Day 7 - Ottawa International Jazz Festival, June 28, 2006
Jerry Granelli's show was no less challenging than Iyer's, but the collective improvisationbased around forms both musical and lyrical that infused his performance of the highly-acclaimed Sandhills Reunion (Songlines, 2004)covered considerably more expansive territory and was eminently more accessible. The combination of horns, guitars, bass, drums and cello backing the reflections, imaginings and internal dialogues of actor/singer/playwright Rinde Eckert at the 8 pm National Arts Centre Fourth Stage was another inspired choice for the second year of the festival's Improv Series.
Sandhills Reunion, truly a career-defining project for Granelli, is a difficult recording to perform live for a number of reasons, not the least the logistical ones. The members of the octet are spread across North America and, in the case of guitarist Christian Kögel, across the Atlantic Thus the cost alone of bringing them together must be prohibitive. If it weren't for the Canada Council for the Arts, this ensemble would likely never have had an opportunity to perform live. Granelli brought everyone together for three dates last year, including a remarkable opening show at last year's International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville, and they will be doing another three shows this year. Rare instances like this allow Canadians a unique opportunity to hear a show that the rest of the world can experience only through digital media.
Perhaps the most striking thing about this performance was just how different it was from the 2005 Victoriaville show. The words were the same, and the basic structures used to guide the group through its extended adaptation of the album's music hadn't changed. But there was a different kind of energy, not to mention a more relaxed vibe. When Kögel began the countrified finale, "Spun Like a Spur, his quirky stops and starts, as well as his pitch shifts of the simple chord changeseffected by yanking on the neck of his guitarwere met with wild laughter from the rest of the group. And when Granelli took a polyrhythmic "where's the one" drum solothat still remarkably managed to maintain the grooveit was met with similar laughs and heads shaking in disbelief by his kband mates at just how far he could stretch things.
Tying together the Midwestern ambience of the Nebraska Sandhills with the character of Billy the Kid, Eckert's poetry can be direct, mysterious and downright funny. A line like "I believe doubt keeps us sane is profound in its simplicity, while "I'm leaving the Sandhills because they're too open; I'm leaving the Sandhills because they're not open enough is more enigmatic. And when he says "I don't want you to kill it; I just want you to radically discourage it, he evokes humor but also an underlying sense of menace.
Eckert used separate microphones at various points to create two characters, most notably on "20 Questions for an Outlaw, where Billy the Kid is questioned, and a more complex character evolves out of the exchange:
Q: Alright then, do you believe you have a soul?
A: I once killed a braggart. I knew he didn't have a chance when I looked in his eyesfull of shit, not enough room in there for anything else. But as he took his last breath all that drained out and his soul flooded in. I watched his soul flood in in the last five seconds. Unmistakable.
Q: What about love of your fellowman? Don't you think you have an obligation to your fellowman?
A: Ain't never met my fellow man. Don't even know what he looks like.
Q: It's a figure of speech.
A: Well then, no. I guess I don't feel no obligation to any figure of speech. But I guarantee you if some figure of speech was to kick my dog I'd know what I was obliged to do for him.
The instrumentalists opened by creating an ambience of isolation through sounds of wind blowing over the desolate prairies, and they came together gradually, almost imperceptibly, into the gentle groove of the opening "Like a Ghost in the Grass. Eckert's subtly nuanced deliveryas on the albumwas direct and unaffected, at times so matter-of-fact that when the energy intensified (as it did on the barrelhouse blues of "Just Angels ) Eckert didn't invoke over-wrought emotiveness. Just a subtle rise in his level was enough to get across the increased energy.
Eckert did nothing direct to draw attention to himself, and yet when he was speaking or singing gently, you couldn't take your eyes off him. Perhaps it's because he was clearly in the same zone of the rest of his bandmates, and while he's anything but melodramatic, he was clearly performing a role.