by Greg Buium, Downbeat Volume 70 – Number I
Guelph can safely be put up alongside Tampere, Nickelsdorf or Victoriaville as one of the world’s small, out-of-the-way creative music metropolises. This year’s Guelph Jazz Festival, Sept. 4–8, again proved that its smart, progressive programming has few peers. Its menu commonly sets off rich helpings of the avant-garde with doses of new music, modem jazz and experimental pop.
It’s a remarkable achievement for this modest Ontario town — tucked in along the Speed River 100 kilometers west of Toronto — with its abundance of churches, old leafy neighborhoods and a popular junior hockey team. And there’s a university, which brings a healthy supply of open-mindedness to a place that could easily shudder at the sight of free jazz.
Ajay Heble, the festival’s artistic director and a local English professor, has certainly tried to get the community involved. Sure, there are the four days of performances, which sometimes run from 10:30 a.m. until well past midnight But there’s also a sizeable academic colloquium and a number of musician-led workshops. There’s even a Saturday morning parade, jumpstarting a day of free, outdoor music. Everything’s close by; you can get around on foot. Musically, Guelph has its favorites. Marilyn Crispell, George Lewis and Toronto saxophonist David Mott are just three who appeared again this year. In 2002, however, William Parker returned as the festival’s featured artist.
Parker appeared in two small groups, a duo with Hamid Drake and a quartet with Drake, Kidd Jordan and Fred Anderson. But his play “Music And The Shadow People,” directed and choreographed by Patricia Nicholson, was the festival’s central event, performed on Friday night in the town’s large concert hall.
With an ambitious mixture of theater, dance, poetry, music and art installations, “Music And the Shadow People” told the fantastic story of an individual’s struggle toward creative freedom, battling spiritual rot in a world run by oppressive institutions dogging your every move. The play was performed on a simple, handsome set. Above the stage hung a number of colorful diaphanous sheets. The movement was spare and quite conventional. And the band — Parker, Drake, trumpeter Lewis Barnes and saxophonist Rob Brown perched in the corner, didn’t veer far from late-’50s Mingus. Still, the music’s muscle often brought real focus to the dialogue and the dance.
Parker may have held the spotlight but Lewis seemed buoyed by Guelph’s rhythm He attended nearly every show, presented a colloquium paper and “led” a quartet with Crispell, Miya Masaoka and Drake. Collegiality dominated this clear, bright performance.
The American presence was strong. The Bay Area trio Maybe Monday performed an episodic, intensely felt afternoon set. Cuong Vu’s trio and Shark-T, placed in the late-night slot, were both attractive propositions for the university crowd. And pianist Jason Moran — appearing with the Quebec saxophonist François Carrier’s trio — brought, possibly, the finest hint of the New York mainstream to the festival, even in a situation that never gelled.
Regrettably, Guelph’s venues were once again a gnawing Issue this year. Guitarist René Lussier’s ensemble performed a spectacular set, but they were swallowed, set up on the floor in a large church. This electrifying Montreal septet draws on things that remind you of Prime Time and John Zorn, Vin Diesel and Bugs Bunny, but their intricate collective improvisation, delicious grooves and offbeat melodies disappeared in the hall’s huge corridors.
All things considered, there’s so much going for Guelph that all the little flaws should gradually disappear. This festival’s still young (nine years), the crowds are growing and the program sticks to a sophisticated and approachable space somewhere between (and beyond) jazz and improvised music. There’s no magic formula, but in Guelph, the momentum’s certainly there.