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Review: Guelph Jazz Festival, Ontario, September 4-28, 2013

Canadian event celebrates its 20th in high and heady style

Matt Brubeck, Guelph Jazz Festival 2013
Nicole Mitchell, Guelph Jazz Festival 2013
Hamid Drake, Guelph Jazz Festival 2013
Wadada Leon Smith, Guelph Jazz Festival 2013
Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis at the Guelph Jazz Festival 2013

Having ventured to, and had great appreciation for the Guelph Jazz Festival, I’m by now used to the strange drill involved in the arrival plan. Upon landing at the Toronto airport (about an hour’s drive from the University town of Guelph), people-including customs officers-ask, “Are you here for the festival?,” which would strike any an avant-garde-leaning jazz festival seeker as odd. Of course, they’re talking about TIFF, the renowned and influential Toronto International Film Festival, which begins on the same weekend as Guelph. Responses when I tell them of my destination and mission range from, “Where’s Guelph?” to “Guelph has a jazz festival?”

Well, yes, Guelph does have a jazz festival, a very fine and hearty one, and as it celebrated its big 20th birthday this September, in suitably high and heady style. This year, the thought occurred to me that the Guelph Jazz Festival may be roughly as significant in its own much tinier cultural domain-where left-end, free improvisational and otherwise experimental energies of jazz and related musics thrive-as the lofty TIFF is to the world’s film festival circuit. Just a theory, which is slightly compromised by the inconvenient truth that the Guelph fest, while known by many, is still less well-known than it should be, as a prime spot for adventurous music in North America.

Guelph, launched by intrepid director Ajay Heble, benefits from the beauty of the hosting city, and the umbilical connection to the university itself, where Heble teaches, and which includes a linked week-long “colloquium” on campus (the official concerts happen in impressive venues in the city, hugging the town’s dreamy Speed River). The very notion of a festival/colloquium, blending musicology and music in performance, is a rare bird amongst festivals, especially in jazz. Papers are read, panel discussions mix in with collective improv sessions, and key artists of a given festival speak their mind (or don’t, as in the case of the man of few words, Pharoah Sanders).

This year, free-thinking and -minded bassist William Parker gave the keynote address, “Sound as Medicinal Herbs: Creative Music 61 Years in Transition.” In inspired music, he told the overfull classroom, “There is a source of magic that happens … You can know nothing. You can know everything. What’s important is whether your music works.”

In the 2013 edition, the primary marquee-power artists of note were two legendary 70-something figures-Pharoah Sanders and Wadada Leo Smith-on a substantive Saturday night double-bill concert. On that generous musical outing, Sanders was a deeply integrated guest of “the Underground,” led by the formidable trumpeter-conceptualist Rob Mazurek, culling his bands from both Chicago and São Paulo. The material ranged from Sanders-related tunes to freer, more texturally ambling ensemble adventures, keyed around Mazurek’s masterful, free-meets-focused horn work. The iconic tenor saxist presented himself in a slightly mellower tone, injecting more space and muted energy compared to his walls-of-sound of old.

For the first act on Saturday, Smith was back in Canada giving another stirring performance of his ambitious and socially/racially themed epic “Ten Freedom Summers,” with his group the Golden Quartet (Anthony Davis, piano; John Lindberg, bass; and Anthony Brown, drums). The piece was performed north of the border back in 2011, at the Victoriaville festival, shortly after its grand, four-disc recording on Cuneiform Records hit the streets and the universal mind, but hearing it for my third time in Guelph, new subtleties emerged, of sound, performance strategies and underlying socio-cultural intention.

Other high points of the festival included a return visit from flutist Nicole Mitchell, who was here the year the AACM and the post-Lester Bowie Art Ensemble of Chicago made its memorable presence known. This time, the setting was more improv-fueled and with mixed results, in a trio with the bold but sometimes overbearing bassist Harrison Bankhead and the finely situation-attuned master drummer Hamid Drake. Drake was a guest of honor this year, and he duly impressed with each turn onstage, in a free set with Canadian pianist Marianne Trudel and bassist Parker (who wavered between brutish overstatement and interactive listening with his bandmates), and then a fascinating and carefully, dynamically varied hour-long percussion duet with Canadian Jesse Stewart.

