Variations on a Theme

Guelph Jazz Festival Musicians On Their Own
Extended Play

Barry Guy/Mats Gustafsson/Raymond Strid

Tarfala

Maya MCD0801

Junk Box

Cloudy Then Sunny

Libra Records 203-019

John Zorn

News For Lulu

hatOLOGY 650

Matana Roberts

The Chicago Project

Central Control CC1006PR

Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet

Tabligh

Cuneiform Rune 270

AMMÜ Quartet

AMMÜ Quartet

PAO 50030

Healthy in its adolescence, the Guelph Jazz Festival (GJF) has become Ontario’s pre-eminent festival for improvised music. Now in its 15th year, the GJF presents improvisers in concerts, workshop and symposia. An appealing factor for listeners is that GJF concerts highlight only one of the versatile musicians’ many activities. Recent CDs capture other aspects.

Take British bassist Barry Guy, at Guelph with violinist Maya Homburger and bass clarinetist Jeff Reilly. Except for Guy’s string prestidigitation, that chamber-improv is nearly the opposite of the go-for-broke Energy Music on Barry Guy/Mats Gustafsson/Raymond Strid, Tarfala Maya MCD0801. Two high-octane Swedish players, saxophonist Gustafsson and percussionist Raymond Strid complete the band.

Spewing accentuated timbres, Gustafsson’s cries and snorts demand muscular retorts from the bassist. On the title track Guy uses guitar-like arpeggios to match the saxophonist’s echoing split tones, wrapping the friction of individual string pressure into a contrapuntal response. Strid’s rim shots and rattling snares provide the rhythmic glue. Eventually Guy’s harsh twanging plus abrasive sawing at strings near the scroll move the saxophonist’s smears, flattement and flutter-tonguing into contrapuntal counterpoint.

Chromatic bass thumps and conga-like pops from the percussionist push Gustaffson’s extended glossolalia from discursive to convergent on “Icefall”. Guy’s ostinato underpinning and Strid’s pats and pumps neutralize Gustafsson’s honks and tongue slaps into a diminuendo conclusion.

Resolving the clash between rough and gentle voicing, staccato and legato pitches also characterize Junk Box’s Cloudy Then Sunny Libra Records 203-019. Two members of the trio, Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura play the GJF. A composer-arranger, Fujii explores new territory on this CD, using graphic notation to spur the improvisations. Junk Box’s third member is American drummer John Hollenbeck, capable of rhythmic interaction ranging from rattles and pumps from tam-tams and marimba to full military press rolls and bass drum thwacks.

On “One Equation”, Tamura uses split tones and triplets to create a call-and-response section all by himself, as Fujii plays the tremolo melody in tandem. “Opera by Rats” emphasizes piano pedal action as the theme shifts from Bop to Stride, while the trumpet brays and Hollenbeck snaps cymbals and pops snares. This popping serves as a coda to “Back and Forth”, which also describes the trio’s tonal connection. Tamura’s timbre is French horn-like as he echoes Fujii’s phrases, and the track concludes with cascading piano chords draping themselves over the others’ note clusters.

There a similar interchange among alto saxophonist John Zorn, trombonist George Lewis and guitarist Bill Frisell on News For Lulu hatOLOGY 650. This 1987 reissue is different, yet somewhat similar to the three sets of Radical Jewish Culture Zorn is presenting at GJF this year. Rather then re-interpreting and re-conceptualizing Jewish melodies, Lulu does the same for Hard-Bop classics. Yet as devotional or freylach-like ditties are transformed with percussion, electronics and electric guitars by Zorn at GJF, this CD performs a similar conversion as raucous blowing vehicles become recital-ready.

Both the guitarist and trombonist – who have performed at Guelph – are responsive enough to keep things moving, despite the lack of a rhythm section. Surprisingly, it’s often Lewis’ gutbucket braying which holds the pieces together from the bottom. “Venita’s Dance”, has the trombonist comping as the guitarist loops licks that turn to single-note filigree. Later Zorn steadily peeps and Lewis chromatically exposes the head. “Funk in Deep Freeze” isn’t funky, but instead finds Frisell distorting country-styled licks, Lewis roughening his tone and Zorn’s alto texture slinky and airy.

“Sonny’s Crib” plays up gospel inflections with the two horns passing on the theme like relay runners. Zorn double times, Lewis plays rubato variations and Frisell picks out blues tonality until the introduction is recapped by the altoist. “Melody for C” with conclusive organ-like reverb from Frisell, provides an opportunity for three-part harmony, with the trio’s improvisations divided into fuzzy multiphonics.

