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Gypsy jazz and fingerstyle virtuosi

Fraser Valley Acoustic Guitar Festival returns for its 17th year.

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By Valerie Franklin (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: February 19, 2014

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No one’s surprised to see a sign on Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s front door announcing that this evening’s Fraser Valley Acoustic Guitar Festival concert is sold out. The performers are internationally acclaimed fingerstyle guitarists of a calibre the Valley rarely sees: jazz fingerstyle guitarist Kent Hillman, bluesy American primitivist Ari Lahdekorpi, and gypsy jazz quartet Van Django. For the last three days these artists have been leading the festival’s guitar workshops, giving talented high school kids the opportunity to study with seasoned musicians — and tonight, to cap off the festival, the masters are giving their own show.

Don Hlus, chair of Kwantlen’s music department, organizer of the festival, and emcee introduces Hillman, our first performer. Hillman sidles onto the stage in a blazer and faded jeans and starts us off with a sweet instrumental jazz rendition of “My Funny Valentine.” His fingerpicking style is mellow and golden, a sleek summery sound, but extraordinarily complex; his hands fly over the strings, making the ring on his fretting hand flash in the spotlight.

“I’m just gonna play a few Beatles tunes and see where it goes from there,” he says modestly before launching into a medley of the Beatles’ best, followed by a sassy blues tune from Chet Atkins, a dreamy rendition of “La Vie en Rose” that finds its groove in a gentle, bouncing beat, and a French jazz piece mixed with a dark and thrilling Spanish flavour. If anyone in the audience doubted the astonishing spectrum of sounds an acoustic guitar is capable of, Hillman has already shown them the error of their ways.

Hillman finishes his set with another medley, this time a mashup of classic Disney songs: “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “When You Wish Upon a Star,” tender and slow. A smile creeps across Hillman’s face as he plays; he knows this one just melts the audience. His picking fingers climb onto the fretboard as he reaches for those tiny delicate high notes, each one hanging like a jewel in sunlight as the music fades to stillness.

“It sounded just like a piano sometimes,” whispers someone in the audience above me once the roaring applause has died down.

“And now for something completely different,” announces Hlus as Ari Ladhekorpi enters the stage — and so it is. Ladhekorpi takes over from Hillman with a funky, rolling blues tune on his acoustic-electric. He’s full of restless energy, tap-tap-tapping his feet, and his face is remarkably animated as he plays; he grins, grimaces, clenches his teeth, mouths silently along to the song he’s playing. His guitar has a crisp, steely sound that rolls and struts without ever getting twangy. Where Hillman caressed the strings, Ladhekorpi makes them snap.

Between songs Ladhekorpi chats cheerfully with the audience, telling us stories and jokes about his early days playing guitar in a back-up band for a faith healer. The room is warm and receptive, rumbling with laughter. We’re all having a good time. He gives us a medley of rollicking gospel tunes, a few crunchy jazz pieces, and then slows things down with his final piece, “Moon Over Birkenau.” It’s haunting, bittersweet, beautiful in its grief; pictures dance through my mind of a fat moon rising over the abandoned concentration camp, children’s ghosts playing in its light. Ladhekorpi leans deeply into his guitar, hugging it close. No one breathes.

The third and final act of the night, Van Django — lovingly named after Django Reinhardt, the virtuoso father of gypsy jazz — consists of two guitars, an enormous double bass, and a violin, manned by four slim, middle-aged guys with lots of floppy hair and cheeky grins.

“Thank you ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and dangerous farm animals!” shouts guitarist Budge Schachte, and the band bursts into a jaunty, brazen, and lovable tune with a strong French flavour. The deep thrumming pizzicato of the double bass sets a bold pace, and the violin strums, plucks, and bounces along. Django would be dancing. These guys are tight and flawless — musicians you can trust. They move and think in perfect sync, and you can’t miss the way they nod and grin at each other competitively as they play: “Get this!” they seem to say, throwing out fancy little licks that make their fingers blur. Although rooted in fast-paced gypsy jazz, their musical range is astonishing. They give us a “Djangified” mash-up of their favourite classic TV theme songs, a Beethoven medley, a hint of Dave Brubeck here, a nod to Black Sabbath there. And their slow, jazzy love songs like “I’m Confessing That I Love You” tweak the heartstrings with that wistful violin, swaying bass, and irrepressible French guitar, perfect for a Valentine’s weekend concert.

They finish with an intense and complex Reinhardt piece with a cut-glass violin melody, for which they receive a standing ovation — the audience is literally shouting, “More! More!” Smiling, they oblige us with one last tune to wind down the concert: a gentle French ballad, slow and sweet as sunshine on a lazy Parisian morning.

If I were a teenage guitar student, these are the guys I would want to be learning from. Parents and friends of young musicians, take heed: the festival and its workshops will be back next spring with a fresh lineup of guitarists. And come Saturday night, you can bet I’ll be in the audience.

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