May 17-20, 2012
There are many ways to weigh a music festival, but one method that sets a fairly reasonable standard for excellence is whether or not there was at least one point that elicited feelings of good fortune. Not just if it was enjoyable or if highly respected artists appeared, or if it was like a month in Berlin or London or New York compressed into a long weekend, but that there was even one concert that actually stoked the embers of gratitude.
The 2012 Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville achieved just that with its first concert. And even if after that opener the rest had been just so much gravy on the poutine, the 28th edition of the annual Quebec jazz and new music festival would still have been the strongest in years. It felt like a return to form (after a few years of shrinking budgets and audiences) in no small part due to two appearances by festival favorite John Zorn and strong showings from the fertile Chicago and Montreal scenes.
That bar-setting opener was British experimental vocalist Phil Minton, leading a chorus of singers in a group improvisation of utterances and vocalizations. His Feral Choir of 31 Victoriaville denizens began the concert in the rear seats of the large cinema used as one of the festival's three staging grounds. It's a common ploy, starting at the back of the room and moving toward the stage, but it was especially effective having the members seated in the audience with no instruments to hold. There was no way to tell how many would rise to join the bird-whistle procession as Minton led them slowly to the stage. He proceeded to guide them through gibberish, screams, laughter and sustained, nearly sung notes more about unity than pitch.
None displayed anything approximating Minton's vocalese virtuosity, but they made up for it en masse with sheer velocity and will. It came off as something like Portsmouth Symphonia doing Luciano Berio, and was wonderful even before Minton upped the game. The second section was a composed piece called "Grunwick,," based on a key moment in race relations within the British labor movement. If nothing about the performance gave indication of the historical origin, it was still a charged and moving piece; a powerful, wordless drama with Minton giving a strained, almost tortured performance over the whispered hissings of the choir.
Woven through the rest of the festival were three threads of geographical associations: Chicago's longstanding Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and, from Montreal, the Ambiances Magnétiques collective and bands spawned of the group Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The geographical divide was stitched together by Montreal's Constellation Records, which has released recordings by GY!BE-related bands, as well as AACM saxphonist Matana Roberts.
It was the material from that 2011 release that Roberts brought to the festival. Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres is a sprawling work about slavery and Roberts' own family history. The concert, like the album, featured herself on saxophone and vocals with a ten-piece band of Montreal players. Drawing upon gospel and antebellum song as well as a language informed by the protest jazz of bassist Charles Mingus, Roberts gave a driving and sometimes harrowing concert with horns and strings augmented by musical saw and occasionally heavy electric guitar. The suite didn't present a clear storyline but still reached a dramatic peak with an a cappella slave auction that eventually found a sort of redemption even if its female slave protagonist likely didn't.
The next chapteror the next ten, perhapsof the history of race relations just south of the Canadian border was told by Wadada Leo Smith in another suite condensed from his staggering new foujr-disc set Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012). The album employs both jazz quartet and quintet, and a chamber ensemble, but for the condensed (still 80 minutes) concert version Smith rescored some of the orchestral sections for a band featuring pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg and drummers Pheeroan AkLaff and Susie Ibarra.
The concert employed silence, tension and fantastic peals from Smith's trumpet, as well as wonderfully evocative real-time video art showing the band and photographs of the music's subjects (Malcolm X, southern fields) into a powerful piece which might well prove to be the 70-year-old Smith's magnus opus.