumenthal Building, 309 Ste. Catherine W., a block east of Bleury.
On the menu, an evening showcasing the Afro-Cuban influence in jazz that has always been a big part of Vogel’s repertoire and personal connection and commitment.
“We’ve always been influenced by Afro-Cuban music—probably 90 per cent of my band book is Latin-oriented.”
“I grew up with Dizzy Gillespie, and he was among the first, with Chano Pozo, to bring in the Afro-Cuban influence.”
Poso played a major role in founding Latin jazz, a blend of belpo and Cuban folk music. He became Gillespie’s conga player and co-wrote the trumpeter’s famous Afro-Cuban compositions, Manteca and Tin Tin Deo.
The son of Hungarian-born parents, Vogel grew up in the Prince Arthur neighbourhood and, surrounded by Jewish neighbours, picked up a smattering of Yiddish. He remembers being a Shabbes Goy, the helpful Gentile boy who turns on lights for observant Jews.
As a self-taught pianist until the age of 10 when he studied classical for a year with Michel Hirby, Vogel learned to play trombone and tuba on his own, performed in show bands in the 1950s and became a busy musical director for CBC and Radio Canada productions. He composed and directed the music for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.
He began his jazz big band in 1978 and it became a launching pad and finishing school for many of Quebec’s finest talents, some of whom continue to perform with Vogel.
Among the 17 stalwart musicians who will be with him at this year’s festival gig are saxophone players Alexandre Côté, Jean Fréchette, André Leroux, Al McLean, and Dave Turner, and trumpeters Ron DiLauro, Joe Sullivan, Jocelyn Couture and Jocelyn Lapointe.
The repertoire includes pieces by Gillespie, Cuban jazz heroes Chucho Valdes and Chico O’farrill, and our own Oscar Peterson.
That kinder, gentler side of the Vogel persona emerged on his wonderful 1993 solo album with mainly original material.
It also surfaced in 2008, when Vogel was visiting Cuba and in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, as he recalls the moment, “I saw a piano floating in the damn sea!”
“I was in a village—every town has its cultural centre in Cuba—and I said to myself, when I get home I’m gonna get one.
“I went on the CBC’s Homerun show on radio and when I mentioned I was looking for a piano for Cuba, I ended up getting 15 the same day.
“I had to get a U-Haul to pick up the pianos. There were a lot of pianos in very wealthy homes that were pieces of crap. The people were too cheap to get them out of there themselves. They figured, I am going to get rid of their garbage for them. They got mad when I said, ‘It’s not good enough’.”
“I also got cellos, trombones, saxophones, cellos, violins. I got one violin that a violin-maker told me was a very good instrument but would cost $1,500 to repair. He gave me in exchange eight brand new Yamaha violins for students, with bows and cases.”
The campaign became so popular that this year Vogel has collected enough instruments to fill a container “to the hilt.” The Cuban government agreed to pay for the container.
For Vogel, music with a rhythm and a beat is what it’s all about.
“I’m 76, and I still feel like a kid when I’m up there. That’s what keeps us going.”
He recalled the words of the saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who was Vogel’s guest at a jazz festival gig in 2003.
“The lady from the jazz festival came to pay us. He took the money, but he told her, “I don’t want the money—I want the time. He was 77.
“I know what he means. Instead of getting slower, I’m getting faster, I’m writing faster, because I don’t want to miss out.”