Guelph Jazz Festival Guelph ON September 3 to 7

The diverse and ambitious programming at this year’s festival produced some challenging and invigorating performances for fans, not only of the improvised idiom but of music in general. The festival also provided some interesting questions as to the diverse fields of instrumental "art" music that exist separately from the more sedentary institutions of repertory jazz and western classical music. Not the least of which is the ratio of improvisation to composition in the different ensembles that performed this year.

The content could be roughly divided into the math/electronica/post-rock, the jazz approach of composed and improvised and the spontaneous composition of free improvisation.

The fully arranged and realized approaches of John Farah, Fond of Tigers and Tortoise contrasted with the fee improv of Rene Lussier, and Kevin Breit and the Kidd Jordan Quartet, and moving somewhere in the middle was a wide range of approaches by everybody from the jazz inflected ICP Orchestra to the Middle Eastern/South Asian fusion of Sangha to the conducted funk of Burnt Sugar.

The result provided the audience with not only a sampling of many approaches but a curious insight into the directions of contemporary music combined with the demographic shifts that accompany these developments: the younger audiences gravitating to the more composed approaches and the mixed to older audiences populating the more improvised sessions. The issue of sound also entered into the equation with the sonic themes of amplification and non-amplified approaches creating similar demographic spaces.

What follows is an entirely subjective "colour commentary" on what went down of what I managed to catch.

Wednesday, September 3

Vijay Iyer and DJ Spooky
What stared out as promising, ended up as a yawn. Spooky’s drum scratch/sampling was interesting as long as you kept your eyes open to realize that it was scratching and not live musicians - if you didn’t, then it sounded like jazz drummers. There were some interesting cymbal sampling off the top but nothing notable sonically. Vijay Iyer is a smokin’ pianist but he did not manage to cross over into the realm of electronica further than playing a Rhodes and maybe messing with a couple of patches. The best sections were pieces that both did individually, which pointed out even more how much the pairing did not jell.

Thursday, September 4

Matana Roberts: Coin Coin
The Coin Coin project is a musical exponent of Roberts’ research INTO and personal integration of her family history. Through song, solo saxophone and video presentation, she weaves an oral history of sorts that reach back through a story that resonates with the listener through the African American experience that informs most if not all American culture. Her performance centered mainly on a solo sax exploration that left the temptation to virtuosity aside in favour of a clear narrative line. She basically sang songs on the horn instead of showcasing an obvious technical ability. It was a totally absorbing and a unique experience that provided one of the highlights of the festival. One hopes that next year, she may be able to get a mainstage gig with her full band.

Rouge Ciel
The Quebecois love affair with prog has a lot to answer for but Rouge Ciel managed to make a case for celebrating it still. This young ensemble started our predictably in that vein but managed, by the second piece, to math out to the point that one had to stand in awe of their spirit, intensity and musicality.

Rene Lussier and Kevin Breit
Well, if ever there was a mismatch in programming, this was it. Both guitarists are amazing musicians in their own right but to match up a Musique Actuelle icon like Lussier with a beautiful but conceptually limited player like Breit was was setting up a study in non–communication and aesthetic and conceptual differences.

Kidd Jordan Quartet
Kidd Jordan brought the spirit of old–time late Coltrane trance to the festival and we’re so glad that he did. Full-throated tenor playing set off by master drummer Alvin Fielder’s ESP–like phrases wove around the harmonic fields sketched and later filled in by pianist, and occasional soprano saxist Joel Futterman. All the while, bassist Buddy Mohmed strung it together from the bottom of his bass like a Gnawa ghembri. Beautiful.

John Kameel Farah
The evening's last concert started with a set by Toronto-based Farah negotiating a complex web of beats and samples with grand piano and fender Rhodes. Farah’s sonic world spanned forms and generations in a seamless balance.

Kid Koala
When you can drop killer beats, shout out to musique concrete and improvise with seriousness and goofiness with the mastery that Kid Koala employs, you figure that could see it all and be a bit jaded when you’ve seen more than one show. Nope. Koala just ties it all up with a DJ’s skill in working a dance floor, jaw dropping techniques on the ones and twos (and threes) and an aesthetic that ranges from the abstract to the hilarious. An amazing gig.

Friday, September 5

Satoko Fujii Ma-Do
It was a treat to see Fujii show up with her own ensemble this year as her last visit, matching her and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura with the bass and drums explosion of Mark Dresser and Jim Black, seemed slightly off-kilter. The quartet’s smooth and skilled delivery set of her diverse compositions in an integrated flow. The ECM sound came quickly to mind in both sound and sophistication. Norikatsu Koreyashu’s bass soloing was an exercise in creating space and meditation in a whirl of activity.

