Guelph Jazz Festival Guelph ON - September 6 to 10, 2006

The Guelph Jazz Festival is known for its ambitious, avant-garde oriented programming. Suitably enough, the first evening was as far as you could get from the jazz mainstream; Bob Ostertag and Pierre Hébert’s multimedia performance featured flak-strewn audio and eye-popping collages of Middle East news footage and videogame shootouts. Other concerts pushed across cultural boundaries in pursuit of new musical forms: the dissonantly re-imagined folk songs of Russian accordionist/singer Evelyn Petrova or the alternately hard-rocking, heart-stoppingly beautiful duets of guzheng player Xu Fengxia and bassist Joe Fonda. Two of this year’s best concerts, though, worked squarely (if subversively) within the jazz tradition. Dutch 13-piece band Bik Bent Braam moved comfortably from Ellingtonia to barrelhouse piano to lounge music to angular modernism. Their use of Braxton-ian collage techniques upended traditional big band arranging and made the next night’s chart-heavy performance by the Hard Rubber Orchestra sound all the more conventional. Even finer was the whirlwind trio of pianist Paul Plimley, bassist Tommy Babin and drummer Hamid Drake, which offered quick change grooves, wheels-within-wheels dialogue and an impromptu spin through "Third Stone from the Sun.” This year’s most unexpected program inclusion was a first-time duo between trumpeter Bill Dixon, a founding member of 1960s jazz avant-garde, and French bassist Joëlle Léandre. Dixon’s last visit to Canada was decidedly messy — a debacle at the 2002 Victoriaville festival — but he was in a sunnier mood this time; his performance, though, wasn’t much better, a directionless stream of amplified "pffts” and "poots” that gave Léandre little to work with. (Her abilities were showcased more effectively in a later duet with Drake.) Equally disappointing was a concert by Steve Coleman, a monotonous tickertape of beats that straitjacketed his band (a new edition of the Five Elements) and sent audience members streaming towards the exits. Other festival highlights included a performance of John Zorn’s latest Masada material by violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier (Messiaen goes klezmer!), a blistering set by the FAB Trio, the enigmatic piano/drums duo of Gyorgy Szabados and Vladimir Tarasov, Lê Quan Ninh’s hypnotic solo percussion set, Robert Marcel Lepage’s Pee Wee Russell tribute and the São Paulo Underground’s auditorium shaking mash-ups of electronica, rock and Brazilian music. All told, this year’s festival was notable for its consistently high quality, which was marred by only a few blips and graced by a good half-dozen concerts that were out of this world.