Guelph Jazz Festival, September 8-12, 2010


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Guelph Jazz Festival
Guelph, Canada
September 8-12, 2010
Some music festivals are holidays and some are expeditions. The annual Guelph Jazz Festival & Colloquium in Ontario has a way of being more safari than respite. The days are long, with lectures and panel discussions on some days beginning at 9:00am and concerts on others as early as 10:30, and then running on into the early hours of the morning. The rewards, too, are plentiful—more so, in fact, than are possible to take in. Adding to the usually exhaustive schedule, the 2010 instalment added a "nuit blanche" of concerts, installations and site-specific works lasting one night through until the following morning. There was no way to catch it all. Even without sleeping, enough overlapped that the best bet was sometimes to walk around downtown and see what could be stumbled upon (which could even be one of a number of paintings stowed around town, with instructions to return it to a particular gallery). And when exhaustion finally caught up, the model of George Lewis could be followed. Speaking at the opening of his installation with sculptor Eric Metcalfe, Lewis said, "I come from the period of sitting around while La Monte Young is playing the Well-Tempered Piano, and waking up again and he's still playing it. And nobody seemed to find that problematic."

The first day of performances, Sept. 5, 2010, following the full days of academic presentations on arts and technology, was a decidedly 21st Century take on the " Improvising Bodies" theme of the festival, perhaps, but what stood out in the first two sets was how well they came off—not only free of technological glitches, but achieving an organic, warm quality. Lewis' piece used samples of an orchestral work of his, dissected and then reanimated by the activity around them, housed in Northwestern-design totems. Before their opening reception, Pauline Oliveros presented an octet stretched across the Americas. The Skype collaboration featured musicians also in Troy, NY, and Bogotá, Colombia, and came off remarkably well—due, in part, to dedicated Web 2 lines that, for the most part, prevented the glitches and time lags that usually plague such long-distance meetings.

Roger Dean played compositions for live and prerecorded pianos with electronic processing, and despite references to Thelonious Monk, it sounded, at times, more like Chopin, or George Winston, or the Love Story theme, maybe, but slowly the pianos began echoing onto themselves—doubling back and filling in gaps until eventually there were different parts coming from speakers in the four corners of the small room.

The technology may have outshone the music, but the gradual process of filling the room was effective.

Electronic interfaces were also on display during an excellent double bill of Ben Grossman and Germaine Liu, followed by a first meeting (with no more rehearsal than a soundcheck) by Bob Ostertag, Sylvie Courvoisier, Taylor Ho Bynum and Jim Black. And while Grossman was playing through effects, controlled via an iPad and another laptop, as well as foot pedals, his hurdy-gurdy playing felt very human. Even if the long drones were electronically manipulated, they felt natural, and were complemented by Liu' s quietly tactile percussion—a drum kit and a collection of handheld percussion, with sticks rarely used.

Ostertag is a pioneer in bringing electronics and sampling into improvised music, having worked with Anthony Braxton early in his career, and becoming a fixture in New York' s downtown scene, before dedicating himself to political activism, then computer programming, and recently coming back around to performance. He was present for the colloquium, but asked to do a " pure improv" situation, and consulted bassist Mark Dresser in putting his band together. Even for the three New Yorkers in the band, it was an unusual grouping. Ostertag worked with a touch-sensitive screen running to iBook, but was unfortunately too far down in the mix too much of the time. After some initial hesitation, Black opened up, and then Bynum saw a horn/drum duo trope that would occupy the first several minutes, before Courvoisier, hearing the slightest opening in the drums, moved inside the piano case. Meanwhile, Ostertag was busily drawing away—inaudible at first until a Qawwali song seeped in—then more voices, twisting through and fading away. Later, it would be cartoon sound effects. By design or not, Ostertag remained behind the rest of the group, and the others kept being a jazz trio until Courvoisier and Black dropped out, Bynum mirroring the sounds of distorted voices and something new emerging. Black returned, with heavy start-and-stop rock drumming. Courvoisier muted the piano strings and, after a couple group ebbs and flows, they became a spring-loaded backing for Bynum, small and tense and slippery, while he forced narrow lines of air through his pocket trumpet. Ostertag clearly enjoys working with acoustic instruments, as with his Say No More project, but this time the concept was to approach the meeting without concept. It was imperfect, dangerous and exciting.

