Guelph Jazz Festival: Guelph, Canada, September 5-9, 2012

Guelph Jazz Festival: Guelph, Canada, September 5-9, 2012
Ted Harms By

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Guelph Jazz Festival
Guelph, Ontario
September 5-9, 2012
The Guelph Jazz Festival is in its 19th year. Under the direction of Ajay Heble, the festival has few equals in Canada, attracting the upper echelon of improvising musicians.

It is a rare festival that can resist the allure of "tent-pole" shows—the mass-appeal artists that have vague, jazz-ish tinges—but the absence is counteracted by consistently making community involvement and presence a priority. The festival has broadened its appeal with a downtown Saturday Jazz Tent featuring free shows and, starting two years ago, a Nuit Blanche—a festival-within-a-festival that runs from Saturday night to Sunday morning, featuring shows, ongoing installations, events, dance parties and more.

Mary Margaret O'Hara

Mary Margaret O'Hara, with her stream-of-consciousness observations and steady flow of non sequiturs, opened the festival with a rare appearance this year and it was an exhilarating rush.

She is on top of the list of people who have made that one perfect album and then vanished from the public eye, with her internationally lauded Miss America (Virgin, 1988).

Backing up O'Hara was an ensemble led by cellist Peggy Lee, an anchor of Vancouver's creative and improvised music scene for the last decade. The group that rolled into the intimate Stewart Macdonald Art Centre on Wednesday night consisted of J.P. Carter on trumpet, Ron Samworth on guitar and Dylan van der Schyff on drums. As a group, they have dubbed themselves Beautiful Tool—not sure if a "proper" CD is in the works, but a copy of the group's first show, from Push Festival in January, 2012, was on sale. Rusty McCarthy, one of the principal guitarists on Miss America, was a special guest for this show.

The music on Miss America is sparse and, to use the phrase that described it back then, alternative. The songs have the typical chorus/verse format but O'Hara's singing style is singular. Would this many musicians turn the music into a lush big band? Or would it be as restrained as her group on Miss America?

Thankfully, the answer to both questions was: yes. The group responded well to the leadership of O'Hara and Lee, who clearly shared a strong simpatico. The five tunes performed from the original (and, hard to believe, now 25-year old) document were updated but still faithful. But, fitting O'Hara's whiplash delivery, an Al Wilson song made an appearance as well as two heavily-improvised tunes written by Lee. The set concluded with an exceptional version of "You Will Be Loved Again," from Miss America, and a two-song encore ended with an "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows/Somewhere Over the Rainbow" medley.

O'Hara's voice was in fine form, hitting many of the high notes she hit 25 years ago. The band, especially van der Schyff and Carter, provided spark and jump. The group had a few shows under its belt before Wednesday night and a few more are lined up. Hopefully this gets O'Hara back in the public eye.

Ben Grossman and Colin Stetson

The solo show, for any instrument in any genre, is an excellent opportunity to hear what somebody can do with their instrument. It's also a high-wire act, where errors or missteps can't be hidden or blamed on the drummer. And given the wonderful acoustics of St. George's Anglican Church, the audience can hear every note, noise or scrape.

Ben Grossman is primarily known for playing the vielle à roué, a multi-stringed instrument better known as a hurdy gurdy. The instrument has several courses of strings "played" by a rosined wheel and "fretted" by pushing down on levers. But Grossman is well versed in a variety of instruments and global traditions, and has numerous credits to his name in recordings and soundtracks. From the first note it was clear this was not going to be an evening of twee and precious folk songs.

In the past, Grossman has been an unpredictable performer and what he presented in Guelph was, again, a surprise—a piece of epic floating chords, with and without dissonance, with and without rhythm, with and without his hurdy gurdy. All sounds large and small were processed, magnified, and manipulated through a laptop, which included his hurdy gurdy subjected to an e-bow, a disassembled autoharp to generate drones, and several hand bells. By turns, the overall effect was gamelan, Steve Reichian minimalism and even the slow death metal of Sunn O))).

Colin Stetson's rise as a saxophonist has been two-pronged—there are the accolades give his recent release, New History Warfare, vol. 2: Judges (Constellation, 2011), and his association with acts such as Arcade Fire, Laurie Anderson, Tom Waits, and Bon Iver. His approach to the instrument is unique—he primarily plays the bass sax and uses circular breathing and extended techniques to create otherworldly effects. To further its presence and nuances, he employs a variety of microphones to emphasize the percussive sound of the valves opening and closing, as well as wearing a contact microphone collar around his neck, amplifying the sounds of his breathing and sub-vocalizations.

