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Guelph 2014: John Heward and Barre Phillips are 80-year-olds with oomph (review)

Barre Phillips (bass) and John Heward (drums) ©Brett Delmage, 2014

John Heward and Barre Phillips 80th Birthday Celebration
Guelph Jazz Festival
Macdonald Stewart Art Centre
Wednesday, September 3, 2014 – 8 p.m.

Montreal jazz drummer John Heward is also renowned Canadian painter and sculptor John Heward, and he shows a similar experimental bent in both his artistic pursuits.

For the week of the Guelph Jazz Festival, the main floor walls of the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre featured several of his artworks: canvas painted and twisted into large-scale dramatic pieces. When he performed at the art centre as the first evening show of the festival – with some of his favourite musicians – there was a similar feeling of drama, uncertainty, and flair.

The concert and show were to celebrate Heward's 80th birthday – but only his 31st year as a professional musician. He played the drums as a teenager, but then concentrated on the visual arts. In 1983, at 49 years old, he bought a set of drums, and started playing improvised music. He's played in various avant-garde groups in Montreal, including Nicolas Caloia's Ratchet Orchestra, and PO (“Provocative Operations”). He leads the free jazz group Murray Street Band.

The concert began with 20 minutes of short videos by Montreal filmmaker Sylvia Safdie. In black and white, they were quiet and sonorous, each featuring music by one or more of the musicians performing that evening. And not only that: as you watched each three-to-five-minute piece, you realized that, among the landscapes and waterscapes were (in most cases) the artists themselves, or in some cases only part of their bodies.

For the concert, Heward occupied centre-stage, and provided a constant presence in the music with highly dynamic drumming. But he rarely took a solo, leaving that to the other musicians in that evening's ensemble: Barre Phillips (double bass), Dana Reason (piano), Lori Freedman (clarinet and bass clarinet), and Joe McPhee (soprano and alto saxophone).

The ensemble was a perfect example of the internationality of free jazz and of the festival itself: Phillips is from the U.S., but has been based in France since the early 70s; Reason was raised in Ontario, studied at McGill and in the U.S., and now teaches in Oregon; Freedman is now based in Montreal, but has studied and played across Canada, the United States, and Europe; McPhee is American, but works with many well-known European jazz musicians. They performed four improvisations in the next 50 minutes, in a high-compressed and intense performance which allowed all the musicians to shine.

A duet between Heward and Phillips – but with additions – started the show. Phillips also celebrates his 80th birthday this year, but given the amount of intensity and imagination both showed, it was obvious neither was in his dotage. They started off sparsely, with Phillips also playing the zipper of his fleece cardigan, pulling it up and down to getting a buzzing sound. Then he played his bass with his bow held backwards, producing atonal, off-kilter sounds, and then plucked notes in time with Heward's strong drumming. He then moved back to bowing, more roughly but the right way around, and then Reason jumped in to add more melody with rippling piano.

(l-r) Dana Reason,  Barre Phillips, John Heward, Joe McPhee, Lori Freedman at the Guelph Jazz Festival. ©Brett Delmage, 2014

While McPhee played a light and evocative alto sax solo, Phillips lightly brushed his bass strings. Then Freedman entered very loudly, practically bellowing into her bass clarinet, and the music leaped up a level in intensity. It became deeply ominous and disturbing and finally ended with an urgent bass clarinet solo which resolved quietly into a last light note.

The next piece again opened with hard bass and drums, but then Freedman inserted fast circling bass clarinet lines floating over top. She was a particularly interesting musician to watch during the show, consistently graceful and gliding into the music with her whole body. The lead quickly switched among the musicians, with McPhee's soprano and Phillips' bowed bass working particularly well together, both in melancholy and in fast, buzzing passages.

The third piece began energetically and became almost frantic, with punctuated piano riffs and circling alto sax and clarinet. In contrast, in the final piece, the musicians let each note ring out, starting with resonant bass pizzicato alternating with high strong notes on clarinet. Freedman's clarinet, McPhee's melodious soprano and Phillips' bowed bass joined together creating a single line, and split apart again as the clarinet pushed higher, before the piece ended with a last bass note.

Each of the pieces was greeted with strong applause from the receptive audience, who also gave the group a partial standing ovation at the end. The concert started the Guelph festival off as it would want to be perceived: collaborative, and with its own strong individual voice.

    – Alayne McGregor

Full disclosure: The Guelph Jazz Festival assisted Alayne McGregor and Brett Delmage in finding a family who very generously billeted us in Guelph, so we could afford to report on the festival.

Read more about the 2014 Guelph Jazz Festival: