Guelph Jazz Festival

Guelph, Ontario
September 16-20, 2015

By Ken Waxman

Story telling of the verbal and instrumental variety was an important feature of this year’s Guelph Jazz Festival. Trying out new venues such as Heritage Hall (HH), Guelph’s first black church; and the soft-seated Guelph Little Theatre (GLT), the festival added a feeling of intimacy to its innovative programming.

Front and centre with tales, tall and otherwise were two Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (ACCM) members, multi-reedist Douglas Ewart and alto saxophonist Matana Roberts. Confirming the old adage that actions can speak louder than words were musicians as cerebrally intricate as Evan Parker’s soprano saxophone forays or as raucous as guitarist Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog trio.

Resplendent in a black beret plus a red coat whose buttons spelled out “Sound” on the front and “AACM” on the back, Ewart moved from instrument to instrument as he exhorted the audience at art space Silence. Like an itinerant preacher, Ewart produced a sham-sermon on humans’ ecological and political shortcomings while acknowledging the influence of Ornette Coleman on improvised music by stringing together with impish word play titles of many of Coleman’s albums and compositions. Textural amplifications came with timbres ranging from piercing flute bites and forlorn oboe sniffs to a bamboo flute’s gravelly rasps. Finally he roamed through the audience blasts tones from his slide didjeridoo. If his duo partner, cellist Tomeka Reid, couldn’t match him in stagecraft, she could sonically, clipping textures to produce a rhythmic continuum or producing below-the-bridge stings.

If Ewart was a store-front evangelist then Roberts, who literally performed from HH’s pulpit, was the aunt whose family fables carried a deeper message. Dressed in a flouncy, layered outfit, Roberts told of her trip to the American south where she unearthed details about her own roots as well as the experience of blacks from slavery onwards. Citing abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who guided slaves to Canada via the Underground Railroad, as her hero, Roberts linked the building’s history to her own. At points she transformed audience members into a choir, as they hummed along to messages contained in her Coin Coin project. Appropriately she illustrated her monologue with impassioned alto saxophone variation.

Parker is also familiar with what a reed can do. At the GLT he was one rocketeer in the Rocket Science quartet along with trumpeter Peter Evans plus Sam Pluta and Ikue Mori moulding sound waves. With the processed electronic sizzles purring with feline-like contentment underneath their improvisations the horn players displayed contrapuntal and solo strategies, with the saxophonist’s circular breathed lines often melodic, while trumpeter’s output ranged from watery squalls to laughing plunger farts. Defining undulating cooperation no timbre was out of place, although it was obvious every tone was improvised. Less fruitful was a HH duet between Parker and bass saxophonist Colin Stetson. With soprano saxophone trills bouncing agilely in contrast with Stetson’s lumbering squalls, Parker suggested baroque passages plus wispy air movement. Stetson seemed infatuated with the heft of his horn, projecting nearly opaque ostinato, one-part tone smears and one-part tongue slaps. If his soggy blasts provided contrast to Parker’s intricate harmonics, the two only connected in the concert’s final section. That’s when a near-foot-tapping melody was propelled in double counterpoint from the dinosaur-sized horn spittle encrusted runs and clean trills from the mite-sized reed.

Graceful consistency was the hallmark of Mary Halvorson’s guitar at a late-night HH gig with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara as Thumbscrew; and as part of cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum’s quintet during the festival’s final morning at the GLT. An extraordinarily clean player even when she introduces knob or pedal effects, Halvorson’s bright fills often bared dulcet melodies couching rabbit-like within Thumbscrew’s warren-like darker passages. With subtle allusions to rock, country and flamenco, her supple fingering was complemented by Fujiwara’s patterns propelled via felt-tipped mallets and wood block slaps plus Formanek’s chunky stops and pumps. Crisp without being fragile, the trio’s compositions resonated with an air of perceptive swing. Swing could have been emblazoned on Bynum’s felt cap as he, Halvorson, Fujiwara, alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs and bassist Ken Filiano sprinted through their set, with transitions sometimes indicated by small signs or hand signals. The quintet’s creations locked together like Lego pieces, but with protrusions still noticeable including psychedelic comping from the guitarist and the saxophonist’s keening lamentations. With the nucleus preserved by Filiano’s booming bass line and the drummer’s understated tapping, enough space remained for solos like Hobbs’ splintering free-form extensions or Bynum’s bugle like blares that met Filiano’s power thumps. The result as relaxed it was refreshing.

Dr. Jekyll to Halvorson’s Mr. Hyde was Ribot whose Ceramic Dog filled out by percussionist Ches Smith and multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily blitzkrieged through a late night GLT set with pop-rock rather than jazz antecedents. Ribot fired off enough crunching runs and distorted tremolo lines to get some audience members shouting “rock’n’roll” and spasmodically head-banging. Momentum built to such furious magnitude that, like an inadvertent Keith Moon, Smith knocked over his auxiliary cymbals on two separate occasions. Roaming among elec¬tric bass, electric and acoustic guitars, drums, synthesizer and vocal harmonies Ismaily was the perfect utility player. Unabashed in his populism, Ribot talked-sang a blues and “Cold Cold Heart”. But except for a g supersonic variant on “Take Five”, which sounded as if it had ingested more steroids than Lance Armstrong, jazz linkage was stretched very far.

Pianist Kris Davis’ Capricorn Climber GLT set featuring violist Mat Maneri, tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Tom Rainey was puzzling in an antithetical fashion. While each member played well, especially when Maneri gouged spiccato plucks from his fiddle or the pianist and saxophonist joined for an out-of-tempo duet, the performances appeared to trudge rather than jump. There were moments of dappled swing, but mostly the sparks needed to create a fiery impression were lacking.

You couldn’t say the same about vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz’s Sun Rooms trio. Backed by tolling bass lines from Ingebrikt Håker-Flaten’ and adept rhythms from drummer Mike Reed, Adasiewicz seemed to have the energy of a nuclear power plant. Four mallets in hand, Adasiewicz often came across like a circus acrobat, nearly missing the vibes-trapeze only to smash out the appropriate riff at the last second. With Reed subtly adapt at an assortment of beats, the trio performed with delicacy as well as rawness, frequently revealing note-perfect finesse wrapped in rough-hewn constructions. Sun Rooms may have offered the festival’s most traditional set, but its skilful versatility, coupled with contrasting views of what constitutes improvisation characterized by Rocket Science or Ceramic Dog, is what makes this festival unique as it exposes jazz’s diversity.

—For MusicWorks #124 Spring 2016