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Guelph Jazz Festival & Colloquium 2009

Kurt Gottschalk By

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Guelph Jazz Festival & Colloquium
Guelph, Ontario
September 9-13, 2009
The Guelph Jazz Festival and Colloquium devoted itself this year to trying to unpack an idea so common that it is at once crucial and cliché: whether the practice of music-making might have world-changing implications. Through presentations on (for example) gang intervention in South Africa through drum circles to "workshops" (in a Charles Mingus-ian "jazz workshop" jam session sense) combining musicians from different backgrounds to play together, the practice of improvisation was staged as a means for change.



The annual Guelph Jazz Festival (which ran this year from September 9-13) invites musicians from around the world for one of the more adventurous weeks of improvisation and exploration in North America. But unlike many such festivals, there's an academic side to the schedule, with three full days of papers, panels and presentations, this year under the heading "Improvisation, the Arts and Social Policy."

And if it never got to the point of a "One World" sing-a-long, bringing together players from across North America, Europe and Africa made a philosophical perspective more than apparent.

One of the workshops combined musicians from Toronto and Vancouver, Chicago and Vera Cruz, The Netherlands, Ethiopia and Mali, making for a pretty respectable global representation (at least, within a gathering of nine). Built largely around the presence of saxophone legend Getatchew Mekuria, the assemblage represented not just different musical traditions but the ways those traditions have cross- pollinated between folk musics, improv, punk and jazz, with drummer Hamid Drake bridging many of the gaps.

The conversation covered varied grounds, with every one alternately (and not all at once) contributing to West African jazz and European open improv. Terre Ex on guitar and Abdoulaye Koné on n'goni made an especially subtle, bilingual point. The visiting Malians (Koné and singer/kamelan n'goni player Jay Youssouf also joined Toronto's Woodchoppers for some sometimes goofy groove jazz, the improv outfit containing itself into more structured frameworks than usual.

Mekuria's main gig at the fest was an appearance with the longstanding Dutch punk band The Ex, in one of a handful of Canadian (and no U.S.) appearances. The middle ground they've found has much in common with a lot of great hybrid musics, from Kingston reggae to British ska, borrowing from jazz while retaining a punk angularity.

With aggro guitar, persistent vocals and Joost Buis's plunged trombone, it was more than a little reminiscent of vintage Specials. Vocalist GW Sok was missed to be sure, although it's hard to imagine as fitting a replacement as Arnold de Boer, who comes off as a younger, burlier Sok (and also plays trumpet). French clarinetist Xavier Charles played a couple shockingly hard-edged solos.

While Mekuria was the impetus for this most recent phase in the adventurous band's career, the show wasn't all about him. Several songs did feature him playing a mean alto somewhere between Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and Maceo Parker, and he was the only one to sport costume changes.

The workshops also included a musical gathering of members of Montreal's Ambiances Magnetiques, starting off a day devoted to the pivotal Quebecois collective. Under the heady umbrella, "Musique Actuelle: A New Social Policy for a Distinct Society," they put forth a model of collective discovery, challenge and harmony that could be used as a prototype (as Prof. George Lewis has been promoting at Columbia University) for conflict resolution, investigative research, consensus building and other endeavors. In short, they were 11 people working with the understanding that everyone should be heard (a rarity in improvised music as well as everyday life).

Or maybe it was just a gig, but they made their point beautifully by all answering in an overlapping spoken improvisation the questions posed by the session's moderator, with Lori Freedman bringing it home into the microphone: "I mean, contemporary music, government funding—it's all ridiculous."

That afternoon, the younger generation of the collective appeared in guitarist Antoine Berthiaume's Rodéoscope. Lacking pedal steel and Dobro guitars, the sextet sounded a little less entrenched in Americana than on their recent CD, shining a light instead on the sonorous sounds of the violin, cello and hollowbody bass guitar for an Aaron Copland-cum-Bill Frisell-suite of smartly arranged pieces.


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