The Guelph Jazz Festival might be thought of as The Little Festival That Could. Could what? Well, bring high calibre non-mainstream jazz and improvised music to a small university town and make it an important part of the community’s cultural calendar, for one. For ten years now, the festival’s artistic director, Ajay Heble, and his cadre of volunteers have made Guelph, an hour west of Toronto, a good place to be during the week following Labor Day.
This was my fifth visit to the Guelph festival. On my first visit, I was captivated by the charm of the town, the friendliness of the people, and the manner in which the music was presented. None of that has changed over the years, but Heble’s ambitions have grown along with the festival’s budget. This year, the centerpiece of the program was a jazz opera by pianist/composer D.D. Jackson and poet George Elliott Clarke commissioned by Heble. Also on the program were performances by Evan Parker, Steve Lacy, Myra Melford, Mark Dresser, the Willem Breuker Kollektief, and the Peggy Lee Band. As usual, Saturday afternoon featured a number of free concerts in a tent in the city’s downtown shopping area.
The colloquium, which runs from Wednesday to Friday, gives the public a chance to participate in some of the academic discourses around jazz and improvised music. It is a vital component of the festival, and one that sets it apart from other events of its kind. Keynote addresses this year were given by Georgina Born of Cambridge University and Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid.
The music began on Wednesday evening with a performance by Iron Sky, who are Halifax percussionist Jerry Granelli and bass clarinetist Jeff Reilly. Besides a normal trap set, Granelli works with metal sound sculptures designed by Nova Scotia blacksmith John Little. Working with the acoustics of the Macdonald-Stewart Art Centre, Granelli coaxed mid-range overtones out of Little’s creations, while Reilly played against those tones. The duo seemed a bit timid, with the concert not quite living up to the results of their album, Love Slave. Nevertheless, the performance had some touching moments.
Thursday afternoon’s performance by Myra Melford and Canadian violist Tanya Kalmanovitch, also at the MSAC, had flashes of spark, but ultimately faltered due to a certain paucity of ideas, with Kalmanovitch, who shares a fascination for Indian music with Melford, clearly out of her league. Too often, the improvisations ended up revolving around what sounded like Broadway show themes.
Evan Parker’s solo performance in the sanctuary of St. George’s Anglican Church on Thursday evening was an undisputed highlight of the festival. Working with the acoustic properties of the deep nave and high ceiling, Parker, especially on soprano saxophone, piled overtones one on top of another in an arresting display of control. While Parker’s soprano playing might have seemed a little cold to some, the gorgeous tone of his tenor contained worlds of emotion. This was the first time I had seen Parker solo — unforgettable.
The Willem Breuker Kollektief was, alas, just as I remembered them from my previous two experiences: tight, precise, and too much shtick. The only thing that kept them away from excesses such as the dog act was the size of the stage. Not my cup of tea, and, I suspect, it never will be.
Raw Materials, the duo of pianist Vijay Ayer and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, were in synch right from the beginning of their Friday noon concert at Macdonald-Stewart. Working in tight unison much of the time, Maranthappa’s keening sound was balanced by Iyer’s darker-hued tonalities. This was the second time in two months that I was fortunate enough to see them. (I had seen them at the Montreal jazz festival in late June.) If anything, the second performance was even more satisfying both artistically and emotionally than the first.
The trio of Evan Parker, Sarah Peebles (electronics), and Nilan Perera (guitar) on Friday afternoon at the MSAC were a bit hit-and-miss, though Parker and Perera found much common ground in exploring microtonal possibilities, with Peebles having a bit of trouble finding a groove that jived with the other two.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Kalaparush and the Light, who performed at the Guelph Youth Music Centre in a late afternoon performance on Friday. The trio — Kalaparush Maurice McIntyre (tenor), Jesse Dulman (tuba), and Ravish Momin (drums) — are apparently a street band. (From what I gathered, they have all spent a fair bit of time playing on the streets of New York City.) As the performance went along, the cohesion improved, with McIntyre and Dulman picking up on each other’s melodic ideas, but unfortunately, the three often sounded as though they were playing on three different street corners.
