Festival Report

Guelph Jazz Festival
By Ken Waxman

New combination and new conceptions, sporadically sprinkled with touches of exotica, characterized the 20th anniversary edition of the Guelph Jazz Festival (GJF) September 4-8. Affiliated with a contiguous academic Colloquium on improvisation, the GJF, located in a small university city, fewer than 100 kilometres west of Toronto, has from its beginning stretched the definition of “jazz”, while avoiding populist pandering. The approach obviously works well, with the GJF slowly expanding. On Saturday, afternoon and evening free outdoor concerts now take place in front of city hall; the free, dusk-to-dawn Nuit Blanche offers intimates performances in non-traditional downtown spaces. Plus a full schedule of workshops and formal concerts unrolls each day.

Confirming the festival’s long-time international orientation, was the North American debut of Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii’s Kaze quartet, including trumpeter Natsuki Tamura plus two French musicians: drummer Peter Orins and trumpeter Christian Pruvost. Presented in the soft-seated and intimate Co-operators Hall of the River Run Centre concert hall, the performance was a marvel of timing and color, with pauses used as judiciously as kineticism. As often stately as sprightly, Fujii’s keyboard command led by example as she modulated from delicate Chopinesque plinking to an eventual climax that blended a swing base with Cecil Taylor-like dynamic chording. Despite playing the same instrument, the trumpeters avoided sameness, competition or chase choruses. Instead, while crossing and re-crossing each other’s lines, one lifted the program with flowing open-horn tones, while the other extended the rhythmic impetus, by in Tamura’s case,cranking, rattling or whistling noise makers, or in Pruvost’s propelling near-motionless timbres without valve work or turning brass output to slurps by attaching plastic tubing between the mouthpiece and horn’s body tube. Oddly any hints of Orientlaism came from the Lille-based brass man. Smacking the bass drum for emphasis to intensify excitement during the set’s final minutes, Orins animated the performance with judiciously positioned rubs and accents.

An equally inventive percussionist is Chicago’s Hamid Drake. A long-time GJF visitor as is bassist William Parker, the two joined Québécoise pianist Marianne Trudel for a first-time meeting in the same venue. Someone who usually navigates the shoals between notated and improvised music with refined resourcefulness as she demonstrates with her own Trifola trio, Trudel highlighted unanticipated muscularity in her improvisations. As the performance rushed forward, eventually locking as a torrent of rolling thunder, she maintained the pace with stabbing runs, high-pitched key chiming, plus sudden unexpected romantic sequences. Accomplished rhythm partners, Drake’s nearly effortless leaning into the beat fused with Parker’s power plucks to not so much accompany as urge. Eventually the three parallel parts merged into an easily-defined jazzy lope.

Another Québécois who produces inimitable textures is guitarist Bernard Falaise, whose solo program of crunching runs, repetative loops and banshee-screaming string distortions alienated or mesmerized a floor seated audience at the Sukha Yoga Centre. Astringent and oscillating and propelled by an e-bow, violin-bow, foot pedals and preparations, the results at points suggested a jam between Buck Owens and Stockhausen, and fittingly he replicated a rooster`s crow near the end of this 2 AM performance.

In a completely different setting, Falaise was a member of Ensemble SuperMusique, which played one afternoon in the, austere, light-filled Guelph Youth Music Centre. Its roistering and raunchy program included one piece – “Tréfle” (“clover” in English) – composed by the guitarist. Consisting of a dozen stalwarts of the Montreal improv scene – including inventive bass clarinetist Lori Freedman and solidly subtle bassist Nicolas Caloïa who created a challenging quick-witted set of chamber-improv at the yoga centre preceding Falaise –the ensemble interpreted unique music, including leader/saxophonist/vocalist Joane Hétu’s “Pour ne pas désespérer seul”(“Not to Despair Alone”) dedicated to the anti-globalization movement. Paramountly group music, the dynamic parameters of the composition are wide enough to involve most of the players in propelling the aggressive march tempo with encouraging chants from percussionist Danielle Palardy Roger and saxophonist/flautist Jean Derome. Derome’s own “Plate-Forme” is similarly rousing, underlined by song-snatches and crashing metallic friction sourced from David Lafrance’s turntables. Interpolating snatches of so-called ethnic melodies, the piece left space for the composer’s bass flute lowing, exciting string-stopping from fiddler Josh Zubot,distorted rock hero licks from Falaise and a drollop of big band swing featuring trumpeter Nemo Venba.