Another Canadian, an émigré from the U.S. and a famed family line, is Matt Brubeck, the cellist who actually lives in Guelph and often shows up on the festival schedule. This year, he was given a special spotlight, a solo cello concert (with the help of looping and other electronic gewgaws) in the beautiful chapel of St. George’s Anglican Church. In a performance reminiscent of jazz-meets-new-age cellist David Darling’s show in this space a few years ago, Brubeck worked the varied byways of classical, quasi-Carnatic and ambient music, taking advantage of the enlightened space, but the highlight came with a brief encore, the bittersweet tune “Now That You’ve Gone,” in homage to his late, great father Dave Brubeck.

Guelph is a festival that likes to pack the content into its essentially expanded weekend program, which officially includes an all-night, multi-venue Saturday night/Sunday morning vigil known as “Nuit Blanche.” We can usually expect to catch some joltingly inspiring music before noon, which might seem antithetical to the jazz festival way. This year, that morning blessing tendency was stronger than usual. On Saturday, the brilliant Japanese pianist Satoko Fuji seized the day with her group Kaze, a roiling bounty of color, taut structures and blissful, articulate abstraction, featuring her frequent collaborator, her husband Natsuki Tamura on trumpet, along with two fine young French musicians, the sonically elastic trumpeter Christian Pruvost and drummer Peter Orins, making their first visit to North America and whetting our appetite to check out their own group, Muzzix.

Come Sunday morning, we encountered musicians heard just the night before, as Mazurek returned with earthy electronics wiz Guilherme Granado and drummer/sonics man Mauricio Takara, in the form of the São Paulo Underground. This fascinating and odd electro-acoustic group wove its enchanting cross-cultural aesthetic, something off to the left and right of what we have heard before in the avant-jazz universe.

Looking back at the whole sweep of the 20th birthday plan, in a way, the festival’s program hit an early peak this year, with the booking of the remarkable inside-outside Scandinavian band Atomic, on Wednesday night. This memorable Scandi-centric show opened with an artful gust of inspiration from the “emerging artist” quarter, in the form of the supple, fresh-faced and Norway-based Moskus Trio (Anja Laudval, piano; Fredrik Luhr Dietrichson, bass; and Hans Hulbækmo, drums). I had heard, and loved, this group in a church setting at the 2012 Bergen Jazz Festival in Norway, where the material leaned more toward free play and lyrical abstraction, whereas in Guelph-their first visit across the Atlantic-strode a balance of song structures and spontaneous combustion, but combustion in a subtle tone. Pianist Laudval, in particular is especially impressive, yet with a refreshing minimalist, Paul Bley-esque feel for space and gesture. Moskus Trio is another unit bringing new ideas to the evolving piano trio tradition.

Atomic, a powerful gathering of players tuned to both collective and individual expression, is one of the finer current examples in jazz of the challenging and delicate feat of finding a voice at the juncture of abandon and structure. In the rhythm section, the masterful Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love leads the charge with bassist Håker Flaten (both are also part of the raucous cool headbanger jazz trio the Thing) and the raptly strong and restlessly creative pianist Håvard Wilk.

Up front, the horn line is Swedish, with reedist Fredrik Ljungkvist and trumpeter Mangus Broo. Altogether, they make a glorious, inventive and, by degrees, anarchic band sound, with angular echoes of Ellingtonia and Mingus-iana mixed in with the pensive reflectiveness and wildness of being often encountered in Norway and Swedish jazz.

From Scandinavian sounds worth hearing up close and real time-like to seasoned jazz icons to other diverse samplings from the wide world of avant-inklings, the 20th annual Guelph festival offered further validation of this town–a short hop from TIFF–as a fertile spot on the left-leaning global jazz map.

Originally Published