Ibrahim, Cline Embrace Experimentation at Guelph
For many years, left-leaning musical roads have led to inspired and aesthetically dogged Canadian jazz festivals in Guelph, Ontario, and in Victoriaville, Quebec—the former celebrating its 20th anniversary next year, and Victoriaville zeroing in on its 30th next year.
During the 2012 edition of the Guelph Jazz Festival, which took place on Sept. 5–9, a surprise “’twain thereof” meeting took place at 1 a.m. on Saturday night. As an impromptu goodwill gesture, Victoriaville Festival Director Michel Levasseur introduced the set by iconic German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann (with fascinating and fresh-voiced vibist Jason Adasiewicz). Levasseur spoke of the true community between festivals championing the experimental cause. The artful storm began in earnest, as Brötzmann and Adasiewicz worked up abstract steam with purpose and a jagged-edged ballad as an encore.
Founded by University of Guelph professor Ajay Heble, Guelph is unique because it combines performances with a scholarly colloquium. At the university’s Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, the colloquium included interviews with headlining pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and multi-instrumentalist Fred Frith, as well as discussions and presentations of scholarly papers. Improvisational meetings included a strong, engaged set featuring members of the hypnotic Norwegian “free-folk” act Huntsville, Guelph-based cellist Matt Brubeck and the duo of Austrian trombonist Werner Puntigam and Mozambique percussionist Machume Zango. Each group spoke freely across cultural differences as it became enriched by the diversity.
Back at the festival grounds, music flowed generously through three venues—the River Run Centre, St. George’s Anglican Church and the Guelph Youth Music Centre—set along the idyllic Speed River. Thursday night’s roster opened in the pristine, reverent ambience of St. George’s chapel, a space that has hosted many more memorable, intimate musical occasions over the years, including Trygve Seim last year. Guelph’s own Ben Grossman demonstrated the vintage, hypnotic hurdy-gurdy as a core musical tool. Though he applies so much digital goop and loop adornments, the innate beauty of the instrument was mostly lost—until the end. Saxophonist Colin Stetson, who has worked with rock folks and knows the power of a riff, a hook and a comforting key center, has conjured an accessible mode of circular breathing-centered solo bass sax.
Later that evening, the action moved downstairs to Mitchell Hall for a rousing bit of improv with guitarist Nels Cline and drummer/percussionist Glenn Kotche, given shore leave from their Wilco day job and behaving like cerebral sailors, sonically speaking. Cline was far more of an effects-savvy texturalist as a solo-slinger, and the otherwise gestural and abstractionist Kotche briefly lapsed into a rock groove, but flung it away as if slightly embarrassed.
The five-day festival pivots around the Saturday (and early Sunday) program as its epic centerpiece. It began in the morning on a gentle-but-gutsy note, as violinist Jenny Scheinman issued her feisty lyricism with empathic ally Myra Melford at piano and harmonium. Melford, whose 1997 performance was the first jazz-festival show in this room, would return for a solo show 24 hours later, gracefully capping off the festival’s all-night “Nuit Blanche” program.
The venerable South African pianist Ibrahim wove a magical spell—a personal journey through his musical past and presence—during his suite-like, roaming 90-minute set in the River Run’s big house. He was in no hurry to impress in the standard ways, leading to a different, deeper, more reflective sort of bedazzlement. Snippets of known tunes—Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday”—blended in slyly with fleeting references to Ibrahim’s own songbook, which was rich with gospel colorations.
The River Run’s smaller space filled up with the vast dynamic range of commanding Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær’s trio. Tapping into the lineage of electric Miles Davis with his own artistic persona, Molvær manages to be visceral and mystical, by turns, a signpost of at least one strain of the Norwegian jazz ethos.
Saturday afternoon in that more intimate room, a double bill of improvisational acts illustrated the diversity with the free-jazz realm. A performance by a wonderful trio called Brew brought the artistic voices of flexible koto player Miya Masaoka, sensitized drummer Gerry Hemmingway and ever-masterful “listening” bassist Reggie Workman into collective and multicultural focus. The trio conjured up a series of pictorial and evolving improvisational pieces, eschewing the cathartic free-blowing impulse in favor of a more delicate expressive being.
The sterner hour-long set of pianist Matthew Shipp and potent alto saxophonist Darius Jones teemed with rustle and muscle, although we yearned to hear a bit more unaccompanied exposure to Shipp’s powerful approach to the piano.
One of the thematic rivulets was homage to John Coltrane’s influential 1965 album Ascension. At 5 p.m. in the Macdonald Centre, a large Toronto-based contingent led by saxophonist Jeremy Strachan paid tribute to the Coltrane album in a purist, historicist way. At 8 p.m., the same material was treated more loosely, with instruments outside the usual jazz canon, in the grand program “Coltrane Reimagined: ROVA Electric Ascension.” In this incarnation of the malleable, moveable ensemble, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet anchored drummer Hamid Drake, ambi-style violinist Carla Kihlstedt, guitarist Cline and electronics poet Ikue Mori. The point of the project, beyond the literal Ascension references in the overall structure, is to play up the ongoing ripples of influence exerted by that work over decades of improvisers tilling that soil.
Making cultural affiliations over time is what the Guelph Jazz Festival is all about. Leaning into year 20, the Guelph festival boasts a formidable preceding reputation, with a healthy sense of adventure and academic inquiry in tow.