He began with "Judges," the second track on his recent album, and the eleven minutes that it lasted (almost double the album's five) made an epic in sound and physicality. He switched between bass and alto saxophone throughout the show and the eight songs plus encore were delivered with unbound energy in the sweltering venue. The sight of him rocking back and forth with a monstrous sax strapped to him must have been frightening to those in the front row as he seemed likely to launch himself into a mosh pit. There were times that the pew vibrated beneath me, and the full-bore roar and texture of Colin's playing made the concert an almost humbling experience.

Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche

Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche have found recent fame as guitarist and drummer for Wilco. Both, however, have long and deep ties to the avant-garde and improvisation scenes, despite this being only their second-ever show as a duo.

The prevalence of Cline's effect pedals and the presence of a laptop as part of Kotche's kit were no surprise when the evening opened up with science fiction-esque bleeps and bloops. The starts and stops and the rise of fall of volume gave the piece life, and wasn't just a sonic onslaught. It was a full 30 minutes before Kotche played like a drummer, with proper sticks and hitting things in some regular pattern, while Cline picked out a lulling chord melody. Mere minutes later, all was forgotten. To the crowd's delight—and an acknowledgment by Kotche as to the true kings of Canada—a sample of Rush's "Fly By Night" was offered in the midst of the restrained noise. An engaging long set was followed by an encore and the evening came off without a hitch.

Cline was pressed into triple-duty at the festival, also appearing in ROVA's Ascension Reimagined show as well as making a guest appearance with Norway's Huntsville later on Thursday, also with Kotche.

John Coltrane's Ascension Tribute

The release of Ascension (Impulse!) in 1965 continued saxophonist John Coltrane's progression into the avant-garde. He described this recording as a "big band thing"—the recording has 11 players—but this certainly isn't typical big band music. And like Interstellar Space (Impulse!, 1967) and A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965), it has drawn musicians to recreate the piece. Mounting a note-for-note copy was not the goal, but the piece did, with its statement of a theme from A Love Supreme and the structure of ensemble improvisation alternating with solos, serve as an inspiration and blueprint on Friday.

Two groups presented their interpretations—Jeremy Strachan led one ensemble while the Rova Saxophone Quartet led another.

For the first performance at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, Jeremy Strachan shared the stage with a group of Toronto musicians. Later in the evening, at the River Run Centre, it was the ROVA quartet (saxophonists Bruce Ackley, Steve Adams, Larry Ochs and Jon Raskin) sharing the front line with cornetist Rob Mazurek and violinists Carla Kihlstedt and Jenny Scheinman while the backline consisted of Cline, drummers Chris Brown and Hamid Drake, bassist Fred Frith, and laptop artist Ikue Mori.

With the shows following one after the other, the door was wide open to compare and contrast—the pros of ROVA vs. Strachan's unknown upstarts; David vs. Goliath; the hometown (well, almost hometown, as Toronto is only an hour away) vs. the away All-Stars—or not. The shows were very different.

Strachan's group was on fire from the first note. They faithfully recreated the lineup from the original recording (two trumpets, three tenor saxophones, two alto saxophones, two bassists, a drummer and a pianist) and the original structure of group sections alternating with soloists. Strachan led the group with hand signals, moving them through the group sections.

The sound of this group was ferocious and awe-inspiring, with the physicality of each performer's exertions clearly evident on their faces. As the last notes faded, the audience exploded in applause.

ROVA's Electric Ascension followed a few hours later, and its approach was complimentary and opposite. The ensemble took inspiration from the original structure and moved through the group sections with the aid of hand signals, delivered by either Jon Raskin or Larry Ochs. The backline opened the proceedings before being joined by the front line for the opening group section. The evening was then spent rotating through smaller units with only a handful of group collaborations. The group's performance was slower and mellower than the original, but it was refreshing to watch the small subsets interact. The ensemble was driven by Drake's drumming and Mazurek's playing was especially fiery.

