Guelph Jazz Festival

Guelph, Ontario
September 9 - 13, 2009

Always populist, the annual Guelph Jazz Festival extended its support of outdoor improvisation plus interaction between Third and First World musicians in its 16th edition, without lessening its commitment to Free Music. Much of the outstanding music-making came from the later however, with American pianist Marilyn Crispell one standout.

Featured in American, European and Canadian group settings, Crispell’s playing was powerful and outer-directed at the River Run Centre concert hall, in a trio with two AACM stalwarts, seemingly ageless tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson and colorful percussionist Hamid Drake, whose rhythmic conception is comfortable in any context. Anderson often quivered or vibrated reflective lines that were paralleled with linear arpeggios or kinetic pedal-pushed frequencies by Crispell. Meantime Drake’s palm or stick movement conveyed all the rhythm. Climax was a version of Muñoz’s “Fatherhood”, built on ecclesiastical chording from the pianist, ruffs and rebounds from Drake and gospel-like preaching from Anderson.

Only one member of the Stone Quartet is European – French bassist Joëlle Léandre. Yet when she and the Yanks – trumpeter Roy Campbell, violist Mat Maneri and Crispell – intersected with limpid, sophisticated and intuitive improvising in the sanctuary of St. George’s church, the outcome related more to Continental sounds than American Free Jazz. Subtly phrasing, Campbell at points appeared to be breathing in notes rather than expelling them. Hand-muting asides were another favorite strategy, clutching a tone until it dissolved. Crispell rumbled or spun out connective chords, decorating the improvisations. Maneri shredded fiddle notes in a deadpan fashion, equally honoring Paganini and Stuff Smith. Léandre sometime bowed with excruciatingly heavy motions as if physically pulling the notes from the bass, and other times sliced, diced and rubbed timbres from the instrument while yodeling in a pseudo-operatic soprano. Adapting to the moment she emphasized her resounding pizzicato pulse.

At the River Run the next night, Crispell was featured in Ottawa bassist John Geggie’s trio with Toronto drummer Nick Fraser. Without perpetuating Canadian stereotypes, Geggie’s compositions – and the affiliated improvisations – were more cerebral and studied than those from American bands. Yet there was enough sense of space and structure to separate them from European conceptions. The bassist confined himself to thumping tone-bonding or resonating picking, leaving theme statements to the pianist’s key patterning and downshifting runs. Fraser’s inventions included irregular clip-clopping and the suggestion of bell-pealing on the Gregorian chant-based “Credo”.

Canada’s other solitude was represented by a rip-snorting performance at St. George’s church hall by Jean Derome et les Dangereux Zhoms + 7. With both extended performances post-modern pastiches, individual talents of the 12 musicians gave the Montreal-based reedist/composer scope to express his heraldic, heroic ideas. As Martin Tétreault’s pressurized turntable drone created a crackling ostinato and Joane Hétu’s moist murmurs, hiccups and yodels verbal commentary, the pieces mixed rock beats from the electrified rhythm section; legato pacing from the violinist and violist; and jazz-inflected jabs from pianist Guillaume Dostaler, gutbucket blows from trombonist Tom Walsh and expressive triplets from trumpeter Gordon Allen.

Equally flamboyant days later at the River Run Centre, was World Saxophone Quartet plays Hendrix Experience. Resplendent in sharp suits, the four reedists – David Murray, Tony Kofi., James Carter and Hamiet Bluiett – were backed by Lee Pearson’s showy drumming and the electric bass of Jamaaladeen Tacuma. Crowd-pleasing when Person played with his sticks behind his back, while balancing another stick on his head, and when Murray or Carter ripped off a series of screaming vamps while body-swaying across the stage, Southern Soul riffs mixed with Free Jazz-extended techniques were more obvious than any direct link to Jimi Hendrix. “Hey Joe” was announced and a snatch of “Fire” heard, but the pumped drum backbeat and finger-popping bass work alluded to Funk not Fusion. Off to one side, Bluiett was most notable when he eschewed baritone sax snorts for a spidery, tremolo clarinet solo.

As self-effacing as others were flamboyant, Léandre’s solo performance Saturday afternoon at the Guelph Youth Music ignored the bass’s percussiveness to concentrate on the instrument’s other qualities. Performing on a bare stage, at one point Léandre drew an imaginary line on the floor with her bow, then proceeded to rub arco timbres from different parts of the bass: its back, belly and bridge, as well as the strings. Clipping and clapping the strings as well as spanking the wood and whisking the bow through the air, she encouraged sounds with body English. Creating distinctive multiphonics, she spiced her improvisations with bel-canto shrieks and onomatopoeia that sibilantly deconstructed the textures of certain phrases.

Solo expression was also the leitmotif later that same afternoon for Acoustic Orienteering, the most grandiose of the festival’s outdoor installations. A “cartographic composition” by Scott Thomson for 15 freely improvising musicians, the 45-minute piece featured performers circumnavigating downtown Guelph as they played. Audience members were given maps so they could follow particular musicians or choose a place to stay and let the players pass them. While acoustics in certain areas aided the expression of Paul Dutton’s sound-singing or the fluttering ripples from Jean Martin’s trumophone, the only provision made for musical interaction seemed to be serendipity. If a listener stayed in one place, it meant that a musician hovered into view, played a coupe of notes then moved on.

Interactivity was on display in profusion at Mitchell Hall later that night, when veteran Ethiopian tenor saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria and dancer Melaku Belay performed with Dutch Punk-Jazz outfit The Ex . Perform is the operative word, since in short pants and Doc Martens, Ex guitarists Andy Moor and Terrie Hessels skittered and slid over the stage as they unleashed feedback torrents and frenzied riffs; trumpeter Arnold De Boer emphasized with spastic movements the lyrics he shouted; while Belay wiggled and shifted with Jell-O-like undulations, sometimes on his feet, yet parallel to the floor, and other times upright, performing choreography half-way between the Moon Walk and the Saint Vitus’ Dance. Drummer Kat Bornefeld pounded away as well as contributing one echoing vocal in Amharic

As for Mekuria, who at one point topped his flowing white robes and Ethiopian flag color sash with an embroidered hat and cape, he moved regally across the stage playing with wide vibrato a decidedly pre-modern style that recalled Swing saxophonists like Ben Webster. Yet his solos fit in with the cacophonous electronic pulse that shuddered almost visually, as well as reed counterpoint that encompassed alto saxophonist Brodie West’s split tones plus clarinetist Xavier Charles’ squeaks and squiggles.

A similar cultural blending had been attempted earlier that night at the River Run Centre never achieved the same reckless exuberance. Toronto’s Woodchoppers Association and two Malian musicians created an interaction whose sum was less than its parts. Seemingly most comfortable singing gentle folk songs, the Malians adopted a simplified World Music style with the Choppers. Wearing matching white outfits the vamping Choppers aimed for the greasy Funk the WSQ would play in lieu of Fusion, but came across as tentative improvisers.

Now a robust teenager, the Guelph Jazz Festival appears intent on exploring new sounds and fusions. With its Free Music orientation solidified, experimenting this way should be a productive path to follow.

— Ken Waxman

— For MusicWorks Issue #106