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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))).

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