A pair of acronyms suggested sub-themes throughout the festival: the Chicago musicians' collective, AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music), and the 40-year-old German record label ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music). In addition to his sound-design installation, Lewis (who is not just a member but, literally, wrote the book on the AACM) took part in a concert and panel discussion featuring his trio with Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell. On top of that was the added surprise of Lincoln " Chicago Beau" Beauchamp—who played harmonica on some of the earliest AACM recordings—on hand to lead the panel and introduce the band. But, perhaps, even more surprising was the morning panel, finding the pianist and elder of the group in a talkative mood.

Abrams—who rarely does interviews or speaks publicly—spoke openly about the practice of improvisation and the philosophies of the AACM, including acts such as beginning concerts in silent meditation, that have implied to some a Muslim backing to the organization.

"No one dictated what you should think when you face east," Abrams said. "We used to talk about the sorts of food you should eat without actually dictating what you eat. These things are not musical things, but they're human things." Responding to a question from the audience, Abrams said firmly that he doesn't give out advice. But he did go on to suggest certain ways of operating. "We had no reason to copy each other," he said. "It was amazing. Maybe it was because we didn't have any star bands. What I've learned through all these years is to appreciate practice."

Lewis, who came to the organization later than founders Abrams and Mitchell, underscored the commitment to originality within the organization. "In the end, the people who were beginners weren't necessarily inferior to the people who were more experienced, because we were all doing something new, and that was composing," he said. "The rule was you had to present your own, original music."

The Trio' s concert, the following night, proved to be the highlight of the five days. Mitchell opened on alto, stating a phrase and repeating it, then turning to a prolonged, breathy tone that Lewis met on trombone. Abrams showed a wise reserve, common to him in recent improv situations, listening hard to his bandmates, carefully sharing a chord, a single note, a brief glissando every minute or so, sitting on the sustain pedal for a few delicate lines, and then starting again. They were fast and quiet, supplemented, at times, by gently pervasive emanations from Lewis' s laptop, matching tempi and sitting behind the acoustic instruments.

All three were amazing in their in-the-moment arrangements, playing together and playing apart. Lewis created some particularly nice moments, setting a decaying loop, picking up his trombone, and playing alongside himself for a few moments. Eventually Mitchell introduced a lament which, remarkably, Lewis seemed to match in a unison statement, while Abrams punctuated it with heavy chords crossing the keyboard. They were gracious, supporting and complementing each other in a group improvisation that was, maybe more than anything else, gentlemanly and focused. The trio called The Trio is just a smart outfit (and that doesn't only refer to Mitchell's haberdashery).

The ECM undercurrent was represented by pianist Marilyn Crispell, who played a wide-ranging solo set; a trio of saxophonist Charles Lloyd, tablaist Zakir Hussain and drummer Eric Harland; violinist Mark Feldman, who appeared with the Toronto world music ensemble, Tasa; and cellist David Darling, who was called in to replace Dino Saluzzi, after a schedule conflict prevented the Argentinian bandoneonist from attending.

Crispell began her morning set with strong and bold chordings, then worked into a quieter refrain, which is to say she made sure everyone was awake for the lullaby, and built it with remarkable beauty, resolving in a non-repeating song and only the briefest pause, punctuated by the release of a pedal, before spinning little jetties of notes through the air, slowly ramping up again to a near-rag. As she carefully constructed the piece, stepping back to let it breathe and moving in on it again, an energy and a playfulness developed. Nearing the end, she took to the inside of the case with a pair of drumsticks, slowly, gently making her way from the frame to the strings and playing pronounced melody and bass lines, returning to the keyboard for impossibly perfect low-end rolls, gliding effortlessly between heavy chord structures and melodies placed directly in the midst of the progressions, and then turning to a new melody that could have been a Vince Guaraldi theme, or a new song for one of the summer holidays. Answering a standing ovation, she began her encore standing with the assembled.

