Updated September 8
Jazz. Improvisation. Pushing the edge. The Guelph Jazz Festival has always had a very clear idea of what type of music it wants to present and what it's trying to promote.

Much of that is due to the festival's founder, musician and academic Ajay Heble, who has brought a deep love of jazz and an intellectual approach to improvisation to the festival. But after 23 years, Heble is retiring as the festival's artistic director.

Ajay Heble introduces the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival   photos ©Brett Delmage

The 2016 festival, which runs from September 14 to 18, will be the last he organizes – and he's brought back many festival favourites to perform.

From Vancouver: clarinetist François Houle, guitarist/oud player Gord Grdina, and drummer Kenton Loewen. From Montreal: pianist Marianne Trudel, saxophonist Jean Dérôme, and Esmerine. From the Toronto area: saxophonist/flautist Jane Bunnett, baritone saxophonist David Mott, reed player Peter Lutek, cellist Matt Brubeck, guitarist Kevin Breit, tabla player Ravi Naimpally, banjoist Tim Posgate, and guitarist Neil Hendry. From Ottawa: percussionist Jesse Stewart and violinist William Lamoureux.

From California: pianist Myra Melford. From Chicago: percussionist Hamid Drake, trumpeter Rob Mazurek, saxophonist Ernest Dawkins. From Philadelphia: drummer Chad Taylor. From NYC: trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, pianist Amina Claudine Myers, tuba player Howard Johnson, and pianist David Virelles.

Some of the music they play will look back: there will be two tributes to famous free jazz musicians, and one concert which will remix performances from previous Guelph festivals.

Others will expand possibilities, with performances as diverse as DJ/scratch artist Kid Koala, to the Asiko Afrobeat Ensemble, to the “heavy-handed” FreePunk of Peregrine Falls.

But the core of the festival remains improvised jazz. It has similarities to the Ottawa Jazz Festival's Improv Invitational series – ranging from melodic to highly avant-garde – but on a much larger scale.

Jesse Stewart and Hamid Drake perform at the Guelph Jazz Festival ©2013 Brett Delmage
Jesse Stewart and Hamid Drake perform at the Guelph Jazz Festival ©2013 Brett Delmage
Many of the concerts are free, with outdoor shows downtown by Guelph City Hall on Friday night and on Saturday (September 16-17). The festival has also an associated daytime academic colloquium from Wednesday, September 14 to Friday, September 16 at the University of Guelph. Its events, including several interesting concerts, are free as well.

This year, the colloquium is examining improvisation in real life: linking research to artistic performances, community outreach, social policy, teaching, therapy, and the use of technology. Topics include

  • the aesthetic evaluation of improvised music;
  • improvised music education in Houston, Texas' public schools;
  • “Aha!” moments in music;
  • how the anthems of the Black Lives Matter movement use improvisation;
  • the rise of the Brooklyn jazz, improvised, experimental, and creative music scene since the late 1990s;
  • an improvised solo performance examining how jazz pioneer Sidney Bechet used and was used by his racial heritage;
  • how Herbie Hancock uses Buddhism to address racism; and
  • group consciousness within extended improvisation.

But music is the centre of the Guelph Jazz Festival. Highlights include:

Marianne Trudel and Ingrid Jensen perform at Canada's National Arts Centre   ©2014 Brett Delmage
Marianne Trudel and Ingrid Jensen perform at Canada's National Arts Centre ©2014 Brett Delmage
The Marianne Trudel Quartet with trumpeter Ingrid Jensen (Thursday evening, ticketed): It's no wonder that the Montreal pianist's CD with Jensen, La Vie Commence Ici, was nominated for a Juno last year – it's a beautiful collection notable for its multi-layered performances and its melodic and complex compositions. Its compositions worked well live at their Canada's National Arts Centre debut. With both Trudel and Jensen celebrated innovators, it will be interesting to see how their partnership has developed. Trudel and Jensen are also giving a free colloquium workshop at 9 a.m. Friday.

David Virelles (Thursday at noon, free; Thursday evening, ticketed): David Virelles came from Cuba to Canada via Jane Bunnett, and played piano on two of her Cuban albums. He's been in NYC since 2009, and has had a long collaboration with Cuban percussionist Román Díaz, who plays the biankoméko, a percussion setup consisting of four cord-and-skin drums, shakers (erikunki), wooden sticks (itones), and a metal bell (ekón). They performed together in Ottawa in February. Virelles' 2013 ECM recording, Ḿbọ̀kọ́, features Díaz and bassist Thomas Morgan (both of whom will be with him in Guelph) and features “Latin ostinatos, swing rhythms, and more abstract pieces”. The album's music is centred in the Abakuá tradition, a secret (and sacred) Afro-Cuban men’s society founded in the 19th century. Virelles and Díaz will also give an artist talk on Wednesday afternoon, and Virelles will give a solo concert on Thursday at noon.

