Guelph Jazz Festival

September 13-17, 2017
By Ken Waxman

Striding confidentially towards its 2018 silver anniversary, this year’s Guelph Jazz Festival (GJF) was invigorated with choice concerts throughout this Ontario college town. There were artists from the United States and Europe, yet two of the notable performances were from Canadian bands. Underlying their set at the Silence arts space September 15 with processed whooshes, pulses and hums, the Montreal-based members of Jane and the Magic Banana (JMB) found that sweet spot where punk attitude, tremolo oscillations and free experimentation locked together. Consisting of guitarist Sam Shalabi, electric bassist Alexandre St-Onge and drummer Michel F. Côté, all of whom used electronic processing JMB set was characterized by quick manipulation of a continuous drone which never sacrificed narrative for effects. Two nights later at the Cooperators Hall (CH), River Run Centre the Medham quartet playing a bracing set which nearly overwhelmed with ingenuity while adhering most closely to jazz conventions. With one dozen tunes given body by steady slaps or buzzing Arco from bassist Nicolas Caloia matched by the patterning groove from drummer Isaiah Ciccarelli, these two Montrealers, plus a third, growling baritone saxophonist Jason Sharp provided the backing and in Sharp’s rippling blasts, the challenge, to Vancouver-based violinist Josh Zubot’s slick, staccato horn-like sweeps. Dazzling as he swept or plucked his strings as the rhythm section output a connective beat, the violinist replied in kind to any sonic provocation from the others.

Another person who drew on jazz was American pianist Matthew Shipp playing solo at CH September 16. Sliding, slipping and sometimes smashing the keys he encompassed processional rhythms, kinetic flying chords that included rapturous patterning and fortissimo digs into the instrument’s lowest-pitched regions. While some of the more outré movements may have suggested a bizarre blend of stride and free music, a recurring balladic melody kept intruding. Finally revealed as “Yesterdays”, Shipp examined its structure from every angle, tore it apart, reassembled it and following high-pitched note tickles, completed his thoughts by banging out a crescendo of low-pitched textures that marked the end.

More closely attuned to free improvising was Shipp’s collaboration with German synthesizer player Thomas Lehn and British tenor/soprano saxophonist John Butcher in the same venue the evening before. Lehn’s heightened but not overpowering chugging ostinato brushed up against the pianist’s offhanded treble lines and dark chording as Butcher used key percussion, unaccented air blowing and quacks and bites to make his points. Crucially, while multiphonic blasts and burrs plus a spray of oscillated tones from Lehn predominated, ballad-like asides came from the piano. A more expected configuration was Butcher with Vancoverites bassist Torsten Müller and drummer Dylan van der Schyff at the Guelph Little Theatre (GLT) September 16. With small motions on bells and cymbals the drummer provided perfect backing for Müller, whose moderato string squeezed were sometimes indistinguishable from Butcher’s reed tone. Keeping the triangular interchange lively were rhythmic tongue slaps, gargles and episodes of circular breathing from the saxophonist.

More in-the-moment liveliness was on show Sunday at the Guelph Youth Music Centre in a duet between Lehn and American percussionist Gerry Hemingway, following what should have been billed as an exploration of advanced double bass techniques by American Mark Helias. Although Tom & Gerry rarely play as a duo, no awkwardness was apparent. Rhythmically, Hemingway using his hands, sticks and mallets on drum tops with asides for a pencil-sharpening gesture with a stick within a cowbell and harmonica blowing and Lehn’s processed streaming and buzzing surrounded one another output, to the point that the two sometimes lobbed patterns back and forth like old jazzers.

That same jazz feel was present Saturday at CH as Helias, Hemingway and American trombonist Ray Anderson celebrated their 40th anniversary as BassDrumBone, with each musician more exuberant than the next. Hemingway’s relaxed mood encompassed sliced and popped beat patterns, with Helias’ spooky Arco or ringing pizzicato holding things together. Favoring plunger tones and mutes, Anderson’s playing was conversational and emotional, referencing both bluesy rhythms and folkloric melodies.

Another musician whose reed commend exceed BassDrumBone’s collective techniques is German tenor saxophonist, tárogató and clarinet player Peter Brötzmann who played solo September 13 at the GLT. With a brawny, instantly identifiable tone, Brötzmann roamed the stage expressing himself in a mixture of agitation and accord. A master of glossalalia and violent effects, he can also reduce his output to ferocious yips. Despite his so-called avant-garde status, passionate allusions also permeated his set.

Two other Canadian bands made impressions. On Friday at CH, Vancouver cellist Peggy Lee’s Octet played music she composed inspired by a TV drama series. While there was professional work from some of the soloists, after a while thematic sameness reduced the set from foreground to background sounds. Montreal guitarist René Lussier with Pierre Lavoie on lap steel guitar and and Martin Tétreault on turntables at the GLT September 16 featured some notable moments when turntable-mutated record samples mocked the others’ sounds. Otherwise the foot stomping, finger picked whining tone was so like standard C&W fare that difference vanished. Every year the GJF presents unconventional sounds with the quality of 2017’s program. Who knows what the 25th anniversary program will offer?

-For MusicWorks #129 Winter 2017