Guelph Jazz Festival:

Improv On The Move
for CODA

Taking the concept of free-flowing improvisation a step further, one morning at this year’s Guelph Jazz Festival (GJF), 15 musicians performed simultaneously in four different whitewashed rooms of the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre.

The workshop developed this way, according to Ajay Heble, GJF artistic director, because so many musicians wanted to participate. Some – American alto saxophonist Marshall Allan, British pianist Veryan Weston, Québécois guitarist René Lussier and American banjoist Eugene Chadbourne – rooted on a spot and collaborated with whoever came along. Others moved from place to place and up and down the staircase as they played.

Trumpeter Gordon Allen from Montreal added fanfares to understated percussive taps from Guelph drummer Jesse Stewart in the main space and later combined with Lussier for showier work in an upstairs room. New York-based alto saxophonist Matana Roberts, wearing a dress festooned with razor blades and safety pins, and tenor saxophonist Jason Robinson from San Diego acted like traveling minstrels. At one point the two and altoist Allen blended for spicy multiphonic runs. At another, Roberts played a feathery obbligato behind a simple blues Chadbourne was chording.

Toronto bassist Rob Clutton constantly schlepped his ungainly instrument. In one space he sympathetically backed Chadbourne’s avant-folk, before that he combined in a staircase duet with Halifax clarinetist Paul Cram. Interesting juxtapositions occurred as faint sonic timbres bled into the textures produced by the visible performers.

At Sticks & Stones’ afternoon gig, Roberts, wearing face paint and a flowing gown, proved herself equally facile on clarinet and saxophone. With drummer Chad Taylor’s polyrhythms and bassist Josh Abrams’ powerful plucking as anchors, her solos encompassed wide vibratos as well as piercing note pecks.

Sharing the bill, Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii’s quartet worked from more of a composerly base. The keyboardist’s contrapuntal styling was seconded by the understated inventiveness of percussionist Jim Black and thick col legno swoops and windmill motions of bassist Mark Dresser, so the energy level built throughout. When Fujii reached inside the piano to liberate quivering pulsations, the drummer sawed on his cymbals for daxophone-like squeals.

In a set that echoed Fujii’s recorded work with Japanese noise rockers, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura spun out muted staccato lines, reminiscent of 1970s Miles Davis. That sound served as a sub-motif for the Festival. It was echoed in interludes from drummer/trumpeter Arve Henriksen, whose Norwegian band Supersilent, late at night brought synthesizer and computer-processed noises to an enclosed downtown mall with post-rock soundscapes that promised more than they delivered.

Quicksilver grace notes were showcased more impressively by trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith in the all-star Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) ensemble that opened the showcase concert in the soft-seated River Run Centre. Smith’s sprints and spits made common cause with the bassoon, flute, didjerido, shaker and miscellaneous “little instruments” of Douglas Ewart, Hamid Drake’s percussion and Jeff Parker’s guitar. A last-minute addition Parker’s twangy fills never really jelled with the others’ work. Episodic rather than cohesive, the best audience response came with Ewart’s anti-George Bush recitation.

Headliners, The Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) fared much better, hitting a groove with its opening number and keeping the time steady, no matter what detours into hokum, faux primitivism, blues, post-bop dissonance or pseudo-swing were evident. Based around the durable bass work of Jaribu Shahid and the solid beat of percussionist Famoudu Don Moye, this underpinning allowed the front line its freedom.

Playing trumpet and flugelhorn singly or together Corey Wilkes, combined fiery execution with sophisticated note placement. His musical personality was strong enough to hold his own with Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, who between them play most members of the reed and flute families. Theatrical in his face paint and ceremonial robes, Jarman frequently honked two saxes simultaneously and interspaced his solos – one of which he played on his back like a 1950s R&B saxophonist – with shouts and a shuffling dance. Resplendent in a well-cut business suit, Mitchell belied his appearance with fierce polyphonic reed responses to Jarman’s japes and notable solos on both saxophones and piccolo. Mitchell’s parody blues, “Big Red Peaches” was the show’s finger-snapping climax, with Wilkes playing Cootie Williams-like plunger tones and the AEC confirming its commitment to all forms of improv from the simplest to the most complex.

The AEC concert was the capper to the GJF’s celebration of the AACM’s 40th anniversary as well as five days of impressive music. The concurrent improvised music colloquium provides an academic cachet lacking in other festivals. Internationalism was represented by Israeli pianist Yitzhak Yedid and the European musicians, while a group of Quebec’s Musique Actuelle heavy hitters such as saxophonist Jean Derome and bassist Pierre Cartier celebrated another concentrated scene in shows throughout the fest.

More pop-oriented performers were presented in the licensed tent in front of city hall, so the casual as well as the committed could sample the music. Furthermore, with workshops, free and open to the public, the uncommitted could discover a showcase like Montreal clarinetist Lori Freedman’s intense solo concert that used the room’s acoustics as well as extended techniques,

Solidly established at 12, with attendance growing, international jazz fans follow the GJF’s progress as it heads into its teen years.

—Ken Waxman