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Observations: Guelph Jazz Festival, Sept. 4–8, 2002

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by Frank Rubolino
October 2002

For the ninth exciting year, the Guelph Jazz Festival presented an outstanding array of artists in action at this viewer-friendly late summer event. Drawing talent from the international community, this year's festival compressed an abundance of music, visual art, dance, panel discussions, workshops, theater, film, and lectures into a highly satisfying five-day period.

EVENINGS: The evening performances contained something for everyone. Reunited after their barn-burning set at this year's Vision Festival, Kidd Jordan, Fred Anderson, Hamid Drake, and William Parker set another house on fire with an artillery-loaded display of improvisation and collective interaction. Parker's chilling bass progressions and Drake's ballet-movement cadence energized the two tenors to eruptive heights during the 1-1/2 hour explosion of continually stimulating and enervating sound. Parker and Patricia Nicholson presented their ambitious Music and the Shadow People, a choreographed and scripted amalgam of theater and Jazz featuring Drake, Rob Brown, Lewis Barnes, and Parker accompanying the dancing of Nicholson and her troupe. The necessarily restrained music had many good sequences, but the program's script was still in the developmental stage. The concept was imaginative, but it did not work to perfection on this night.

The René Lussier Ensemble from Quebec played a brand of raucous, funky music blending electrified guitar fun with acoustic antics. The program was an olio of genres ranging from Acid Rock to Country & Western with comedic splashes spaced between uproarious music. Trombonist Tom Walsh egged Lussier on with his retorts, while clarinetist Lori Freedman attempted to overcome the overly live acoustical disadvantages of the sanctuary venue. The same evening featured the double wallop of Hasidic New Wave joined by the Senegalese percussion duo Yakar Rhythms. Trumpeter Frank London and saxophonist Greg Wall allowed a river of klezmer rhythms to roll into an ocean of free improvisation while Elage Diouf and Mar Gueye pounded out non-stop propulsion on their African sabar, djembe, and dundun. Double-neck guitarist David Fiuczynski was a force of his own balancing the cultural equation with Western dynamite.

Trevor Watts' African/Indian/Latin experiences were transferred directly through his reeds. His 'get up and dance' brand of free improvisation was driven by Colin McKenzie, Giampaolo Scatozza, and Ghanaian percussionist Nana Tsiboe, who created the lifeblood of pulsation while Watts spiraled higher and higher. Jane Bunnett fronted a septet that included sparkling piano treasures from Stanley Cowell and solid blowing from Dewey Redman. The band mixed gospel spirituals with moving tributes to Kirk, Ellington, Robeson, Pullen, and others. Dean Bowman was particularly arresting with his gripping vocals and fine vocalese.

AFTERNOONS: Some of the most creative experiences were realized at the afternoon sessions where the festival often mixes and matches disparate musicians. The most-diverse and emotionally stimulating was the grouping of Jordan, Anderson, Larry Ochs, Miya Masaoka, Johannes Bauer, Arthur Bull, and Roger Turner. This international blend of talent sent the crowd into orbit with an outpouring of free improvisation. Jordan directed traffic and touched base with each artist to keep the furnace stoked at full heat levels. With three tenors and trombone blaring, koto and guitar picking up the nuances, and the drums going non-stop, this performance produced enough heat to accelerate global warming. Every artist contributed the incendiary fuel for this historic and dynamic set. Alto player François Carrier and his trio plus guest pianist Jason Moran executed an involved and intricate composition that unfolded in multiple movements. Carrier blew waves of spirited complexities containing a touch of lyricism that gradually revealed the hidden mysteries of the set-long tune. The Ontario quartet of baritone player David Mott negotiated an extended composition featuring stellar improvisations by him and exceptional drumming by Guelph's Jesse Stewart. The set wended its way through varying moods and intensities ranging from thunderous to serene. Saxophonist Peter Lutek and bassist Rob Clutton matched the inspirational playing on this very successful journey into far-reaching and demanding territory.

The Tradition Trio is anything but traditional. Alan Silva on orchestral synthesizer took the music through the spaceways, while Johannes Bauer robustly and convincingly blared away on trombone, and Roger Turner turned the drum kit into instant rocket propellant. Energy, power, and sheer excitement marked the endeavors of this threesome, which saw Silva portraying a crouching tiger at the keys eminently prepared to pounce on his prey. Pianist Lee Pui Ming and choreographer Peter Chin offered an outstanding example of music and theater titled Hundun. Adapting an ancient Chinese myth on earth's formation, the musicians and dancers excelled in conveying the emotional impact of life's beginning, Joane Hétu was particularly striking on alto and with her dramatic approach.

Ochs and Masaoka joined forces with percussive guitarist Fred Frith as the Maybe Monday Trio proffered a mesmerizing exhibition of free improvisation aided by computer stimulation. The three established a trance-dance ambiance with strong reed/strings vibrations of tension and release. Danish saxophonist Lotte Anker played with pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Their focus was on individual improvisation flowing into group unity and back again. Anker was mournful on soprano and robust on tenor with her big rounded tone. Crispell mused moodily and introspectively, and Clever alternated between subtleties and explosive blasts.

MIDNIGHTS: The midnight sessions were typically draining experiences. Trumpeter Cuong Vu wired his horn to looping electronics that turned his imaginative playing into complex and mesmerizing sequences as the echo of his endeavors swirled round and round. Electric bass player Stomu Takeishi manufactured a mystique of his own as the slowly building tensions bubbled over into a wealth of deeply penetrating rhythms. Shark-T, a re-creation of last year's successful Chicago Underground show of Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor, added electric bassist Matthew Lux and entered into the computerized and electrified world of techno-sound. Heavy rhythmic heartbeat and power drumming were tempered when Mazurek built warmer, melodic ambiance on muted trumpet, but these moments contrasted greatly with the high energy that typically fired from this band. L’Orchestre de Danse created a music/dance frenzy spearheaded by Jean Derome, Pierre Tanguay and the turntable gyrations of DJ Pocket. Vigorous music with pulsating rhythms had everyone up and dancing. Frith guested on guitar to add even more excitement.

MORNINGS: Early morning risers were treated to several stellar events. George Lewis (who was the keynote speaker at this year's colloquium), Crispell, Drake, and Masaoka formed a free-spirited team interweaving exotic sonic oscillations into a tapestry of serene beauty. Celestial vibrations careened around in space with their complex tonal scenario. Parker and Drake returned once more for an interactive duet. Strings, percussion, and wooden flutes became their magic carpet for this highly rhythmic transference of African musical roots.

Accounts of other performances I did not witness were enthusiastic, including the duet between pianist Marilyn Lerner and cellist Peggy Lee. The Guelph Jazz Festival has established a tradition for guaranteeing gratification to an astute audience of repeat revelers. The music is consistently on the cutting edge, and this year was no exception, The focus is doggedly on the new, and the outcome is eminently satisfying. Their high standard of excellence has now become their norm.

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