Matana Roberts also twists the jazz tradition, but less radically. The alto saxophonist, who brings her Coin Coin Continuum to the GJF, celebrates her own home town on The Chicago Project Central Control CC1006PR. Other Chicagoans contribute: drummer Frank Rosaly, bassist Josh Abrams, guitarist Jeff Parker – whose band Tortoise is at Guelph this year – and veteran tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson. In 2002 Anderson, played an incendiary GJF set with Kidd Jordan. Saxophonist Jordan (see Whole Note Vol. 13 #9) plays Guelph again this year.

In the same league as the Jordan-Anderson meeting, Roberts a capella duet with Anderson features swirling staccato lines intersecting contrapuntally – finally reaching rapprochement. On “Nomra”, she and Parker prove that free improvising can be low-key and supple, highlighting resonating guitar licks and tasteful saxophone arpeggios. Tunes are tougher elsewhere. “Exchange”, built on a walking bass line and the drummer’s repeated flams showcases Parker’s distorted flanges and bottleneck-sharp runs that contrast with Roberts’ fruity tone and slide-slipping vibrato. “Thrills” is a POMO blues with the saxophonist rooster-crowing and double-tonguing, Parker snapping delayed echo and Rosaly smacking the backbeat.

Pianist Vijay Iyer produced The Chicago Project and he’s at GJF 2008 with DJ Spooky. But it’s electric piano and synthesizer he brings to trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet CD Tabligh Cuneiform Rune 270. Drummer Shannon Jackson and bassist John Lindberg are equally “Golden”.

Atmospherically referencing Fusion, but with simplistic beats leeched out, the disc’s color comes from Iyer’s Fender Rhodes pulsations. Strumming cadenzas backed with swaggering synthesizer drones, Iyer lets Jackson’s solid ruffs and Lindberg’s four-square rhythm anchor the compositions. On top of this ever-shifting bottom, Smith arches long-lined slurs and unhurried grace notes. Replicating a bugler’s tattoo, on “Rosa Parks”, or a bellicose call-to-arms on “DeJohnette”, the trumpet’s lines encompass high-pitched brassy trills and sputtering Bronx cheers. Extended essays in improvisations, Tabligh’s tunes bond fragmented brass slurs, cross-handed rim shots, kinetic piano cadences and string scratches into throbbing instant compositions.

Instant composition describes the music of Holland’s Instant Composers Pool (ICP), in residence at the GJF this year. But the creative ferment generated by the band is equally expressed when ICP band members work in smaller groupings. One is AMMÜ Quartet’s AMMÜ Quartet PAO 50030. Raucous drummer Han Bennink – with the band for 35 years – and unflappable violinist Mary Oliver – a 10-year ICP veteran – join forces with Munich-based cellist Johanna Varner and trombonist Christopher Varner. The Varners produce the sort of timbres Oliver and Bennink hear in the ICP from trombonist Wolter Wierbos and cellist Tristan Honsinger.

Never one to play presto when he can play staccatissimo, or pianissimo when fortissimo can be sounded, Bennink continually clinks, clanks, bangs, whacks and thwacks. So it’s instructive to hear his duets with the trombonist. Varner ejaculates speedy, emphasized brays, moving from vocalized syllables to tongue stops and alp-horn-like flutters. Amazingly this results in textures that fit hand-in-glove – or mute-in-bell –with the drummer’s bomb-dropping bangs and cymbal crashes. On their duet Oliver squeaks and spatters sul ponticello as the cellist responds with strums and shuffle bowing.

This comfortable creativity amplifies when the four play together. On “Improvisation II”, the trombone’s contrapuntal buzzes and the violin’s spiccato runs chase one another as the cellist double-stops and Bennink jabs and rebounds. As the strings distort into double counterpoint, the trombonist puts aside distended subterranean timbres for dog-whistle shrilling. Other times the drummer’s kettle-drum-like resonation faces legato coloration from the cello; alternately, wide, chromatic notes from the trombonist complement string-stropping from Oliver. Stop-time and polytonality characterize “Ammü”, although pitch clusters from the strings and horn can’t overcome Bennink’s frenetic time-keeping.

GJF audiences, exhilarated by what they hear live can be equally impressed by these CDs.

— Ken Waxman

— For Whole Note Vol. 14 #2