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The Al Neil Project 

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Nova Library


Various Artists
The Al Neil Project
October 15: Western Front
October 21: Vancouver Public Library
November 10: Roundhouse Community Centre
November 25: Vancouver Art Gallery

LIVE Biennial of Performance Art presented four evenings of interdisciplinary work by, and inspired by, Vancouver innovator Al Neil whose career as a pianist, composer, writer, bricoleur, and performance artist has spanned 60-years. Neil's influence on Vancouver's artistic communities has been profound and enduring: this project attempts to both assess and celebrate Neil as an innovator and a seminal force in the multi-disciplinary practices that have flourished -- and continue to flourish -- on the West Coast.

LIVE 2005 celebrated Al Neil's legacy in the community, with concerts, screenings, readings and performances. The event opened on October 15th at the Western Front with an eclectic tribute to Neil's work. Kate Hammett-Vaughan vocalized written texts by Neil accompanied by Ron Samworth on guitar, and Coat Cooke on saxophone. Visual artist Carol Itter worked with VJ Krista Lomax on visuals featuring Neil's assemblages, sculptures, and collages. Also included is a reading from Neil's work by Michael Turner accompanied by Hank Bull.

The second event was a series of readings from the Downtown Eastside entitled Under the Influence. Curated by Michael Turner, the evening offered a glimpse into Vancouver writers' writing about alcohol and drug use, beginning with Al Neil, and took place on October 21 at the Vancouver Public Library with readings by Turner, Kevin Chong and Maxine Gadd.

On November 10, Coastal Jazz and Blues Society, The Belkin Gallery UBC and the New Orchestra Workshop Society presented a concert featuring the ultimate Al Neil tribute band with legendary Vancouver improvisers Gregg Simpson drums, Clyde Reed bass, and Paul Plimley piano. The trio was joined by sampling/electronics artist Giorgio Magnanensi, performance poet Kedrick James, with visuals by Carol Itter mixed live by Krista Lomax.

The final installment of The Al Neil Project took place on November 25 with an event at the Vancouver Art Gallery that focuses on Neil's history in performance art. Lomax and Itter will use visuals and imagery from Neil's oeuvre of performance art, accompanied by electronic music by Ben Wilson. Randy Gledhill of Randy and Berenicci acted as MC and read a poem in tribute to Neil.

The Al Neil Project is a collaboration of community organizations: the grunt gallery, Coastal Jazz and Blues Society, the New Orchestra Workshop Society, the Belkin Gallery UBC. The Al Neil Project team is Glenn Alteen, Kristin Fung, Kate Hammett Vaughan, Eric Metcalfe, Scott Watson, Keith Wallace, Gregg Simpson, Al Neil, Carol Itter, Coat Cooke, Ron Samworth, David Rimmer, Jordan Strom, Julie Smith, and Michael Turner

Thanks to our sponsors: Inter-Arts Office of the Canada Council for the Arts, The Spirit of BC, ArtsNow Catalyst program, the Vancouver Foundation, Western Front, Vancouver Public Library, Roundhouse Community Centre, Vancouver Art Gallery, The Belkin Gallery, Coastal Jazz and Blues, NOW, and grunt gallery.

Artsnow and BC Spirit

Vancouver Foundation and Canada Council

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Al Neil was born in Vancouver, B.C. in 1924. An accomplished jazz pianist, during the l950s he was one of the founders of the Cellar Jazz Club and performed with artists such as Art Pepper, Conte Candoli and Kenneth Patchen. During the l960s and l970s he became known for solo and ensemble perfromances which combined music with texts, art assemblages, slides and prepared tapes, and in recent years, his collage works have been exhibited extensively. Al Neil's books are Changes (Nightwood Editions 1989), West Coast Lokas (Intermedia 1972), Slammer (Pulp Press 1981) and Origins (writings by and about the artist and his work: Western Front 1989). Although he has toured and exhibited internationally, he has always lived and worked in Vancouver. In 2003, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Emily Carr Institute.

- Slammer Pulp Press 1981


The links below connect to videos of four Al Neil Project performances, in QuickTime and Windows Media formats. Video will open in a pop-up window. A high-speed connection is required to view these clips.

At the Western Front with Hank Bull, Michael Turner, Ron Samworth, Kate Hammett Vaughan and Coat Cooke in QuickTime or Windows Media format.

At the Vancouver Public Library with Micheal Turner, Kevin Chong and Maxine Gadd in QuickTime or Windows Media format.

At the Roundhouse Community Centre with Gregg Simpson (drums), Clyde Reed (bass), Paul Plimley (piano), Giorgio Magnanensi (sampling/electronics), Kedrick James (poetics), Carol Itter (visuals) and Krista Lomax (live visual mix) in QuickTime or Windows Media format.

At the Vancouver Art Gallery with Randy Gledhill (MC), Ben Wilson (electronic music), Carol Itter (visuals) and Krista Lomax (live visual mix) in QuickTime or Windows Media format.

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ReviewsMusician-artist with more staying power than his work

TRIBUTE | At 81, it's much easier to find A1 Neil than his books, collages

For more than two decades, the idea of Al Neil - Vancouver musician, artist, writer and wild, subterranean seer - seemed to have more staying power than his work.

Unless you remember him playing bebop piano at the old Cellar in the '50s, or his experimental multi-media projects at the Motion Studio in the '60s or his readings around town in the early '80s, it's hard to find anything solid to stand on. The Vancouver Art Gallery owns a handful of his collages; his long out-of-print books - part memoir, part-acid-laced stream-of consciousness -'can't be removed from the central library's stacks.

