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IMOOfest to return after financial break-even and artistic successes

(l-r) Linsey Wellman, Craig Pedersen, Justin Haynes take a break between sets. ©Brett Delmage, 2013

Craig Pedersen and Linsey Wellman looked exhausted but happy at the end of IMOOfest 2013 on Sunday night.

The two IMOO (Improvising Musicians of Ottawa-Outaouais) programming directors had been going full out for three days of the festival. They were organizing all the last-minute details and cleanup, introducing acts, and publicizing each night, as well as all the pre-festival arrangements which had occupied them for months beforehand. And although they had originally planned to play only in the IMOO orchestra, they each ended up unexpectedly performing in another set as well.

But they were satisfied: “I feel great”, they both said, with Wellman continuing that “musically, it was a big success. There was some really stellar music. That was the most important thing. And there were people here; everybody who came seemed to be really happy. It was just a really great chance to get some people in the community all together, in one place."

The festival featured a wide range of musicians from Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto, all playing improvised music, but on many different instruments and presenting a wide diversity of sounds. Pedersen said one highlight for him was playing with (ex-Ottawa, now-Toronto) guitarist Justin Haynes. Haynes became an unexpected extra headliner when Jennifer Giles invited him to play in her trio – with results that “floored” Pedersen.

The festival broke even financially, Pedersen said, thanks to a City of Ottawa grant, and donations from several musicians who played at the festival, augmenting the admission fees. Revenues from beer and alcohol sales and sales of CDs and T-shirts also added to their funds, and they also had savings from IMOOfest 2012 and other larger concerts they had promoted: “we are pretty good at saving our pennies throughout the year.”

It attracted fewer people than they had hoped, Pedersen said, but “attendance is a crap shoot.” Wellman pointed out that the festival attracted new listeners who hadn't been seen at IMOO's regular Sunday concerts at the Umi Café. He hoped they would come back on Sundays because “if they like this, they're going to like the things that we're doing throughout the year.”

Most importantly, “it always felt like there was a good-sized audience who were engaged in the music. When I was performing, I felt like I was playing for a good audience. And I think everyone who played felt the same way.”

A view from the non-improvised-music side

One of the listeners in the audience, exploring the music, was Arnie Francis. He attended Friday and Saturday nights with the pair of IMOOfest passes (donated by IMOOfest) which he won in OttawaJazzScene.ca's ticket draw/contest. A keen live music fan, Francis has organized house concerts, featuring mainstream jazz musicians, in the greater Almonte area as “JazzNhouse” for two years. But he is not a regular improvised-music fan.

He discovered “thoughtful and creative phrasings by John Higney (guitar), Philippe Charbonneau (bass) and Jean Martin (percussion)” in the IMOO Chamber Orchestra, and heard other musicians such as Jennifer Giles (on piano, in her trio) whom he would “love to see perform in a metered measure of improvisation.”

Francis suggested that “artists could be encouraged to introduce and interpret their pieces” to aid “people with different listening tolerances to ease into it. There is a need for a spiritual guide type to help the great unwashed transcend the complexities of this musical expression.” He also proposed that IMOOfest could “program different streams that allow people with different listening tolerances to ease into it.”

Reaching out in these ways to enthusiastic listeners who are not hard-core improvised music fans is something that the IMOOfest programmers might consider to attract future audiences. They have already done it to an extent, with their well-received question-and-answer sessions as part of their regular concert series at Umi Cafe.

Francis was still happy with his first IMOOfest exposure. “I'm very pleased to have experienced it,”

New stresses in different places

Each night of IMOOfest attracted a somewhat different audience, Pedersen said, which they had programmed for knowing that Jeff Morton would draw a different crowd than Christine Duncan, who would again draw a different crowd than Jesse Stewart. They also avoided presenting all the big names on one night.

The format each night – a solo artist, followed by a duo or trio, followed by a larger ensemble – was forced on them by finances, Wellman said. “We'd love to be able to have quintets all night long but that's just not going to happen. And having a solo act to open, often they'll play a little bit shorter and it mixes the evening up and it creates an arc to the evening which I think can be satisfying to the listener.”

For its second year, the festival moved location (from Club SAW downtown to GigSpace in Hintonburg), and increased from two days to three days in length.

That meant new stresses in different places, Wellman said. “All in all it wasn't necessarily any more difficult but it was difficult in different ways.”

But the biggest challenges were more personal. Wellman became a new father in May (his six-month-old son was in the audience for two of the three days of the festival and appeared to have inherited his parents' love of music), and Pedersen moved to Montreal in September and had to do much of the organizing long-distance, with no home Internet for almost two months.

“It took a lot of delegation, and a lot of patience and a lot of help. That was the biggest challenge, for the first time really reaching out in a strong way to the community to ask for very specific tasks to be done,” Pedersen said.

Pedersen said they were very happy with GigSpace: “It worked out fantastically. They're generous with their time, it was affordable for us, and this is a beautiful room which suits the music that we're doing very, very well.”

The room worked particularly well in letting the audience hear every note in the very quiet music from many of the performers: for example, Jesse Stewart rubbing his face against a cardboard box. It also had generally good sight lines for the all performances. The IMOO Chamber Orchestra, however, did overload the room with its volume several times.

Making Ottawa a destination for musicians

Both Pedersen and Wellman emphasized the importance of IMOOfest and IMOO's regular concerts in keeping up contacts with musicians outside Ottawa – which happened with IMOOfest 2012 headliners Lori Freedman and Scott Thomson.

Wellman said IMOO “really makes Ottawa a destination for artists out of town, and for the artists in town, it creates a place to play. And it also creates a chance for them to get to meet a lot of the artists from other places who are making their living doing it, which for me is a very inspiring thing. And to speak to people and to find out what it's like in their cities and how they're making their living and their approaches to their music, and to trade ideas. Which is really a wonderful thing that probably wouldn't happen except for the series and except for the festival.”

There are relatively few festivals in Canada presenting primarily improvised music similar to IMOOfest, other than the larger jazz festivals in Guelph and Victoriaville. Wellman could only think of two comparably-sized ones: the Tone Deaf Festival in Kingston and the Somewhere There Festival in Toronto.

However, IMOO is part of a cross-Canada (from Halifax to Vancouver) organization of improvised music presenters called Circuit. It helps find tour locations for improvisers, so they have enough places to play that they can apply for Canada Council touring grants. That's what brought Ellwood Epps and Joshua Zubot's Land of Marigold to IMOOfest, Pedersen said.

All of these – and some now-larger ones like OFF and Suoni in Montreal – are festivals that were started by artists for artists, Wellman said. “And that's really what we are. We are artists and we want to see the art served, and also the community served. That's the main reason why we started the whole series and the festival, because it needs to be done.”

“Improvised or free music is enough of a fringe art form that no city seems to have the population to support a huge, booming thriving scene,” Pedersen said. “So what we do is we do strength through networking. It's really important that we be able to branch out across national and international and interplanetary. I think the next step is to get really strong networking happening in Europe and connect into the worldwide scene of improvisers.”

Continuing next year

And will there be an IMOOfest 2014?

Yes, said Pedersen. “But don't ask me about it till next week.”

Wellman agreed, pointing out that organizing a festival is “hard, but it's easy also.”

“It's work, but it's not that much work,” Pedersen explained. “Look, I play the trumpet. I can practice two to five hours in a day. What else am I going to do with the rest of my workday? I compose, I do my bandleading, I teach, but really truly as a full-time artist I have the time and the flexibility to give to something that I really believe in. This is my big project, besides my own personal work.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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All photos © Brett Delmage, 2013