As carefully orchestrated an undertaking, but with only four participants was the Golden Quartet’s version of trumpeter Wadda Le Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers at the main stage of the River Run Centre concert hall. Smith, pianist Anthiny Davis, bassist John Lindberg and drummer Anthony Brown performed variants of the kaleidoscopic composition with the backdrop a large screen on which are projected stage shots, choppy neo-abstract graphics and images of Civil Rights figures such as Thurgood Marshall and Malcom X. No way programmatic and without announcements, the direction of the tonic and blues-based suite depends on isolated hand signals from Smith. The most economical of soloists, the trumpeter allows the program to flow organically, stepping forward as infrequently to showcase commanding open horn interludes or succinct muted slurs out of Miles Davis as he conducted. Unhurried in solos Brown confirms with clanking intensity his rhythmic command; Lindberg his familiarity with every bass trope while cementing the thick pulse; and Davis, who plays too infrequently in this context, his skill in introducing ragtime, blues and swing suggestions to a pinpointed modern style.

Sadly the other half of this concert hall double bill, Pharoah Sanders and The Underground never achieved the same cohesion. In theory linking venerable tenor saxophonist Sanders who spectacularly introduced then-exotic, mostly Africanized motifs to so-called free jazz in the late ‘60s with the bands of cornetist Rob Mazurek, who has conceived of a similar admixture with improvised music and Brazilian rhythms should have worked. However as he shuffled from the front of the stage to output barely heard trills or shout intonthe bel, of his horn then returned back to his chair beside drummer Chad Taylor’s kit, the saxman appeared out of his element. With the additional textures from electric bassist Matthew Lux plus members of the São Paulo Underground: Guilherme Granado on keyboards and samplers plus Mauricio Takara playing percussion and cavaquinho (mini four-string guitar), a plethora of polyrhythms and undulating textures were audible. Sharp and focused Muzark snapped out brassy tones that were perfectly in context and Taylor’s backbeat and rolls preserved jazz rhythms among the Brazilian blitz. By the final one-third of the concert Sanders did rouse himself enough to launch some honking cries, reminiscent of his earlier uncompromising style, but by then the moment had passed and he ended up looking like a guest at his own (musical) party.

Another musician whose playing was reminiscent of the ecstatic jazz of the ‘60s was New York guitarist Tisziji Muñoz, who played one afternoon at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, backed up by a trio of first-call Toronto jazzers. Maybe the idea was to play somewhat like the classic John Coltrane quartet, with the guitarist in the saxophone’s spot. However there was a disconnect. Ranging from the scared to the syrupy, Muñoz’s conception included folksy echoes that upset the band’s intensity. His playing also mixed close-spaced tremolo note clusters sharing space with passages that sounded like deconstructed pop songs. Perhaps he needed another context. Also problematic was Montreal’s Bometa trio. Carving a space for itself clarinetist Guillaume Bourque, percussionist Patrick Graham and bassist Jean Félix Mailloux create short effervescent tunes that inhabit the space between the Middle Eastern airs and North American jazz. They tunes are pleasant and pleasing, however after a while they all start to sound alike.

Then there’s the Dawn of Midi. Consisting of bassist Aakaash Israni, pianist Amino Belyamani and percussionist Qasim Naqvi, the trio almost literally hypnotized the rapt audience in Co-operators Hall when they played before the Trudel trio. Treating all the instruments as percussion sources, the set-long composition is supposed to reflect their collective Indian, Pakistani and Moroccan cultural roots. With Naqvi,’s backbeat, Israni maintaining an ostinato throughout and Belyamani stopping the strings and hammering on certain keys to produce a juddering rhythm, the effect suggests some Third World trance musics which eventually reveals original textures as they evolve. The intensity did accelerate at points during the performance, with piano key clipping from the pianist and string torque from the bassist. Still the music is 100% through-composed according to the band. It’s inclusion at a jazz festival dedicated to improvised music raises a thorny question.

Considering how well the GJF is adapting to its adulthood, it’s likely this and other questions of focus and content will be resolved as the festival continues to evolve.