Guelph Jazz Festival: Guelph, Canada, September 7-11, 2011

Guelph Jazz Festival: Guelph, Canada, September 7-11, 2011
Sara Villa By

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Guelph Jazz Festival, Colloquium & Nuit Blanche
Guelph, Canada
September 7-11, 2011
As Prez used to say, if you are a good improviser you are able to tell a soulful story. What happens, then, when some of the most experimental improvisers from Canada, Australia, Norway, and England (among the others) are involved in a four-day kermesse, including an all-night long nuit blanche, filled with experimental performances?
The single story, then, becomes a complex, intertwined narrative of individual tales, a patchwork of signatures as mystical as the bass notes of William Parker coupled with the 70-people Element choir, directed by Christine Duncan, or as minimalist as The Necks' 65-minute, stream-of-consciousness, single-piece set.
Such diversity, mixed with the equally heterogeneous nature of the academic colloquium surrounding the jazz performances (this year the multiple panels were dedicated to the theme "Sound Practices: Improvisation, Representation and Intermediality") has made of the Guelph Jazz Festival the 2010 winner of the Premier's Award for Exellence in the Arts. And this year the program was another exciting array of innovative collaborations, such as the Paul Pimley, William Parker and Gerry Hemingway trio, and established, all-Canadian formations, like Marianne Trudel's Septet, bringing together musicians from Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec for a musical project composed by Trudel herself in honor of her friends and colleagues.

The Rent

Following the path traced by composer and musician Steve Lacy, The Rent—a young, enthusiastic jazz band from Ontario, featuring soprano saxophonist Kyle Brenders, drummer Nick Fraser, double-bassist Wes Neal, trombonist Scott Thomson and vocalist and dancer Susanna Hood—presented a series of jazz poetry performances and scat-sung arrangements of Lacy compositions, disclosing once again the naturalness with which certain poems inform compositions such as "A Ring of Bone" and metamorphose through free-flowing vocals into the purely sonic nature of a musical composition.

The harmony of this formation resided in the instinctive ways that Brenders, Thomson and Hood dialogued, almost a cappella, with the subtle rhythmical texture realized by Fraser and Neal. A clear example of such mirroring was evident in the syncopated, half-cut breaths of "Multidimensional," when Blaga Dimitrova's lines ("The world is multidimensional and that gives us headaches. We want it to be monochrome so it can be clear"), sung by Hood with a melodic counterpart by Brenders and Thomson, were heightened by the ironically repetitive tip-tapping accents of both Neal and Fraser.

Tilting—Nicholas Caloia Quartet

Nicolas Caloia entered onstage, with his bow stemming from a back pocket, almost like a sword. But it was soon clear that the piercing nature of the double-bassist's style stemmed from dexterity rather than violence: it was the capability of passing from a crescendo of pizzicato, exquisitely reinforced by Isaiah Ceccarelli's fast- paced rimshots, to a sad, meditative moment of low, bowed notes, embraced by the metallic whispers of Jean Derome, on woodwinds, and by the essentialist touch of pianist Guillaume Dostaler.

William Parker

Some of the most interesting passages of the whole set were those centered on instrumental metamorphoses: Ceccarelli started by focusing on the melodic nature of the cymbals, while Derome replied with more percussive riffs on his bass flute. It was clear that these musicians were an open window on Montréal's jazz and especially free improvisational scene grown around the tradition of the Ensemble de Musique Improvisée de Montréal. Discovering and enhancing the least expected sonorities from an instrument represented a key avant-gardist signature which left a sediment of this shared background and history, enriching the most individual vocabulary of the solos with the trace of an established collective matrix.

Paul Pimley, William Parker and Jean Martin

A surprise trio, featuring pianist Paul Pimley, bassist William Parker and drummer Jean Martin. Parker, a Guelph festival aficionado, exploited the possibilities offered by playing his double-bass, at times, with two bows simultaneously, with an esthetic V that extended from his hand, embracing the bridge of his instrument. In the midst of the set the sonic result of such gesture was a meditative, mantra-like series of choruses, their vibrations heightened by the circular movements of his bows.

Martin replied by finger-tapping his snare drum, radicalizing the meditative, ritualistic roots of his percussive role, while at the same time allowing the bass to resonate as the lead voice of this climax. Pimley entererd the transcendent sonic texture of the section by letting his hands caress the piano from within, making it whisper metallic, prayer-like sighs.

Gothic, stormy crescendos distinguished other moments of the trio's free improvisation, but the mastery of such passages, crafted with a spiritual sensitivity, was the real pearl of this mind-blowing set.

Marianne Trudel Septet

Pianist Marianne Trudel showed a flair for sophisticated essentialism combined with elegant rhythm changes, as in "Espoir et autres pouvoirs," where Anne Shaefer's mellow vocals became one with Trudel's main melodic line.

It was evident that, while exploring the compositional potentialities of a septet of musicians who are also close friends—featuring, alonmg with Shaefer, trumpeter Lina Alemanno, French hornist Jocelyn Beilleux, trombonist Jean-Olivier Bginm double-bassist Morgan Moore, drummer Robbie Kuster—Trudel's thoughts gravitated between the phrasings of the early Pat Metheny and the orchestral, symphonic breath of Philip Glass, particularly during the intro to "Souffle."

