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music: concert review

The Lost Fingers, a jazz trio from Quebec

The Vancouver International Jazz Festival Various artists at various venues in Vancouver on the weekend

There are 240 strings in the jazz trio String Stories, 230 of them on the Steinway grand played by Paul Plimley. And he uses them all. Brubeck-like rhythms give way to tiny toy piano songs at the top of the register. Sometimes Plimley rises from the bench to get a better grip on the keys, or cocks his ear to the keyboard, as if hearing the music for the first time.

"There's no telling what will happen playing with these guys," Plimley admits before the early afternoon concert. "It's a mystery to me."

These guys are Tommy Babin on upright bass and Phil Emerson playing an f-hole electric Gibson guitar. In one song, Emerson starts playing a bottleneck blues, with Babin following him note for note, sometimes bouncing the bow on the strings. Plimley holds back and looks concerned, as if not sure what to play, then sidles in and slowly alters the rhythm until it sounds like something by Jean Coulthard.

A few blocks west, the music is cooler, matching the temperature of 12 degrees on the outdoor stage at Granville Island Market. The Rick Reynolds Trio is playing a cerebral composition by Bill Evans called A Simple Matter of Conviction. Bassist Reynolds is understated, supporting the spiralling notes from Jon Roper's guitar and broad bright chords from pianist Steve Geiger. It's jazz purist music that, despite a few lingering raindrops, keeps a mostly tourist crowd of about 150 in their seats for the rest of the set, which includes originals and standards by Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk and J.J. Johnson.

After work, a capacity crowd fills CBC/Radio Canada Studio One to hear an all-star band being recorded for programs including Hot Air, Tonic and Canada Live, as well as Concerts on Demand. The Night Crawlers started off as a quintet, anchored by drummer Jesse Cahill and built around Chris Gestrin on the Hammond B-3 organ. The B-3 is a piece of musical furniture with two spinning Leslie speakers producing what Cahill calls a "greasy kind of vibe," in the style of Booker T. or Brother Jack McDuff. Gestrin often plays in stocking feet to better feel the narrow wooden pedals.

The quintet has grown into a 13-piece little big band, with three saxes, three trombones, three trumpets, guitar, bass, drums and organ. Charts by guitarist Bill Coon and trumpet player Brad Turner are tight and virtuosic, showcasing the talent on the bandstand. A Phil Dwyer arrangement of Just a Closer Walk with Thee includes a second line section that evokes a New Orleans afternoon. Curiously, the audience is polite but restrained in its applause.

The crowd is wildly appreciative, even if the music is less accessible, at an early evening concert of free jazz by Peter Brotzmann's European trio Full Blast at the Roundhouse.

German sax player Brotzmann belts out notes in blistering arpeggios, in growls and yawps like some wounded creature. He's joined here by Greek bassist Marino Pliakas, scratching and stroking the strings into sounding like swarming bees or the impending apocalypse. Swiss drummer Michael Wertmuller beats the toms like a man possessed, his shirt dark with sweat. This is loud, brawling, visceral music - long, disjointed pieces that are hard to listen to, yet compelling and powerful. Brotzmann doesn't say a word for the entire set.

A boisterous sellout crowd of twenty- and thirtysomethings marks the festival's return after several years to the funky Vogue Theatre, with its louche subterranean dressing rooms and unreliable air conditioning. Onstage is the Quebec City trio the Lost Fingers - guitarists Byron Mikaloff and Christian Roberge, and bassist Alex Morissette - in pink suits, green shirts, white bow ties and shoes.

They sing and play 1980s hit songs by Paula Abdul, Stevie Wonder and Men Without Hats, à la jazz manouche, or Gypsy jazz. The band's name refers to guitarist Django Reinhardt, who lost two fingers of his left, chording hand in a caravan fire. Reinhardt taught himself to play guitar again, creating a new style with broad chords and two-fingered solos played at breathtaking speed all over the fretboard.

Mikaloff introduces George Michael's Careless Whisper as "... one of the cheesiest songs ever written," and does a good impression of Michael's high, pleading voice over the Django-style chords. Then just to show they're not fooling around, the band plays a ringing version of Reinhardt's Swing 42.

Outside on Granville, a trio of buskers plays Dancing in the Street to an appreciative late-night crowd gathered in a semicircle on the sidewalk. Music is everywhere.

Free and ticketed jazz shows continue until July 3 ( www.coastaljazz.ca ).

Special to The Globe and Mail