When I last visited the special jazz festival in Guelph, the college town in Ontario, an hour west of Toronto, it was 2005, and one of the strong thematic points of focus was on the power and lineage of the AACM, the highlight being a rare late-period performance by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, with trumpeter Corey Wilkes taking the chair of the late Lester Bowie. Returning this mid-September, given this year’s festival paying tribute to those notable jazz acronyms AACM and ECM, a kind of déjà vu sensation and a tinge or two of poignancy snuck into my thought stream.
This year, the AACM stars of choice boiled down to three powerhouses: the founding father and jazz sage-deserving-greater-recognition Muhal Richard Abrams, the returning Mitchell, and the “younger” cat George Lewis (pushing 60, compared to his seventy-something elders-Abrams turned 80 on September 19). In a panel discussion with these Chicago-bred masters, Abrams emerged as the calm, sagacious man on the mount, while also being down to earth. He spoke of creating the AACM in the early ’60s around young musicians in the process of self-realization, and pointing out that “improvisation is a human right. We specialize in sound improvisation.”
Specialize is an understatement. On Saturday night on the River Run Centre’s main stage, where the Art Ensemble held forth five years ago, the trio-properly dubbed The Trio-laid down the law with a masterful free improv set. This was far and away the pinnacle of the year’s festival, and one of the most powerful concerts I’ve heard all year. Moving in uncalculated motions between varying phases, densities and ensemble feelings, the highly attuned collaborators created a stirring one-of-a-kind entity in sound, space and spontaneous structure without structure.
Interestingly, The Trio played on a double bill with another well-known contemporary Trio, Charles Lloyd’s multi-cultural Sangam trio, with tabla player Zakir Hussain and Lloyd’s regular drummer Eric Harland. Compared to the striking intellectuality and abstract sensuality of the Chicagoans’ set, Lloyd seemed like Dr. Feelgood, albeit with his artistic and spiritual coordinates in place, and working the trio’s distinctive blend of visceral charm, drummerly moxie and meditation.
Set in the abidingly pleasant and hip college town, an hour from Toronto, Guelph has hosted the jazz fest for 17 years now, under the inspired steerage of University professor Ajay Heble. The festival realizes an ideal and a proposition which would seem worthy of stealing for other jazz-minded college towns, including on the U.S. side of the border. Heble mixes a busy long weekend schedule uncompromising musical programming, often with a free improvisation and otherwise “avant garde” perspective, with the academic interests of the “Colloquium” part of the package, with panel discussions, presentation of papers and other extra-musical considerations.
For the locals, a long program of more breezy and accessible music flows freely (and free of charge) in the jazz tent all day and night on Saturday, and a new late night programming in the “Nuit Blanche” sidebar kept music buzzing in the margins between Saturday night and Sunday morning. But the real heart of this festival is the serious musical agenda, in areas of jazz not often given much room to move, presented in proper ambiences, in churches, concert halls and community center spaces.
Operations and attitudes are serious, focused and also appealingly loose, in keeping with the improvisational aesthetic at the core of its agenda. So when masterful electronics-wielder Bob Ostertag was slated to appear at a separate conference at the University prior to the festival, the festival invited him to pull together a free-play group. Joining Ostertag, by a friend’s recommendation, were the well-established players on the free and “avant” scene, marvelous and earful pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and drummer Jim Black, and the impressively open-eared and smartly expressive young trumpeter Tyler Ho Bynum. Although this group was performing for the first time onstage, sans rehearsal, they got along famously and had a grand improvisational conversation together. At set’s end, Ostertag tipped his hat to his hosts: “there are very few festivals who would allow me to do something like this.”
On the downside, the biggest disappointment of the festival was the last-minute cancellation of the duo of bandoneon player Dino Saluzzi and cellist Anja Lechner, due to some mysterious booking mishap. The duo, one of the more artful and empathetic pairings around, would have been the lynchpin of the ECM element of the festival. As a last-minute replacement, cellist David Darling, who has recorded for ECM in the past but has been veering more towards the dreaded New Age scene in recent years, played a solo concert in the sanctuary of St. George’s Anglican Church. He talked too much, but fared reasonably well, wisely leaving his new age-ish inklings out of the building.
Much more impressive on that bill was Canadian composer Peter-Anthony Togni’s moving, hour-long choral and bass clarinet piece “Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae,” recorded for ECM. Virtuosic but subtle clarinetist Jeff Reilly was the persuasive protagonist, working in and around the hypnotic choral writing, its mix of atmospheric open passages and clenched, close harmonies suggesting the influence of Arvo Part, Palestrina and some compositional voice of Togni’s own unique configuring.
In her full-bodied solo piano performance on Saturday morning, Marilyn Crispell functioned as a kind of mediating stylistic presence, cutting across improv blowing and lyricism-intoning–between AACM and ECM, to risk stereotypes-on the festival program. Few jazz musicians at present possess Crispell’s uncanny ability to move both inside and outside, to court dissonance and cathartic abandon in one section and ease into unabashedly melodic passages elsewhere, integrating the two modes with general seamlessness. She’s an effective advocate for the syntheses of supposedly opposing musical conditions.
Another featured performer, and phenom, at the festival was bassist of the moment Henry Grimes, who almost inevitably becomes the center of attention when he plays, partly because of his remarkable rebirth story. Grimes, who spent three-plus decades away from music-hiding out in plain sight in Los Angeles-has become the comeback story of the decade in the last few years, and the veteran of early free jazz, a former collaborator with Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and many others, really has come back, playing with a wisdom and fire and ensemble sensitivity to the multiple settings he has been corralled into. He looks cool and imperturbable, bedecked in his own school of cool fashion, but summons up a powerful sound and expressive sweep.
In this case, Grimes was the centerpiece of two very different, but equally uncharted, trios. Late on Friday night, he played with fellow free avatar Andrew Cyrille on drums and the relative youngster Jane Bunnett, the Toronto-based reed player who acquitted herself beautifully and flexibly in this setting. For the first half of the extended, 100-minute set, Grimes played with a density and unrelenting ferocity, as if making up for the lost time of his wilderness years in L.A. But deep into the set, Grimes became more musical, showing more of a feel for dynamic variation, celebrated spaces and conversational poise amidst his urging intensity.
On Sunday morning, wrapping up the festival in a splendid sonic way, Grimes offered the foundation and the historical authenticity in an Albert Ayler tribute project led by guitarist Marc Ribot, in his wiliest, most eloquently noisy mode. Given the fretboard and plectrum assaults, it came as no huge surprise that Ribot broke two (count ’em) strings during the set, but he is a skilled string-changer on the fly, no doubt accustomed to the practice. Rounding out the trio was the wonderful drummer Chad Taylor. He had also played, late the night before in the basement of the St. George’s church, with the gripping Chicago Underground Duo, with Rob Mazurek. Echoes of electro-acoustic sound blasting and Don Cherry’s organic switch-up sensibilities come together in a unique way in the Duo.
As Ribot returned for an encore of “Stella by Starlight,” done up Ayler-style, with the hoary head yielding to outside chanciness in the middle, we got the sense that this was the festival’s emblematic-cum-epitaph moment. Tradition was being paid dearest respects, but higher still on the priority list was importance of nurturing jazz’ experimental impulse. Count Guelph, Ontario as one of the ongoing hot spots in North America, and the world, for that very mission-at least for one long weekend each year.