The festival organizers smartly make the most of musicians they fly in, so booking the Stone Quartet meant they got one more gig out of bassist Joëlle Léandre and two from pianist Marilyn Crispell. But against the wood-and-string warmth of viola, double bass and piano, it was hard not to hear the quartet as a platform for trumpeter Roy Campbell, and in that regard, is one of the best settings he's had in years. Campbell likes to solo, and the quartet gave him reason to, even while tempering him. Once he gave up on sounding like wood, he started to play the blues and proceeded to display a variety of mute techniques and moaning solos for much of the set.
Playing without a drummer, the group leaves wide spaces, expanses filled with the slightest gesture. Violist Mat Maneri played unamplified, but made deft use of a stage mic, leaning in and out to shade his short, sudden phrases. Léandre, also working without amplification, was hard and quiet. It's rare to hear her recede into the background, but she was much of the time in the more traditional bassist support role. Even her vocals seemed to sit easily beside (not above or in front of) the viola, flute, and the piano's upper register.
It was well into the set before Maneri broke the trio-plus-horn foundation, refusing to let go of a resolute ending, holding on to a slow, three-note motif that built, slowly again, to his first out-front solo of the night, which invited Crispell to do the same, which brought the quartet back as an entirely new group, solid and heavier. It was a graceful and remarkable reinvention. That new band played less than 10 minutes and they, too, were fantastic.
Léandre appeared again in a matinee concert at the Guelph Youth Music Centre, the warmest and acoustically most satisfying of the various venues the festival employs. Playing alone, she can manage a deeply intimate connection with her audiences. Her rich arco, her resonant vocals, her laughter and dramatic flair managed, as always, to achieve what might be said to be the highest goal of improvised music: to express emotion, immediately and spontaneously, easily understood without relying on words. Few can deliver such musical monologues to as high a standard, and the series of emotive eruptions she delivered was, as always, enormously satisfying.
Where Léandre's presence is too enormous to miss, Crispell's unassuming approach to the piano makes her easy to take for granted; she's a wonderful player with a talent for complementing whoever she plays with. In Ottawa-based bassist John Geggie's trio, she held to a firmer, more structured rigidity than with the Stones, fitting the leader's frameworks. It was, oddly enough, in an arrangement of a Gregorian chant that the trio seemed most open and relaxed.
And with her playing getting, occasionally, heavier again, and saxophonist Fred Anderson's playing, sometimes, getting a little softer and sweeter, it was anybody's guess where their trio with Hamid Drake might go. They went from the sacred to the profound with a sometimes knotty beauty, making for one of the week's most memorable sets. Anderson positioned himself next to the piano, confident, it seemed, that his drummer would be there for him. Drake listened for long stretches and set light cymbal rings over what felt like mesas made of water. Crispell was particularly remarkable, on a placidly-even keel yet finding ways to use repetition, dynamic, space and time, stillness and motion which worked beautifully for Anderson. Meanwhile, Anderson was forever looking for phrases, running through notes until he found a run that worked, repeated it once, maybe twice, and started looking for another one. Slowed down, his searching became tactile.
David Murray also worked double duty in two of the headlining shows, an expanded World Saxophone Quartet playing Jimi Hendrix and a duo with Milford Graves.
There are a couple of givens in considering the World Saxophone Quartet: a rhythm section has never improved them and they've been unstable for a long time anyway. So while the WSQ brand is theirs to sell as they choose, they probably set the bar too high on themselves by continuing to employ it. The same music under a new name would likely meet with less resistance. Oliver Lake not being able to make it to Guelph hurt them, and the rhythm section was different from that on the CD Experience (Justin Time Records, 2008).
With James Carter and Tony Kofi on horns, Jamaaladeen Tacuma on electric bass and Lee Pearson behind the drums, it was a hugely different group than the original quartet, evennotablyquite different from their 1988 disc Rhythm & Blues (Nonesuch). At the same time, they were a strong band in a new kind of jazz/R&B fold, and they probably pleased the crowd by not trying too hard to.
While the record includes such well-known Hendrix hits as "If 6 Was 9," "Foxey Lady" and "The Wind Cries Mary," they stuck to more obscure arrangements of lesser known (or at least less recognizable) songs, playing long versions of "Hey Joe" and "Machine Gun" and encoring with "Little Wing," a beautiful, complex song given a wonderful lead by Bluiett on B-flat clarinet.
With the exception of a closing party, Murray and Graves played the closing set in what was a small triumph for Artistic Director Ajay Heble. The two have only played together once since their 1992 duo record, in a brief quartet set at a memorial for Don Pullen. And their record was called The Real Deal (DIW, 1991) for a reason. Few sax/drum duos manage the combination of energy and melody that they do. Murray has a way of finding brief melodies in the midst of hard note clusters, but here, especially on bass clarinet (which he didn't break out for the WSQ), he stretched out, creating long cadenzas within the spontaneity.
The two didn't rehearse before the show, but they didn't play pure improv either. They picked up themes from their record of 17 years ago and played a surprising Albert Ayler deconstruction in staggered phrases and tight intervals. It was a remarkable set, ramping up to the end, which only means they have to do it again.
And if music can, perhaps, bring social change, it might represent electoral politics as well: Murray met with enthusiastic applause introducing his "Yes We Can," dedicated to President Barack Obama.