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Guelph Jazzfest celebrates Sun Ra, features Vijay Iyer and Randy Weston for its 21st year

We are reporting from one of our favourite festivals, the Guelph Jazz Festival and Colloquium, this week.

For its coming of age this week, the Guelph Jazz Festival is bringing in well-known performers from around the world – and as far out as Saturn.

Vijay Iyer will perform with his trio at the 2014 Guelph JazzFestival. © Brett DelmageThe festival, which runs from Wednesday to Sunday (September 3-7), is turning 21. To celebrate, it's shaken up its 2014 lineup with performers who are returning after long absences, including pianists Randy Weston, Vijay Iyer, and D.D. Jackson. But its biggest musical focus will be on Sun Ra, the late composer and bandleader, to celebrate the centennial of his arrival on Earth.

Sun Ra famously claimed he came from Saturn, and his cosmic music and other-worldly costuming was one of a kind. His Arkestra, now led by alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, will perform “Hymn to the Universe” on Saturday evening (September 6), in a collaboration with Quebec dance company Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie.

But there's more. For those interested in Sun Ra's life and work, the festival is offering a whole series of free talks and panels exploring his legacy, including a keynote address entitled “Sun Ra on Earth” by Columbia University professor and Sun Ra biographer John Szwed, and “Black Utopia LP” by American filmmaker and visual artist Cauleen Smith, who has intensely researched Sun Ra's work and influence. Four other researchers will discuss his Afrofuturist philosophy, which “fuses Egyptian iconography with the sounds, texts, and imagery of space travel and technology”; three will examine his myth-making and spirituality; and another will look as Sun Ra as a jester.

Guelph is noted for spanning the gamut of jazz, from the easily accessible to the avant-garde, from celebrating the elders to promoting the work of younger musicians. Notable shows this year will include:

  • Randy Weston's African Rhythms Trio (September 5), with bassist Alex Blake and percussionist Neil Clarke, which synthesizes African elements with jazz technique. After initially absorbing the influences of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, the legendary pianist went back to the roots of jazz in Africa. Starting in the late 60s, he travelled and played with musicians throughout the continent. He lived in Morocco for many years, and recorded several times with the master Gnawa musicians there.
  • Vijay Iyer with his long-time trio of Marcus Gilmore on drums and Stephan Crump on bass (September 4). The three appeared on Iyer's awarding-winning Accelerando (2012) and Historicity (2009) albums, playing a mixture of Iyer originals and pieces from the jazz canon. Iyer previously appeared at Guelph in a solo performance in 1999, in 2003 in a duo with Rudresh Mahanthappa, and 2008 with New York virtuoso turntablist DJ Spooky.
  • (Formerly) Ottawa pianist D.D. Jackson, with two veteran American improvisers: percussionist Milford Graves and tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan (September 6). Ottawa jazz listeners may remember Jordan's intense performance with the French American Peace Ensemble in 2013; Jackson is equally well-known for his strong relationship with the piano, and Graves has spent many years exploring the relationships between jazz and human rhythms.
  • Neelamjit Dhillon is a saxophonist from Vancouver who went to Mumbai to study tabla with Indian percussion masters. Now back in Canada, he has written a hour-long composition, accented by projected archival photographs, inspired by the Komagata Maru Incident of 1914, in which 376 potential immigrants from India were turned away from a British Columbia port. He'll be performing in the afternoon of September 5 with well-known Vancouver jazz musicians Chris Gestrin (piano), Andre Lachance (double bass), and Dan Gaucher (drums).

On the edge will be concerts by:

  • Montreal painter-turned-free jazz drummer John Heward (September 3), who'll be playing in the moment with fellow octogenarian Barre Phillips (double bass), Joe McPhee (reeds, brass), Dana Reason (piano) and Lori Freedman (bass clarinet). The concert will also feature videos made by Montrealer Sylvia Safdie.
  • Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger (September 4, in a trio with pianist Harmen Fraanje and vocalist Mola Sylla; and solo on September 5). Reijseger has played everywhere from Carnegie Hall to Queen Street West art scene in Toronto.
  • Ugly Beauties (September 6), the trio of three adventurous and skillful Canadian improvisers: pianist Marilyn Lerner, cellist Matt Brubeck, and drummer Nick Fraser.
  • Canadian pianist/vocalist Lee Pui Ming, who combines classical, jazz, and Chinese traditions, in a duo concert with Korean percussionist Dong-Won Kim (September 7). Kim created a notable stir with his inventive performances on traditional Korean drums at the 2013 Guelph festival.
  • New York avant-garde multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee with French free jazz percussionist Lê Quan Ninh (September 5).

Ottawa percussionist Jesse Stewart will be performing three times at the festival: in a duo with Dong-Won Kim on September 5; with the KidsAbility Youth Orchestra in a free afternoon concert on September 6; and with the Juno-winning Stretch Orchestra in a free performance that evening.

He will also be part of a panel on the Adaptive Use Musical Instrument (AUMI) on September 3, talking about his experience working with H'Art of Ottawa in the Turning the Page visual art/musical crossover.

The colloquium is a free three-day event (September 3 to 5). It's been a long-time unique feature of the Guelph festival, giving a more academic exploration of jazz and improvisation. Besides Sun Ra, this year's colloquium topics include innovations in music education; giving opportunities to perform music to groups who don't have them; and improvisation with horses and with robots.

This year, the festival is not running an explicit Nuit Blanche. However, the music performance space Silence will be offering an overnight series of shows starting at midnight Saturday with a solo concert by Dutch pianist Harmen Fraanje, and ending with a duo set by two BC musicians: guitar/oud player Gord Grdina and drummer Kenton Loewen.

Each night, local clubs are also offering pay-what-you-can performances by Canadian jazz musicians. Particularly notable are Hammerton/Wagler/O'Neill, featuring Toronto saxophonist Colleen Allen (whom Ottawa audiences may remember from Holly Cole's Christmas show) (Manhattan's, September 4); a CD release by Toronto keyboardist/accordionist/vocalist Kelsey McNulty, described as “elements of chamber folk and jazz with an indie pop flair” (Manhattan's, September 5); Guelph improvising cellist Isaiah Farahbakhsh (The Red Brick, September 5, and at the festival outdoor stage September 6).

    – Alayne McGregor

See also our coverage of the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival