Festival Report

The Guelph Jazz Festival
By Ken Waxman

A spectre was haunting the 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival (GJF), but it was a benign spectre: the ghost of John Coltrane. The influence of Coltrane, who died in 1967, was honored in direct and indirect ways throughout the five days of the festival which takes places annually in this mid-sized college town, 100 kilometres west of Toronto.

This year’s edition (September 5 to 9), featured two live performances of Ascension, Coltrane’s free jazz masterwork from 1965, one with the original instrumentation by an 11-piece Toronto ensemble at the local arts centre; the other on the main stage of the soft-seated River Run Centre concert hall featured the Bay-area ROVA saxophone’s quartet reimaging of the work, scored for 12 musicians adding strings and electronics to the basic ensemble.

Coltrane’s legacy was also apparent in the improvising of Reggie Workman, bassist in one version of Trane`s quartet, with the Brew trio with kotoist Miya Masaoka and percussionist Gerry Hemingway, as well as in the impassioned playing of alto saxophonist Darius Jones, whose duo with pianist Matthew Shipp split the bill with Brew during an afternoon concert in the River Run`s smaller concert hall. Coltrane’s commend of the saxophone was not only recalled in the wide ranging work of many other reedists present, including a trio of saxophonists in the jazz-jive-R&B Shuffle Demons band, one of the high points of the GJF’s 12 hours of free outdoor concerts in a large tent in front of Guelph City Hall, but in a more profound fashion by the incisive tenor soloing by Peter Brötzmann and Larry Ochs. Those two gigs were part of the more than six dozen other performances during the GJF’s third annual dusk-to-dawn Nuit Blanche extravaganza. The ghostly forms visible during Nuit Blanche, were those of festival goers moving at interval s among sites throughout the city ranging from art galleries, yoga studios to parks attending as many shows as possible.

True to the shape of the composition, Rova’s Electric Ascension – cornetist Rob Mazurek; saxophonists Larry Ochs, Jon Raskin, Steve Adams and Bruce Ackley; violinists Carla Kihlstedt and Jenny Scheinman; guitarist Nels Cline; Fred Frith on electric bass; drummers Hamid Drake; Ikue Mori and Chris Brown on electronics – used prompts and hand signals to pilot Trane’s amorphous score. With Drake’s backbeat plus Brown’s and Mori’s processed oscillations and juddering vibrations constant presences, the performance frequently was transported from dense tremolo crescendos for all, to measured solos, duos and trios. An impassioned, double-time alto solo for instance would be paired with opaque guitar distortion and sluicing electric bass runs; or a phrase would toggle between Mazurek’s looped triplets and Raskin’s stretched tongue stops; or unison guitar and violin plinking would presage a cacophonous sound-shard explosion

Frith’s characteristically witty guitar playing was better exposed during a Nuit Blanche show at the intimate Guelph Youth Music Centre (GYMC). Instrument resting on his knees, bare feet manipulating effects pedals, Frith pummeled and bowed his strings more often than he strummed them; showed drum stick between strings and the neck and used an e-bow to create chiming vibrating while picking up snatches of local radio programs. Although processing as well, Masaoka was similarly restrained at the Brew set, relying instead on her koto command able to replicate anything from harp-like glissandi to isolated guitar picking on her multi-string instrument; she even used chop sticks on the bridge for different effects. Committed to three-way dialogue, Hemingway smacked, rotated, patted and tapped his drums and cymbals. Meanwhile Workman maintained pulsating, jazz-defining bass lines when he wasn’t rubbing his strings or bowing and stroking them in one fluid motion. At one point he achieved a rhythmic effect knee-slapping and foot-banging.

Rhythmic beats were present in abundance during a well-attended church-basement set by Norway’s Huntsville – guitarist/banjoist Ivar Grydeland, electric bassist Tonny Kluften and percussionist Ingar Zach – joined by Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche. Although there were sequences during which Kluften’s pedal point joined Grydeland, jangling guitar runs or bowed banjo twangs plus Zach’s contrapuntal tap, wiggle and pops on miscellaneous percussion gave new impetus to the buoyant folk-like melodies the trio uniquely reconstruction. Cline and Kotche may have spent too much time in rock bands. Flashy and busy in the guitarist’s case or overwhelming percussive in the drummer’s, the two exacerbated a tendency to leadenness only lessened when Kotche withdrew for Zach’s beat manipulation and Cline concentrated on vibrating a shruti box.

Simple, folk-like melodies were also prominent during a morning recital at the (GYMC) by Scheinman and pianist Myra Melford. Melford frequently also squeezed accordion-like tremolos from a harmonium as Scheinman used glissandi friction and flying spiccatto to build up dramatic sequences from what sometime threatened to turn into a hoedown. But the detours away from fiddle tunes with accompaniment towards compositions that allowed the pianist to exhibit spiky intonation and a slippery blues time sense were more notable. Melford’s 12-bar command also appeared 24 hours later in the same location as her encore following a rapturously received solo piano showcased was a pumped-up version of honky-tonk. Her skill digging into blues chord progressions was as obvious as her playing of a series of emotional miniatures she previewed, composed to reflect a series of artist’s sketches. Using assertive elbow pushes on the keyboard plus jocular stops and variously weighted climaxes, she composed a series of interludes that threatened to fragment into dissonance but never did.

Another pianist skillful in exhibiting the broad strokes of dissonance is Shipp. His recourse to glistening arpeggio runs, processional chording, kinetic patterning and waves of impressionistic color was notable in itself. Evolving in parallel fashion to Jones’ reed invention was another highlight. With his all-encompassing and fluid blowing approaching the intensity of late Coltrane, Jones often compressed distended cries and altissimo screams into aggressive almost impenetrable glossolalia; elsewhere he built solos out of key percussion, distended slurps and reed bites or churned so many splintered runs that Shipp relied on foot pedal pressure to meet him.

Ochs and Brötzmann were two other extenders of Trane’s spirit, the former in a duo with Drake in a yoga studio and the latter with vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz at the (GYMC). Weaving his tenor or soprano saxophone above the packed crowd seated on the floor, Ochs mixed moderato and agitated tones as he slid from harsh reflux to shofar-like bays, swallowed breaths, vocalized altissimo riffs or nephritic cries. Connecting these disjointed vibrations, Drake used windmill-like patterning as he rapped on a wood block, strokes drum tops and cymbals with brushes and gauged exactly when to clobber his bass drum for maximum effect. If Ochs/Drake recalled Trane’s celebrated duets with Rashied Ali, then Brötzmann, who created an unparalleled Euroimprov variant around the time Ascension was recorded, boisterously pushed each one of its four horns to its limits backed only by an instrument he professed to dislike. Favoring four mallets, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz held his own however emphasizing his instrument’s chordal and percussive qualities. With marionette-like jerks, sometime balancing on one foot, the vibist rang out enough polyphonic chords or hard-hitting single notes to match Brötzmann, whether he was producing blues-based multiphonics from his alto, angled smears from his tárogató or stacking intense blasts ridden with even tougher split-tone shrieks from his tenor.

Like Coltrane or nearly every one of the featured performers at the 2012 festival, Brötzmann balanced absolute sound experimentation with sonic story telling. His breath-taking textural display helped pinpoint why the GJF has become a major international festival. Participants are now anxiously awaiting 2013’s edition to find out what the GJF’s significant 20th anniversary edition will highlight.

—For New York City Jazz Record October 2012