Friday evening was taken up by the premiere of Quebecité, the afore-mentioned collaboration by D.D. Jackson and George Elliott Clarke commissioned by the festival. Billed as a jazz opera, the piece, an interracial love story that dealt with the dynamics of marginalized voices in a multicultural context, did for the most part adhere to the dictates of both forms. The music, played by a promising quintet of Jackson, John Geggie (bass), Jean Martin (drums) and Peggy Lee (cello) was definitely jazz, most of it fairly hard-driving at that. And the singers — Dean Bowman, Yoon Choi, Haydain Neale, and Kiran Ahluwalia — were operatic, in that they sang all of their lines. Unfortunately, the singers were buried much of the time in the sound mix, and technical snafus had their microphones cutting in and out. As a result, much of the message in the libretto was lost; the audience got little more than a broad-brush exploration of the libretto’s themes.
Steve Lacy’s solo set at the Guelph Youth Music Centre on Saturday morning was an affecting performance with intimations of mortality. Lacy alternated his own compositions with those of Thelonious Monk. He also employed a piano as a not-quite-silent partner, with a block depressing the sustain pedal, which produced subtle overtones as the air from Lacy’s soprano hit the strings. For most of the performance, Lacy stood at the front of the stage, but on one piece, Lacy placed the block so that it held the sustain pedal all the way down and then played into the body of the piano. I’m not a fan of encores, but Lacy’s version of “Crepuscule With Nellie” made me glad I hadn’t followed my usual practice of leaving the room before the encore.
Most of Saturday afternoon was taken up by a double concert, again at the Guelph Youth Music Centre. First up were the Peggy Lee Band, a sextet led by cellist Lee, playing her compositions that evoked those of Robin Holcomb and Bill Frisell’s neo-Americana. Particularly strong among the soloists were trumpeter Brad Turner and guitarist Tony Wilson.
Mark Dresser’s trio with pianist Denman Maroney and flautist Matthias Ziegler comprised the second half of the double bill. The music was paradoxically spare yet intricate at the same time, equally concerned with tonal and thematic development. An added bonus was the inclusion of three short films for which the group provided the live soundtrack in the second half of the concert.
Saturday evening at Chalmers United Church saw the final double concert of the festival. The trio of Myra Melford, Mark Taylor (French horn), and Bourque Simmons (soprano voice) was more precious and pretentious than penetrating. However, the quartet of Steve Lacy, George Lewis, Jean-Jacques Avenel and John Betsch gave a fully-realized performance. Drummer Betsch and (especially) bassist Avenel were astoundingly inventive in their roles, while Lewis (on trombone) and Lacy were very subtle in their exploration of melody. The quartet played a mix of older Lacy pieces such as “The Bath” and “The Rent” as well as compositions from the recent Beat Suite Quintet recording inspired by the writings of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, and a new, unfinished piece titled “Baghdad.” In the absence of Irene Aebi, who was home battling a throat infection, Lacy read the beat poetry between the musical pieces, an approach that took nothing away from either the poetry or the music.
A tribute to writer Paul Haines, which took place on Sunday morning, was the final performance I attended. (A seven-hour drive precluded my seeing the duo of Martin Tetreault and percussionist Jesse Stewart that evening.) Coda editor Stuart Broomer, making a return to performance after approximately two decades, hosted the tribute, reminiscing about Haines, who died earlier this year, reading some of his work, and singing a Haines poem while accompanying himself on guitar. Guelph-based percussionist Jesse Stewart told a funny Haines story about Tony Oxley’s stool and did a short solo piece. He was followed by baritone saxophonist David Mott and pianist Michael Snow, who both spoke little and played much. Then, Evan Parker, who enjoyed a thirty-year friendship with Haines, spoke emotionally of their friendship before presenting his own solo improvisation. Finally, the five musicians did a “free for Paul,” as Broomer put it. All five listened, and all five contributed mightily in a collective effort that Haines would most probably have greatly appreciated.
This last performance stands for some of the best values that the festival represents — caring, community, and adventurous music-making. It’s for those reasons that I continue to go back to Guelph every September. If you haven’t been, you must do yourself the favor sometime.