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Edgefest 2017: Give the Drummers Some, Part 1-2

Troy Dostert By

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Part 1 | Part 2

Edgefest
Ann Arbor, MI
October 18-19, 2017

When mid-October rolls around, many fans of avant-garde jazz and creative music prepare to converge on Ann Arbor, Michigan for their annual pilgrimage to the Kerrytown Concert House, home of the Edgefest festival. Now in its twenty-first year, Edgefest has become one of the premier festivals in North America for those interested in the outer realms of jazz, and the adventurous music it offers always leaves audiences exhilarated. With a relatively small, 110-seat venue, the Kerrytown stage provides an intimate atmosphere that is perfect for an up-close encounter with some world-class musicians.

But what makes Edgefest truly exceptional is not just the superb music it provides over four days. Going further, the festival sponsors numerous workshops and clinics, often by partnering with the University of Michigan and its faculty and students, as well as with local high schools and even middle schools. Additionally, "Fringe" performances at other venues around town provide even more opportunities for audiences to experience the music. In short, Edgefest strives to cultivate a spirit of community, both within the ranks of the Edgefest faithful and with wider Ann Arbor, a commitment exemplified by the traditional Edgefest parade each Saturday afternoon, where locals can join in the fun as Ann Arbor's own version of a New Orleans "second line" marches its way through town.

The theme for this year's Edgefest, "Drums Along the Edge," which ran from October 18-21, allowed the festival to highlight the contributions made by drummers and percussionists across the wide swath of today's creative music scene. With long-established veterans like Pheeroan AkLaff, Tom Rainey and William Hooker, and next-generation dynamos like Tomas Fujiwara, Harris Eisenstadt and Allison Miller, there was a terrific cross-section of talent on display, and each night's performances had plenty of standout moments.

Wednesday evening began with one of the more unusual line-ups of the festival, as percussionist Michael Gould teamed up with actor/director Malcolm Tulip for "Remember Me": an imaginative, wry, and sometimes profound re-thinking of "Dido's Lament" from Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas, using the poems of Ken Mikolowski as text. The duo were joined briefly at the outset by Edgefest director and mezzo soprano vocalist Deanna Relyea and cellist Katri Ervamaa, who delineated the classical foundation of the aria, before Tulip's expansive vocalizations and Gould's broad array of percussion techniques and computer-generated effects took the performance into the realm of the surreal. Although a meditation on finitude and death's inevitability might not at first seem to offer the most inspiring thematic material with which to launch a festival, Tulip and Gould brought a defiant creativity to their collage of vignettes, and Gould effectively demonstrated that this would indeed be a drummers' festival.

Gould's "Remember Me" was followed by a trombone trio featuring Steve Swell, Dick Griffin, and Joe McPhee (playing valve trombone). For fans more accustomed to seeing McPhee on the saxophone or trumpet, this opportunity was a treat, as he has a graceful, nuanced approach to the trombone, one that meshed perfectly with Griffin and Swell. The group offered three long improvisations, with plenty of room for syncopated exchanges and energetic bursts, although the prevailing mood was one of restrained dignity, as the three musicians found harmonic possibilities that at times were almost hymn-like in their stately beauty. Griffin's own unaccompanied solo improvisation was especially impressive, as it featured his "circularphonics," using both circular breathing and multi-tones, and he might have been considering the current political climate as he offered a quote from the civil rights anthem "We Shall Not Be Moved" during his solo. The three musicians' camaraderie and mutual respect were evident throughout their 45-minute performance.

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