Huntsville with Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche

There is a town a few hours north of Guelph called Huntsville, a cottage enclave for those that can run away from their homes over the summer. So, the appearance of the Norwegian trio by the same name was greeted with the image of people lounging on deck chairs, roasting marshmallows. However, none of that was in sight when the trio—guitarist Ivar Grydeland, bassist Tonny Kluften and percussionist Ingar Zach—walked onstage with Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche. This lineup is a reunion of the 2007 concert released as one disc of Huntsville's two-disc set, Eco, Arches, & Eras (Rune Grammofon, 2009).

The show began with a simple bass introduction from Kluften and then the layers of riffs and loops in rhythmic sync began. The two guitarists and bassist all had a variety of effect pedals to increase the textures and timbres, while Kotche (who, again, had a laptop with him) and Zach had a variety of small percussion on hand to augment their full kits.

The variety of Cline's sonic explorations is well documented, and Grydeland matched him—though he was progressed through the jam by addition and subtraction, as opposed to Cline's approach, which based more on variations of a given sound. Kotche played more "drummerly" than on the previous night, while Zach demonstrated, at times, a The Necks-like ability to lock in a groove. The evening's single improv turned into a 90-minute piece that never lagged.


The music portion of the festival is only half the story. The GJF is unique in North America in that a three-day academic colloquium runs in tandem. The colloquium is presented by the ICASP—the Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice research project—with the goal being to present papers which show the impact improvisation can have on justice, social change, and pedagogy. The ICASP's home is the University of Guelph and that campus hosts the colloquium and several festival shows.

The colloquium theme this year was "Pedagogy & Praxis"—and under that banner academics and fans assembled to hear findings on Gil Scott-Heron, the impact that school-based improvisation programs have on at-risk youths, and whether improvisation can be taught. Workshops and concerts punctuated the talks—one notably was hands-on, based on exercises from John Steven's Search & Reflect (Community Music, 1985).

The Wednesday keynote speaker was Professor Jesse Stewart. Stewart has a long connection to the University of Guelph and he outlined his formative years as well as what, and how, he teaches students at Carleton University in Ottawa. He provided examples of how his collaborative ensembles have created and played instruments out of paper or balloons.

On Thursday, it was Professor David Ake, from University of Nevada at Reno, who talked about how he, as a jazz educator, and his students struggle with musical categories both from the point of what to teach but also who to include. The number of notable "jazz" players that have pronounced that they don't play jazz or that jazz is dead—from drummer Max Roach to trumpeter Nicholas Payton—is long; the question arises, if they themselves renounce the title of "jazz," should they be taught in a jazz program? And how does the acceptance of labels shape a players education and self-definition? Ake's stance is that the word "jazz" is like the word spaghetti—multiple strands, some are more attached then others, and all-in-all rather messy.

Friday morning began with an interview with Fred Frith. Frith's reputation a guitarist is without question—Henry Cow, Art Bears, Massacre, Naked City, numerous recording under his own name—are all testimony to his relentless progression and inventiveness. But since 1997 he was been a member of the music faculty at Mills College and is mentoring, teaching, and shaping many of the next generation of creative musicians. In his interview, he recounted how he got involved in teaching, the challenges in teaching improvisation in an environment that expects accountability, the expectations of students, and how his own background shapes how he approaches students.

The festival's Nuit Blanche officially began shortly after dinner on Saturday night and provided difficult choices for both the spectator and audience—saxophonist Peter Brötzmann with vibraophonist Jason Adasiewicz or Ikue Mori? Clarinetist Francois Houle or Huntsville (again)? Head to the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre to catch the ongoing John Cage tributes or attend the riverside installation, River of Sound and Voice? If you could decide, a sleepless night was expected and guaranteed.

The dilemma for most progressive festivals is how to acknowledge their history but still move forward; a struggle shared by likeminded performers. The Guelph Jazz Festival has created its own family—regular appearances by artists like pianist Myra Melford, Hamid Drake, bassist William Parker and saxophonist Jean Derome—which is a way to keep some familiarity (and continuity), while still embracing performer's whose artistic output changes and evolves. New faces keep things fresh—Colin Stetson, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer all made their festival debuts this year—and continue the arc that Heble and the festival organizers know is their lifeblood.

Expectations for next year's 20th anniversary are already high and there was some guessing and dream-spinning amongst attendees about whom will be appearing and what possible shape the festival will take. But the festival is, in the best possible sense, exhausting. It consistently delivers a sensual overload of sight, sound and thought making the festival a top-notch destination for spectator, audience, and performer.

Photo Credit

John R. Fowler

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