"He left fragments in every community he was in," says Glenn Alteen, director of the Grunt Gallery who helped spearhead the four-part Al Neil Project, the core event at this year's LIVE Biennial of Performance Arts. "Al was a huge interdisciplinary artist in the 'ˇOs but as time went on, all those works went back into their disciplines and in some ways he disappeared." \ So, during the next six weeks, the entire spectrum of his performance oeuvre will be celebrated, beginning 'tonight at the Western Front with readings, a screening of David Rimmer's film, Al Neil: A Portrait, and vocalizations of text by Kate Hammett-Vaughan. The project continues Friday at the central branch of the Vancouver public library with Michael Turner's reading series, Under the Influence; Nov. 10 at the Roundhouse Community Centre with a concert by the New Orchestra Workshop; and Nov. 25 at the Vancouver Art Gallery with images of his performance art wedded to electronic music.

Now 81, Neil himself won't be performing. He hasn't played piano publicly in more than 10 years. He hasn't written in far longer, although he still gathers stray material - some might say junk - for assemblages at his Dollarton cabin, the legendary spot he's maintained since the mid-'60s.

"That they're doing this, I'm pleased and embarrassed at the same time,"' Neil told me recently when we spoke in the Strathcona duplex he shares with his longtime partner, artist Caro1e Itter.

Sitting with him in his beautiful, bright Hawks Avenue home seemed in its own way a kind of surreal, three dimensional collage. Here was a small, gracious old man: neat, short, thinning thinning grey hair, black pinstripe dress shirt, new Levi's, socks and sandals. Art, both his own and Itter's, packed the walls, a copy of Retrospective, the only CD available from his '60s trio, on the shelf.

This wasn't some 21st-century Beat-pad of his past. The images of him performing in outlandish, homemade costumes, long-hair and scratchy beard, in near complete disarray, a kind of shock and awe of Dada experiments, sex, drugs and subversion seemed a bizarre dream.

He considers himself a musician first, an artist second. His early love of bebop, when it still stood on the genre's outer fringe after the Second World War, was where his artistic life began, although he soon tore down its structures, too, following Ornette Coleman and and Cecil Taylor into freer forms. By the early '60s he had become arguably Canada's first avant-garde pianist. Hooking up with drummer Gregg Simpson and bassist Richard Anstey, his trio experimented with projections and text and electronics (Simpson even fiddled with turntables) in a unique aural collage

"I never really talked to them about it" Neil says of today's Vancouver improvisers, many with the current New Orchestra Workshop, who have been inspired by his example. "But I put it together pretty easily. I broke with the past and was probably one of the first to do that in Vancouver when I gave up the bebop."

He was a talismanic figure to any number of communities: diving into performance art and poetry and, as a devoted junk collector, a builder of huge assemblages.

"I never used driftwood but I found stuff off the beach," he remembered when he began in the early 60s. "I'd get old chairs that were no good anymore and would start loading them with big pails of rusty wire and dolls and things cast off in the lanes in the West End. Rusty bed frames."

He just followed his interests, ill-focused, perhaps, but authentic.

"Look at it this way, I had lots of time on my hands," he explains. "You can't play the piano 12 hours a day and all the people I hung out with were artists and writers and would be novelists and so on."

Might he have had more renown if he'd stuck to one thing?

"I never had the ambition to do anything other than I did, so that kind of thought if it occurred to anybody it wasn't me," he says, bursting into loud warm laughter.

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ReviewsSui generis statesman
by Jeff Macintyre
The Globe and Mail October 14, 2005

Judging by comments from his peers, Al Neil is the embodiment of avant-garde art. But can a man in the midst of a month-long homage still lay claim to the title King of the Underground?

In a performing career spanning five decades and artistic endeavours ranging from visual collage to poetry to jazz, it would seem that 81-year-old Al Neil has grown from scenester alchemist to elder rascal. Beginning this week as part of the live Biennale of Performance Art, a series of concerts, readings and installations dubbed the Al Neil Project honours Vancouver's pre-eminent interdisciplinary artist.

The fuss is partly a product of Neil's musical prescience. "Here's a guy who introduces Vancouver to hard bop in the 1950s," explains Glenn Alteen, curator at the Grunt Gallery, "then starts playing music that sounded like Mothers of Invention, before they even existed."

Musician and artist Gregg Simpson, who played with Neil from the age of 19, drumming and - long before hip-hop - scratching records on a turntable, says Neil's nearest peers in jazz are pianists Elmo Hope and Bud Powell.

Neil is not just "the consummate improvisational artist," though, guitarist-composer Ron Samworth says. Both his visual art and music draw from an impossibly wide array of influences, from the Dadaists to the psychedelics, John Cage to Marcel Duchamp; Neil also held court - either socially or in performance - with legends including Jams Joplin, Art Pepper, Kenneth Patchen and the Grateful Dead.

"He brought a fusion to performance art that is not seen any more," Alteen says. "He was such an anomaly, in terms of where he was coming from and where he was going. He did not fit in. He belongs to all these communities and yet none, so nothing will give you a true sense of his total output."

Unfortunately, but for a recently reissued double CD Retrospective: Al Neil Trio, 1965-1968, the documentary record of Neil's work is scant "Al's important - a conscience -but a ghost topmost," says author Michael Turner, who will present a night of readings as part of the upcoming events.

The absence of recordings and traces from his career is something the Al Neil Project aims to reverse, reintroducing Neil to the artistic scene he did so much to invigorate over the years.

"If there was no Al Neil we would have had to invent him," says Brian Nation, a local jazz aficionado. "He's that original."

As for the man himself, he says: "Long ago, I learned that nobody would stop me from doing whatever I wanted to do."

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