Guelph Jazz Festival, September 8-12, 2010
Ostertag is a pioneer in bringing electronics and sampling into improvised music, having worked with Anthony Braxton early in his career, and becoming a fixture in New York' s downtown scene, before dedicating himself to political activism, then computer programming, and recently coming back around to performance. He was present for the colloquium, but asked to do a " pure improv" situation, and consulted bassist Mark Dresser in putting his band together. Even for the three New Yorkers in the band, it was an unusual grouping. Ostertag worked with a touch-sensitive screen running to iBook, but was unfortunately too far down in the mix too much of the time. After some initial hesitation, Black opened up, and then Bynum saw a horn/drum duo trope that would occupy the first several minutes, before Courvoisier, hearing the slightest opening in the drums, moved inside the piano case. Meanwhile, Ostertag was busily drawing awayinaudible at first until a Qawwali song seeped inthen more voices, twisting through and fading away. Later, it would be cartoon sound effects. By design or not, Ostertag remained behind the rest of the group, and the others kept being a jazz trio until Courvoisier and Black dropped out, Bynum mirroring the sounds of distorted voices and something new emerging. Black returned, with heavy start-and-stop rock drumming. Courvoisier muted the piano strings and, after a couple group ebbs and flows, they became a spring-loaded backing for Bynum, small and tense and slippery, while he forced narrow lines of air through his pocket trumpet. Ostertag clearly enjoys working with acoustic instruments, as with his Say No More project, but this time the concept was to approach the meeting without concept. It was imperfect, dangerous and exciting.
A pair of acronyms suggested sub-themes throughout the festival: the Chicago musicians' collective, AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music), and the 40-year-old German record label ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music). In addition to his sound-design installation, Lewis (who is not just a member but, literally, wrote the book on the AACM) took part in a concert and panel discussion featuring his trio with Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell. On top of that was the added surprise of Lincoln " Chicago Beau" Beauchampwho played harmonica on some of the earliest AACM recordingson hand to lead the panel and introduce the band. But, perhaps, even more surprising was the morning panel, finding the pianist and elder of the group in a talkative mood.
Abramswho rarely does interviews or speaks publiclyspoke openly about the practice of improvisation and the philosophies of the AACM, including acts such as beginning concerts in silent meditation, that have implied to some a Muslim backing to the organization.
"No one dictated what you should think when you face east," Abrams said. "We used to talk about the sorts of food you should eat without actually dictating what you eat. These things are not musical things, but they're human things." Responding to a question from the audience, Abrams said firmly that he doesn't give out advice. But he did go on to suggest certain ways of operating. "We had no reason to copy each other," he said. "It was amazing. Maybe it was because we didn't have any star bands. What I've learned through all these years is to appreciate practice."
Lewis, who came to the organization later than founders Abrams and Mitchell, underscored the commitment to originality within the organization. "In the end, the people who were beginners weren't necessarily inferior to the people who were more experienced, because we were all doing something new, and that was composing," he said. "The rule was you had to present your own, original music."
The Trio' s concert, the following night, proved to be the highlight of the five days. Mitchell opened on alto, stating a phrase and repeating it, then turning to a prolonged, breathy tone that Lewis met on trombone. Abrams showed a wise reserve, common to him in recent improv situations, listening hard to his bandmates, carefully sharing a chord, a single note, a brief glissando every minute or so, sitting on the sustain pedal for a few delicate lines, and then starting again. They were fast and quiet, supplemented, at times, by gently pervasive emanations from Lewis' s laptop, matching tempi and sitting behind the acoustic instruments.