Every note was in its right place: The vocals of "Et la terre tourne" grew, hand-in-hand, with the subtle sense of dynamics of the brass section, making us grasp, if just for a second, the gigantic shape of our planet, slowly circling around its axis.

Trygve Seim and Andreas Utnem

St. George's Anglican Church, with its wide volutes, welcomed the religious sonorities of this Norwegian duo, whose ECM project, Purcor: Songs for Saxophone and Piano (2010), unveiled its peculiar ability to intertwine jazz and elegy in a unicum of controlled, poetic languor.

A willing reference to Jan Garbarek's tradition of rarefied atmospheres could be heard in Trygve Seim's long-held notes, the saxophonist unafraid of sudden explosions, his signature relying on gradually growing, warm tonalities which showed how an impeccable control of the instrument could be disclosed through a single chord, without any need of baroque excess.

His soft breath, entering the mouth piece, echoed through the church, while Andreas Utnem left his piano to embrace the harmonium, waving an ethereal, minimalist background for Seim's solo in "Responsorium."

The ballad-like quality of the last piece—and in particular its slow piano intro—carried references to Keith Jarrett's "My Song," intertwined with halos of psalmic silences and crystallized Northern landscapes.

Christine Duncan and the Element Choir Project with William Parker

Can the Carmina Burana marry avant-garde jazz experimentation? Christine Duncan's Element Choir made it clear that this is not only a possibility, but a truly original accomplishment. In a set with bassist William Parker, drummer Jean Martin, violinist Jesse Zubot, trumpeter Jimmy Lewis, and pipe organist Eric Robertson— the choir filled the audience with awe, and revitalized the cinematographic memory (both visual and sonically) of the astronauts in Stanley Kubrick's 1967 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, facing the black monolith on the surface of the Moon.

The improvisational texture of this 70-voice choir rested on extremely basic conducting gestures, leaving the singers free to embody the Earthly elements through dissonant whispers, sudden shouts and excruciating laments. During the most dramatic sections of the performance, these vocals almost seemed to embody the cries of some damned souls in Dante's Divine Comedy.

Christine Duncan

If the choir had a powerful, haunting presence with its growing sighs, then Parker's bass interventions, developing around an obsessive, high-pitched crescendo, increased the overall atmosphere of inescapable doom. In the final section of the set, the Lewis' trumpet almost seemed to announce an apocalyptic moment, stressed by Robertson's ghostly organ chords and Martin's fortissimo percussive moment. It was a fully cathartic moment, a postmodern jazz version of some immortal Greek tragedy.

Trevor Watts and Veryan Weston

Growing together as masters of the British free jazz scene in the '70s, this duo disclosed the perfect emotional and performance synchronization of two masters who do not even need the hint of a glimpse to know where they are headed.

Veryan Weston's flair for tip-tapping, hectic rhythms—focused on the highest keys of his piano—found its twin in Trevor Watts quick and crafty sharp notes, the alto saxophonist using his instrument's keys as if they were micro-drums; exploiting their percussive clicks as an additional enhancement of a series of sudden, squeaky riffs.

From left: Veryan Weston, Trevor Watts

Weston alternated contrapuntal phrasings, following the sax in a mad dance, with a hint of slightly slower variations showing how a sediment of Stravinskian influences has become one with the freest vocabulary of his own trademark.

The naturally flowing aura of the whole performance gave the impression of a joyful conversation between two friends who do not sentimentally remind themselves of the old times, but rather keep laughing and rejoicing about the endless creative possibilities of the here and now.

Lotte Anker, Craig Taborn and Gerald Cleaver

Danish saxophonist Lotte Anker opened the first Saturday evening set by turning her saxophone into a fairy-tale mechanism, producing the soothing sound of a metallic wind. This was nothing but the starter of a set where each of the virtuosic musicians involved—pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver—transformed their instruments into something different and unexpected.

From left: Craig Taborn, Lotte Anker

Taborn alternated highly atonal poetics with muffled, shrilly suffocated tones, realized by longitudinally caressing the piano strings with his bare hands. Cleaver, on the other hand, alternated his vertical use of the drumstick on his high-hats to the chaotic resonance created by adding a smaller cymbal on his snare drum.

They all shared a futuristic desire to denaturalize their musical tools, removing their sonorities from the most commonly accepted paradigms and filling the performance with surprising sounds, excitingly fit together like the pieces of an exquisite corpse game.

The Necks

The Australian trio's set— featuring pianist Chris Abrahams, bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer Tony Buck—confirmed its exquisite sense of dynamics as much as its reliance on a Giacomettian minimalism, where jazz is cleared of all its contours and revealed in its most essentialist structural form. The repetition of a single chord or note, with only carefully selected variations, became a long-lasting psychedelic loop aimed at making the audience fall in trance with the monochromatic ocean of sound of the band.

The Necks, from left: Chris Abrahams, Lloyd Swanton, Tony Buck

Similar to Yves Klein's blue series, the choice was so radically essential as to provoke the most extreme emotional reactions. If you were able to lose your own self in these compulsive-obsessive tonalities, the result was a psychedelic state of utter absorption and blissful loss. However, if the desire to remain rooted to the realms of the real and conscious prevailed, your instinctive reaction could have been an almost brutal physical rejection.

A single piece, more than sixty uninterrupted minutes of flow—and, for some, an almost healing music therapy.

Henry Threadgill's Zooid


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