The Lloyd/Hussain/Harland group (Sangam, after the 2005 ECM recording of the same name), one of a number of strong trios (not just The Trio but a Henry Grimes, Jane Bunnett and Andrew Cyrille group; Grimes, again with guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Chad Taylor; and pianist Marilyn Lerner with bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Lou Grassi). They balanced far more than three pieces, with alto saxophone and flute, piano (and four-handed piano and inside piano), vocals, kit drums, mallets tablas and hand bells, and all three members rotating between instruments. Sometimes they were a jazz trio, sometimes a percussion trio, but more often than not it was Hussain who stole the show. Feldman's set with Tasa was equally eclectic, an amalgam of tablas and Eastern vocals, with drum kit, electric guitar and bass, saxophone and trumpet. After the quintet played a couple of melting-pot pieces on their own, they brought out Feldman for an easy groove tripling violin, trumpet and flute lines. It was an unusual setting for Feldman in a sense, but as evidenced by his sessionography, he can do anything, and do so comfortably. And Darling played a powerful solo set, borrowing from Bach and then presenting a piece with eight prerecorded electric cello parts, the instrument on which he made his well-regarded album, 8 String Religion (Hearts of Spaxe, 1993).

The Ribot/Grimes/Taylor trio, which closed out the festival, was something of an offshoot of their excellent Albert Ayler project, Spiritual Unity, which also included trumpeter Roy Campbell. Without a saxophone (but with a bassist who actually played with Ayler) the band has gone from a quartet homage to one of the greatest voices of the 1960s New Thing to a guitar trio, still faithful to the spirit of those times. And even given the heights they were capable of hitting, there were some remarkable peaks of interplay. It's amazing to see who—like these three, like Crispell—can turn it out, once called upon to be morning people, pros who can deliver before lunchtime.

For reasons of national funding and hometown pride (or just plain proximity), Canadian festivals offer a great opportunity to hear Canadian artists often underrated outside their country. Toronto pianist Lerner brought a powerful piano trio with a New York rhythm section. Lerner was a marvel to watch, her left hand capable of dropping like a sack of bullets on a single key in the midst of her flights of fancy, alongside an extremely musical rhythm section. Filiano and Grassi met her working from a shared perspective that meter is made from tiny melodies.

But even in the heart of Ontario, the Montréalaise made a strong showing, with more than 50 appearing during the week. That was, in no small part, due to the wonderful marching band, Fanfare Pourpour, which played an absolutely infectious take On Quebecois folk fronted by a banjo, two guitars and two accordions, with brass and reeds (including Jean Derome) and percussion (not the least of which being Pierre Tanguay), ending in a parade which dropped its followers off at the Abrams/Mitchell/Lewis and Lloyd/Hussain/Harland double bill.

Another big band crossed the Ontario/Quebec divide. The 27-piece Ratchet Orchestra included Ambiances Magnetiques members Derome and Lori Freedman, along with Ontario players Scott Thomson, Ian Epps, and a tubist who went by the admirable moniker, Noah Countability. They played Latin-leaning tunes and easy grooves, with nicely balanced arrangements for a group sporting four percussionists, six strings plus electric guitar, piano, eight reeds, and a coterie of brass—a stretch of pleasantries topped off with some marvelous cacophony.

Like festivals in Vancouver to its left and Victoriaville to its right, the Guelph Jazz Festival & Colloquium is an international event, but a big part of the attraction for the culture tourist is the chance to hear the nationalists. Why Canadian jazz remains such a secret is in itself a mystery.

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