The Instant Composer’s Pool (ICP) Orchestra
The ICP always guarantee a good time: this should be front and centre with any publicity handout. In a very strange way the ambience this ensemble create is so unique that it is hard to imagine that they’d have any trouble transforming any gig into their own planet. The set started with one of the most magical cinematic pre-show moments I have ever witnessed: the lights were a dim blue and you could see the slouched figure of pianist Mischa Mengelberg with one arm resting on the piano and his other hand dropping small clusters of notes as the rest of the band wandered ghost – like on stage.
Unfortunately, through no fault of her own, the announcer dispelled this dream and placed us firmly in the concert world. If this was allowed to continue, the experience of this beginning folding into the articulate, swinging warmth of the ICP would’ve have truly been the stuff of dreams.
Han Bennink was not his usual frenetic self but swung happily throughout as the band sectioned like Ellington with a shot of Sun Ra and blew solo after solo of inspired music. Trios, solos and quartets shared the stage with the full band playing improvisations and compositions with consummate skill: Monk danced happily with Weil and Ayler and a good time was had by all.

Saturday, September 6

Sangha means "community" in Sanskrit and this ensemble’s work in fusing Middle Eastern and North Indian traditions speaks volumes for the possibility of community for us all. The simple fusing of these elements is no formula for success as it is the willingness and generosity of musicians schooled in traditional ways to join and create in the community of sound and improvisation that makes the music. Sangha is an example of such success: a beautiful concert ibued with good feeling and great playing.
Barry Guy, Maya Homburger and Jeff Reilly
This concert basically tore the roof off. A combination of complex compositional strategies and virtuostic improvising was present in every moment. Barry Guy blazed through three solo "frizzles" as he calls them, in a blur of technique that left one doubting their eyes and ears as to the number of bassists actually in the room. Halifax bass clarinetist Jeff Reilly blew some of the most magical and subtle sounds out of his horn as Maya Homburger’s violin stretched and bound like sinews through both challenging compositions and fierce improv sections.

Burnt Sugar: The Arkestra Chamber
The jazz tent at the Guelph Festival is the place where you see the sleeper gigs and rightly so as they are set up for the public to check out free-of-charge. The massed funk/trance throw downs of Burnt Sugar was no exception to this. Bandleader Creg Tate took this large electric collective through a Butch Morris conducted tour of what it means to be shaking the booty while singing the mind. What?
Well the experience is something like chanting mantras: repetition and conducted modulation and interjections all combining in a pretty much uninterrupted flow. It’s a centuries-old practice that still informs the dance floors of today if you have the skills of a master DJ or in this case a killer band with a sophisticated concept in play.

What can you say? These guys invented post-rock and their performance basically outlined the hows and whys of what they did. They rocked through music with ease and commitment, enjoying every minute as video projections vibed congruence in the backround. Curiously enough, what occasionally glimmered was the ghost of Frank Zappa in some of their melodies, which gave an odd lustre to their cinematic vision of suburban America.

Oh yes… there was a parade. Ten-foot tall puppets and a Cuban beat that snaked its way joyfully through downtown Guelph, jamming up the traffic and drawing smiles and dancing wherever they went, as all such celebrations should. This was ostensibly led by stalwarts Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer, but the stars were everyone that was there. As it should be… check out YouTube for this one.

Sunday, September 7

Sunday was "John Zorn Day" and if anyone had any doubts as to Zorn’s ability as a convener, conspirator and instigator, those doubts were easily dispelled. The day started at 2:00 p.m. with a concert of improvisations of short duos trios, quartets of Zorn and a crack NYC band featuring Cyro Baptista, Joey Baron, Trevor Dunn, Ikue Mori, Marc Ribot, Jamie Saft and Kenny Wolleson. It’s pretty much impossible to pick favourites from these miniatures, though the duo of Zorn and Ribot shone, as well as anything with Jamie Saft in it.
The evening show began with the Dreamers, which is basically a band projecting cinematic Midwest Americana through the lens of Cali, spaghetti westerns and NYC klezmer. Zorn’s conducting was deceptively simple as the subtleties shifted this music like turning in sleep: significant but barely noticed. The music had odd resonances in theme with Tortoise and relied on more traditional solo structures as opposed to obvious group improv sections, but it was a lesson in who more than what.
The concert was brilliant and exhilarating, not so much for the compositions and conduction, as good as they were, but the sheer virtuosity and fire brought to bear on these compositions by such an awesome collection of musical talent.
A fire all the more noticeable for the restraint that Zorn brought to bear by his tight control over the proceedings. They could have easily burned over the top but Zorn kept all of it in the service of the compositions and that really made their ensemble talent shine all the more brightly.
The subsequent concert of Masada was no different except for the volume level (rockin’) and the shift in compositional themes and modes. Both were played to the hilt and one left a little more aware of the genius of great bandleading and aesthetic sensibility.
Zorn occupies the same space as Warhol did in this regard and music is better for it.