09/17/11

Guelph Jazz Festival & Colloquium

Various Venues; Guelph, Ontario, Canada; Sept. 7-10, 2011

The great Henry Threadgill is plainly one of jazz’s worthiest possessors of the proverbial deserving-greater-recognition badge of honor. Some of us scratch our heads, wondering how he has so long eluded the well-deserved MacArthur “genius” grant, given Threadgill’s long-labored-over and wholly unique musical language, melding improvisation with classical and folk forms and creating new systems for how harmony and rhythm can be constructed.

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Henry Threadgill at Guelph Jazz Festival 2011
By Tom King
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Henry Threadgill and Jose Davila at Guelph Jazz Festival 2011
By Tom King

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Considering his situation as a fringe icon, it is always satisfying to find Threadgill getting some proper respect and presentation, which occurred recently at the 18th annual Guelph Jazz Festival and Colloquium, in Ontario, Canada. There, on a recent Saturday night in the ample and handsomely acquitted theater space of the town’s River Run Centre, was Threadgill’s band Zooid, maneuvering beautifully and challengingly through a handful of the leader-composer’s intricate scores.

Threadgill boasts some adept allies in Zooid: guitarist Liberty Ellman, bassist Stomu Takeishi, drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee and tuba/trombone man Jose Davila. As heard in Guelph and on the recent two volumes of this brings us to (Pi), the music is serious in tone and tonality but also shot through with vibrant rhythmic currents and a special brand of life-affirming intellectuality. Some soulful slink livens up the headier aspects of Threadgill’s music, in a way unlike any other sounds of the day.

Though still not as well-known as it should be, this festival—held in the lovely riverside university town of Guelph, an hour’s drive west of Toronto—is one of the most important forums for the adventurous-jazz cause in all of North America. Threadgill was introduced as someone who was “a longtime entry on the Guelph Jazz Festival wish list,” and sure enough, he made a perfect fit for this gathering, given his contemporary art-music ideals and his early links to the AACM, which the festival has toasted in the past. (Among the highlighted past artists: the Art Ensemble of Chicago, when all but Lester Bowie were still involved; Wadada Leo Smith; and last year’s stunning trio of George Lewis, Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell.)

On the afternoon prior to the concert, as part of a public interview in the on-campus “Colloquium” section of the event, Threadgill spoke of being steered toward his individual voice by hearing Charlie Parker as a kid, meeting Sun Ra as an impressionable teenager, and having an epiphany upon hearing Ornette Coleman’s Change of the Century. But he also spoke of Stravinsky and Scott Joplin’s famous/infamous opera Treemonisha and its explorations ahead of Schoenberg. Suffice it to say, trace elements of all the above artists can be found in the genetics of Threadgill’s music.

Regrettably, the recent Threadgill concert opened with a bizarrely misbooked act, the Hypnotic Brass Band. There’s nothing wrong with the clean-burning and fun-machined sound made by this band, consisting of sons of Sun Ra alumnus Phil Cohran, but the group’s musical conservatism and lack of improvisation made many wonder about the programmatic fit. It would have better suited the party-centric programming of the Wyndham Street Jazz Tent downtown, a general-public haven safe from the brainier, more art-minded fare of the ticketed program.

This festival’s m.o. could be reaffirmed with a selective sojourn through the all-night “Nuit Blanche” series. For this well-intentioned but sleep-deprived festivaler, that meant roving from the bold Toronto-based Penderecki String Quartet’s modern classical brew of work by Erkki-Sven Tüür and Bartók, to fascinating koto-cum-digital new-music experimentalist Miya Masaoka—both at City Hall, straddling midnight—and then to Gerry Hemingway’s provocative solo drum performance called “Behavior,” abetted by mercurial projections, at the Guelph Youth Centre.

From another musical perspective entirely, the other highlight of the 2011 Guelph festival may well have been a rare Stateside appearance of the somewhat mystical Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim. Joined by his ally Andreas Utnem on piano, Seim delivered a beautiful and meditative but never fuzzy set in the ideally reverential and reverberant space of the St. George Church.

Later on Friday night, in St. George’s cozy Mitchell Hall, the idiom pendulum swung in a fusion-like direction, courtesy of the Canadian trio presently known as the Stretch Orchestra (formerly the Tallboys, before another so-named group got its legal goons on the case). Yes, guitarist Kevin Breit, cellist Matt Brubeck and drummer-percussionist Jesse Stewart are decidedly tall drinks of water, and together they have cooked up a refreshing new spin on the jazz-rock-world-groove vibe.

Of particular note here, Breit is a true paradigm-shifting phenom on his instrument. At times he issues spidery phrases sometimes reminiscent of extant guitarists like Wayne Krantz, Kurt Rosenwinkel and John Scofield, but his restless adventurism nudges him into new realms of expression on the instrument. At Guelph, Breit would deftly combine slide and finger work, expand timbral expectations with his electric mandolin or tastefully used effects, mumble eloquently with a low-tuned Telecaster and otherwise show us new expressive potential on his overused, under-conceptualized instrument.

Saturday morning’s fare, the beginning of a literally 26-hour marathon spread in the festival’s program (including the all-night “Nuit Blanche” sub-program), kicked off with vibrant vets of the Euro free-jazz scene, saxophonist Trevor Watts and pianist Veryan Weston. Still full of life and ideas, the players demonstrated no shortage of energy or sonic variety, moving from scattered kinetics to walls of sound and airing into a soft finale. At the enthused crowd’s urging, the pair returned for a short encore, but not before Weston joked “we’re all out of tunes.” Hardly.

As if part of a grand design, the program then fast-forwarded to a very contemporary improvisatory context, with Danish reed player Lotte Anker, ridiculously versatile pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver. This is a masterful example of a contemporary, post-free-jazz entity, which engaged in empathetic but also challenging internal dialogues, and eased down into the hushed dynamics for some current “soft is the new loud” explorations of pianissimo.

Australian-based trio the Necks occupied an aesthetic place, a sound and conceptual agenda of its own, distinct from any other act on the festival program. Celebrating a quarter-century of playing together, the band, with pianist Chris Abrahams, bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer Tony Buck, defies any typical standards of how a jazz piano-trio functions.

The trio has refined a cerebral and willfully minimalist way of behaving and conversing, as each member issues undulating, repetitive and slowly changing patterns. The parts relate to an ever-shifting whole, evolving so subtly as to defy cognizance of where the changes occur, and a sure part of the hypnotic effect of the end results. No effects are used in this determinedly acoustic trio, but an illusion of looping or other temporal manipulations tug at the mind of the beholder. In Guelph, their set built to a clamorous dynamic and maintained that aesthetic before releasing us back into the waking world.

Come Sunday morning, the festival wrapped up its all-night matrix of shows, and the short but concentrated festival generally, on another aptly free-spirited encounter. Springing fully to life at 10:30 a.m., the group known as the Creative Collective, with saxophonist Kidd Jordan, bassist William Parker, pianist Joel Futterman and drummer Alvin Fielder, commandeered a powerful hour-long set of improvised intensity and poise.

Walking out of the venue at noon, you could hear the carillon at St. George’s playing “America the Beautiful,” in honor of the date: September 11, 10 years after the American debacle. A few notes were bungled, but it was the thought that mattered, here in a Canadian town which has celebrated many an American musical hero, usually for one weekend in September.

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