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Guelph 2013: World Percussion Summit breaks the borders of rhythm (review)

Dong-Won Kim started the concert off on his chang-go ©Brett Delmage, 2013

World Percussion Summit
Jesse Stewart, Hamid Drake, Dong-Won Kim, Pandit Anindo Chatterjee
Cooperators Hall, River Run Centre
Guelph Jazz Festival
Tuesday, September 3, 2013 - 8 p.m.

The Guelph Jazz Festival combined the familiar and the new, North America and the world for the opening concert of this year's festival.

It was the festival's 20th anniversary, and to celebrate that, it started a day early with a special free concert. For the familiar, the festival invited drummers Hamid Drake from Chicago and Jesse Stewart from Ottawa, both of whom have played there frequently. Their drumsets were right beside each other at centre stage.

For the new – and to fit this year's theme, “celebrating a world of jazz” – they invited tabla player Pandit Anindo Chatterjee (whom the festival described as “the living legend of the tabla”), and Korean percussionist Dong-Won Kim, known for his work in Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble. Their instruments flanked the drumsets on either side.

The concert had an Ottawa connection: although Drake and Stewart had known each other for years, their stint at GigSpace in Ottawa last March was the first time they'd formally played together. There, they fell into an immediate rapport, producing two 75-minute sets of improvised music where they intuitively enhanced each other's explorations.

I expected to hear a similar format in this concert, but with all four musicians intertwining their music.

So it was bemusing when Kim started playing alone, and kept playing alone, for almost 10 minutes. He played the chang-go, an hourglass-shaped Korean floor drum, which has a bass end covered with cowhide, and a higher-toned other end covered with horsehide. He started with sparse, echoing strokes and moved into simple, repeated patterns which resonated through the hall. Partway through, he started chanting wordlessly along with his drumming. The patterns became more complex and his drumming more intense before slowing with a last few strokes.

Drake had been carefully listening to Kim, and visibly considering which brushes or sticks he should start with. His decision: a finely-refined flourish on cymbals, followed by a rumbling beat on snare and toms, muting the resonances with his elbow. The effect was like a steady rainstorm, with occasional grace notes from him clicking his sticks together. He slowed to a marching beat with occasional accents, and then became more intense with strong bass drum thumps before ending with another cymbal flourish.

For his section, Stewart didn't even touch his drumset – instead he stood up, picked up his waterphone, and played that for his entire solo. The waterphone is a metal instrument, invented and built by the late Richard Waters, which consists of a lower circular resonator filled with water from a central spout and long spines on top in a circular pattern. Its sounds are often used to create tension or fear in films, but Stewart has taken it much further. Over the last year, he has substantially expanded his repertoire on waterphone: he used to primarily play the spines with a violin bow, but now he's drumming on the bottom of the instrument with his hands, and most recently playing the spines like a harp, caressing them to create gentle ripples of sound.

He started in that way, creating ethereal music which sang throughout the hall as his hands danced over the spines. He moved to glissandos, and then used a soft mallet to stroke the spines as well. He struck the bottom of the waterphone with mallet, and then bowed the instrument. While I've heard Stewart play using many of these techniques before, the effect was still remarkable, especially since, near the end, it was as though a ventriloquist was playing. You could not identify where exactly the sounds were coming from.

Chatterjee had only only two tablas with him – a larger, squat one with a deep bass sound and a higher-pitched smaller, ovoid one. He alternated between them, letting one sing out while he played a muted rhythm on the other. He followed that by abruptly changing speed and direction several times, sometimes singing along with the tablas. At one point his syncopated rhythm on tabla and voice sounded almost like a beat poet performance. Near the end of his solo, he was playing so fast he sounded almost like a machine gun.

Then they moved to duets. Drake started by setting a bronze bowl to chiming, and then echoing that on his cymbals. As he played, Kim moved to centre stage and steadily and slowly assumed a series of positions – like an almost-frozen statue. Drake continued with sparsely elegant sounds, adding in two paper rolls being struck together, and Kim started a low chant as he posed. Then he twirled in place, fast, before ending in kneeling prayer position. The section ended with Kim and Drake bowing to each other.

Stewart broke the ensuing silence by bowing cymbals – a sharp atonal series of sounds separated in time, alternating with Chatterjee's very fast tablas. Their sounds started to coverage, each responding to the other with similar rhythms but different sounds: brushes rustling quickly against drums in response to an inflected beat on tablas. They ended by collaborating on a steady beat which slowed and faded; the audience responded with strong applause.

Jeff Schlanger - musicWitness, paints the performance ©Brett Delmage, 2013

And then – finally – all four played together, with Stewart predicting at the start “we're going to have so much fun!”, and Kim responding with one of his mother's life lessons: “If you're going to have too much fun, you're going to be poor.” Whatever their monetary rewards, the four produced a rich texture of sounds, including Kim's low, full tones on jing (small Korean bronze gongs), accented by light rhythms from Drake on rattles and drums, Stewart on snare drum, and Chatterjee on tablas. It swelled, becoming oddly reminiscent of work songs like “John Henry”.

The beat became stronger, initially accented by gongs, but then with all four cooperating in creating a constantly changing rhythms. If there had been more room in the tightly-packed theatre, it would have been fun to dance to. The music grew harder and more accented, while still staying infectiously danceable, and then finally ended abruptly. The audience responded with strong applause and a standing ovation.

In many ways, it was an archetypal Guelph jazzfest show: unexpected combinations of musicians, less common instruments (not a sax or piano to be found), and most importantly, primarily improvised. Even in its free offerings, the festival stays true to its sound and its avant-garde roots.

But it also showed how accessible that music can be. The 225-seat Cooperators Hall was completely filled, with people finally having to be turned away for lack of seats – and I did hear from a number of listeners that they were not regular jazzfest attendees. No matter: the audience was uniformly rapt, fascinated, and appreciated.

I think the concert could have been even more interesting if the initial solo sections had been shorter, leaving more room for the musicians to explore different combinations of instruments. But regardless all the musicians produced interesting and highly musical performances and well-deserved the enthusiastic response they received.

    – Alayne McGregor

Read more about the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival:

See also: