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Guelph 2013: Espousing music of the moment (review)

Marianne Trudel at the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival. ©Brett Delmage, 2013Double Bill: Dawn of Midi, and
Marianne Trudel, William Parker, and Hamid Drake
Cooperators Hall, River Run Centre
Guelph Jazz Festival
Friday, September 6, 2013 - 8 p.m.

View photos of this concert

Marianne Trudel, William Parker, and Hamid Drake will also play together at l'OFF Festival in Montreal on Friday, October 4, 2013.

The Guelph Jazz Festival is particularly adept at unexpected combinations. Afternoon concerts at its colloquium often feature musicians from radically different styles and different countries, thrown together with little rehearsal – and every one of those concerts I've heard has at least managed to dog-paddle, if not swim vigorously. That extends to some evening concerts also, though generally with higher-profile musicians, and not quite as many on-stage.

This time the festival paired Montreal pianist Marianne Trudel with bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake, for the first time all three had played together. But they had no problem with the introductions, and smoothly jumped off into unexplored territory.

Trudel had been featured at Guelph twice before, bringing her quintet there in 2007 and 2011. She's well known for her melodic contemporary jazz, played in formats ranging from solo to septet and big band. But she also has played with many strong free improvisers, including Evan Parker, Tony Malaby, Gerry Hemingway, and Jean Dérome.

NYC bassist William Parker and Chicago drummer Hamid Drake, who have played with each other in many different projects for decades, are among the strongest rhythm sections in jazz, and especially free improv. In fact, they're far more than just rhythm: the deep singing of Parker's bow on his bass, or the way in which Drake can set his cymbals and brass bowls to chiming is as much melodic as rhythmic.

The trio's 80-minute concert started simply and low-key: Trudel alternated between the keyboard and plucking piano strings to create a shower of shimmering piano notes. Drake echoed her on cymbals and light taps on his snare drum. Parker began with heavy, reverberant notes on his bass, and then moved to using it for percussion: hammering on its body, and creating muted, almost scratchy sounds playing at the top of his fingerboard.

And then they were off on a 45-minute-long exploration, in which the music was frequently dramatic and abstract. Trudel produced hard flurries on the piano; Drake was in constant motion between drums and cymbals, matching her in the sharpness of his playing; Parker dashed up and down his bass, producing angular, bent patterns, and then echoing those patterns with his bow. The energy all three expended seemed huge, and the palette of sounds they produced wide.

The trio produced softer passages as well, where the rustle and singing of Trudel's piano strings (played both her fingers and with mallets) was echoed by high, attenuated bass and the light rumble of cymbals. Then a moment later, they would hit a groove and the whole hall could feel their propulsive energy.

The piece ended with repeated riffs on bass which slowly faded out, and a last few bright notes on piano.

Parker started the next piece with a simple whispering pattern on doson ngoni (a very tall lute from Mali). Drake matched him with light hand drumming and Trudel again lightly strummed her piano's strings. Over the next 20 minutes, this evolved into a beautiful, melodic piece, with melancholy overtones and almost a Celtic feel in places. Parker moved to the shakuhachi (a thick Japanese bamboo flute), initially playing it more percussively and almost eerily, then becoming more melodic, then producing a drone. Finally, as the other two increased the intensity of the music, his flute soared over them with melody and then gurgled, sounding like water over stones. The piece ended with a few light piano notes, and the hall immediately erupted in strong applause.

For the last piece, also about 20 minutes long, Parker returned to the bass. It started with stop and go drumming, with Drake striking with one drumstick while running the other on the drum's surface to alter the sound. As the others joined in, the music became intense and a bit abstract, with Trudel producing rippling piano riffs accented with high notes. Eventually the full force of music died into triplets and quadruplets of notes, underlaid by Parker's pressing his bow into his bass's strings making a sighing sound. And then the music ended abruptly, and the audience jumped to its feet for a standing ovation.

The soundscapes the trio produced were emphatically both “inside” and “outside”. Even if you hadn't heard these musicians before, there was a lot of both interesting and immediately approachable music there, while still definitely in the context of free improv. Several times in the show, I did feel that they let the intensity peak for too long, getting caught in a high-volume, very fast vibe that didn't have as much nuance as their quieter passages, but even those were still interesting.

It was a dynamic performance with all three communicating well and working together, and well worth hearing.

All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Click any thumbnail to view a larger image.


The same could not be said for Dawn of Midi, the young trio from Brooklyn who opened the show with 60 minutes of the dullest music I have heard in a long time.

With the festival's 2013 theme being “celebrating a world of jazz”, I suspect that the the three musicians' cultural roots (in India, Pakistan, and Morocco) might have been a selling point. Unfortunately, other than their general use of polyrhythms, I couldn't hear any such influences.

It was essentially electronic trance music played on acoustic instruments: piano (Amino Belyamani), double bass (Aakaash Israni), and drums (Qasim Naqvi). Naqvi played the most stripped-down drumkit I'd seen in a long time. I kept wondering why any drummer would leave off all the cymbals except for the hi-hat.

Dawn of Midi. ©Brett Delmage, 2013

The music repeated, and then it repeated, and then it repeated some more. Then the patterns would morph by a tiny amount, and then they would repeat, and repeat, and repeat. It started off fast and frantic, and slowed down after about 10 minutes, but didn't get any more interesting. The musicians seemed to think if twice was good, 20 times or 50 times was better: that's great on the dance floor, but not so suitable in a concert setting.

Half an hour in, they switched to a new riff, faster and more complex, though with the same basic beat on the drums. A little while later they added some accents. I started to wonder if this was a satire of jazz improv – unfortunately, there was no evidence of that; in particular, no one on stage cracked a smile, or even acknowledged the audience.

The audience was dead quiet and unresponsive. No one I saw was smiling or moving with the beat.

Forty minutes in, the trio switched to another muted pattern on piano: ding, ding, ding, and over and over again. Both of the audience members next to me were looking at their watches. My husband whispered to me, “I can feel my life ticking away.”

The riffs altered slightly, becoming a bit more chordal and resonant on piano, but keeping the same metronome feel. The drummer started to play double-time, and the pianist produced some raw-edged sounds from the piano strings. Eventually, it faded out and ended. The audience applauded, with even a few whistles.

At the end, the audience learned (from emcee Andrew Craig) that the group had essentially done a live reproduction of its latest album, Dysnomia, keeping exactly to what was on disc – and that all the music was through-composed. There was no improvisation at all.

That's an interesting exercise in control and exactitude, but completely antithetical to the Guelph festival's emphasis on improvisation – and what Guelph audiences expect.

The festival's blurb for the group also quoted a critic who said that in the group's concerts “an hour flew by in what seemed like minutes”. That wasn't my experience. In fact, a more accurate description came from the group's website, where they described their live performances as a “test of endurance and trust”.

Ultimately I was left baffled: how could anyone compose and design music that was so consistently boring and repetitive?

    – Alayne McGregor

See also:

Read more about the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival: