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Two performances on day seven of the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival demonstrated just how broad a spectrum improvisation can cover. From the idiosyncratic compositions of pianist Vijay Iyer to the more cinematic Sandhills Reunion project by veteran drummer Jerry Granelli, audiences were given the opportunity to understand just why, as time goes on, jazz has escaped definition more and more. Barring reductionist definitions, jazz isn't something you can pin downbut you know it when you hear it.
Vijay Iyer's 4 pm appearance at the Library and Archives Canada Theatre began with an onstage interview by CBC Radio host Andy Sheppard. One doesn't need to hear Iyer speak to know he's a deep thinkerhis music makes that crystal clear. But he was an articulate and thoughtful subject, and Sheppard avoided many of the more obvious questions one might ask of an artist who's new to some members of the audience. Instead he just went with Iyer's flow and let the interview evolve more naturally.
On the subject of why he chose jazz over any other form, Iyer said, "I didn't choose jazz; jazz chose me. But the majority of the interview covered his own background, his family's emigration to the US from India, and the current state of affairs in his home country. He explained to the audience that the majority of the concert's material reflected his feelings about what is occurring in the US. Like trumpeter Dave Douglas, Iyer doesn't use his position as a platform from which to proselytize, but his music speaks volumes.
Iyer was joined by a longtime associate, altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa, plus bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey- -with whom Iyer has worked in the past, but not for some time. But you'd never know it. Sorey was a flexible player, able to navigate the complex twists and turns of Iyer's compositions and maintain a pulse where necessary, but also open-minded enough to respond to a regular maelstrom of activity around him.
Crump is an equally broad-minded player. He sounds just as comfortable with Iyer's more extreme demands on acoustic bass as he is in the electrified fusion of drummer Gregg Bendian's Mahavishnu Project. He's also capable of resting somewhere in the middle, as manifested by his playing on guitarist/vocalist Joel Harrison's recent records, including Harrison on Harrison
. Like Sorey, he covered considerable territory with Iyer, maintaining Iyer's knotty lines but also entering into a more democratic four-way conversation when things dissolved into free abstraction.
In some ways, Mahanthappa is an odd foil for Iyer. He has a surprisingly sweet alto tone although he's capable of an edge when necessaryand he built solos that were like threading the proverbial needle. At times, he managed to find surprisingly beautiful yet heady lines to weave through Iyer's peculiar patterns. Often beginning with clearly defined motifs, Mahanthappa would develop them in unexpected ways, using extended techniques sparingly and to great effect.
The performance drew mainly from Iyer's last quartet record, Reimagining
. Iyer's work may not come from a strict jazz tradition in the way Brad Mehldau's does; he's certainly never recorded a standard on any of his albums. But in the extensive classical background that both shareeven if that background is but one source that informs their writingsome comparisons can be drawn. Still, Iyer's ethnicity is also reflected as an ever-present but fully integrated part of his music. His background is, in fact, most noticeable in his interaction with Mahanthappa, who at times bends notes and approaches the microtonal intervals that infuse traditional Indian music.
As a soloist, Iyer is as deep a thinker as his interview with Sheppard suggested. His ideas were not always sparehe executed staggeringly complex linear and chordal forms around the contrapuntal foundation he'd first establish with the groupbut they were far from conventional. Iyer's view of the world is deeply personal and well thought-out; his playing reflects a similarly well-conceived aesthetic.
The quartet's relatively short set, while high on energy, was also a challengingly cerebral experience. It met an enthusiastic reception from an audience which, for the most part, knew Iyer's work and what to expect. After listeners demanded an encore, Iyer came out with Mahanthappa to perform a piece from their recent duo recording, Raw Materials
. It revealed a different side of Iyerless intense, but certainly no less intellectual. It also was the clearest indicator of the empathic connection he shares with Mahanthappa, and served as a gentler way to end a set that made considerable demands on its audience.
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.
Though the group performs music written by almost every member, Granelli is clearly its democratic leader, which worked to the strength of collective improvising throughout a performance which nearly doubled the length of the disc. Cues were provided by various players at various times. And while everyone had a moment to step out frontmost notably baritone saxophonist David Mott, bass clarinetist Jeff Reilly and cellist Christoph Boththe show reached its highest points during the more extreme moments where it seemed as though everyone was going for it at once, though still paying a certain allegiance to structure.
And yet, despite the improvisational prowess of the groupalso featuring soprano saxophonist Peter Epstein and bassist/lap steel player J. Anthony GranelliSandhills Reunion is more than any one individual. Even Eckert's inescapable charisma is but one part of the greater experiencea story that unfolds with passion, distance, abstraction and visceral groove. It's something that few audiences will have the opportunity to experience, but the capacity crowd which witnessed this performance probably will not forget it any time soon.