Myra Melford (Saturday evening, ticketed): Melford got rave reviews at this year's Ottawa Jazz Festival for her creative work with her Snowy Egret quartet. She's also a frequent favourite at Guelph in many combinations. She's been recognized with a Guggenheim and a Fulbright Fellowship, and has repeatedly been included in Downbeat's Critics Poll over the last 25 years. She'll be playing solo piano at this concert; in 2013, she released her first solo album, Life Carries Me This Way, of music inspired by the painting of the late artist Don Reich. She will also give a keynote address on Friday afternoon about her current “Language of Dreams” project, which combines narration, dance, and video with music for Snowy Egret.

François Houle  ©Tim Matheson
François Houle ©Tim Matheson

Amina Claudine Myers (Saturday evening, ticketed): Myers was introduced to creative jazz through the The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago. She's toured as an organist with prominent jazz musicians including Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Lester Bowie, and Archie Shepp, collaborated with Charlie Haden, and directed gospel choirs. She's written large-scale works for a 16-voice choir, pipe organ and percussion; for chamber orchestras; and a completely improvised performance looking inside the creative mind with a New Orleans chef, a weaving designer, a choreographer, and composers. Her Guelph performance will be more minimalist: just her voice and piano. Before the concert, she will give short public interview in the theatre lobby.

François Houle (Friday and Saturday, ticketed): OttawaJazzScene.ca's editors saw the Vancouver clarinetist in a late-night solo show at Guelph a few years ago, and were amazed at the warmth and clarity of his performance. He's a versatile musician, whose styles range from free jazz to mainstream melodic to world music to classical. His more than 20 recordings have earned multiple Juno Award and West Coast Music Award nominations. He'll perform twice at Silence, a small avant-garde club: in a "culture-mashing" trio led by guitarist Gordon Grdina with drummer Kenton Loewen on late Friday afternoon, and solo on Saturday afternoon.

Stream Quartet (Saturday afternoon, ticketed): Led by baritone saxophonist David Mott, this quartet encompasses four fine Ontario improvisers and composers, with bassist Justin Gray (seen recently in Ottawa with Amos Hoffman), clarinetist and saxophonist Peter Lutek, and Ottawa percussionist Jesse Stewart. They're old friends, but they've just recently started playing together in this configuration – and Gray is adding in a new instrument, his self-designed bass veena, a unique adaptation of an Indian instrument with resonating sympathetic strings. Expect music made in the moment, with symphonic textures and a transcendent feel.

The Stretch Orchestra (Saturday late afternoon, free): A perennial favourite in Ottawa and Guelph, the Juno-winning Stretch Orchestra combines catchy riffs, on-the-point musicianship, and lots of humor in joyously upbeat shows. Kevin Breit brings roots and jazz influences on guitar and mandolin; Matt Brubeck adds electric cello textures and melodies; Jesse Stewart drives the band with strong drumming and adds unexpected percussion.

Rob Mazurek performs at the Guelph Jazz Festival  ©2013 Brett Delmage
Rob Mazurek performs at the Guelph Jazz Festival ©2013 Brett Delmage

The Chicago Underground Duo (Friday evening, free): cornetist Rob Mazurek and percussionist Chad Taylor combine jazz improvisation with electronica, sampling, and world music in this duo. Starting in the fertile Chicago improvised music scene in the 1990s, Mazurek and Taylor have made more than ten albums together, including Boca Negra, recorded in São Paulo, Brazil. That album includes “powerful grooves, ambient sound structures, folk song simplicity and bursts of polyrhythmic energy, as well as their unique cover of Ornette Coleman’s 'Broken Shadows'”.

Fanfare Pourpour (late Saturday evening, free): Montreal saxophonist, improviser, and composer Jean Dérôme has a talent for putting together huge ensembles with a giant sound, an unusual combinations of instruments, and a spontaneous and mostly joyful vibe. This edition of Fanfare Pourpour has 17 musicians, playing trumpets, saxophones, clarinets, guitars, banjo, accordions, violins, percussion, euphonium, tuba, musical saw and vocals. Le Devoir describes the music they produce as “lyrical, joyful, dense, cinematographic, full of contrasts, with its zany times, theatrical, and even gently free.”

A tribute to Bill Dixon (Sunday morning, ticketed): Rob Mazurek will present a solo concert on cornet memorializing the free jazz pioneer and trumpeter, who worked extensively with the pianist Cecil Taylor, the saxophonist Archie Shepp and many other European free-jazz musicians. The Guardian described Dixon's style as “disciplined and rigorous”, relying “on the expressiveness of timbre and tone-colour, and evolved a signature sound of slow-moving, low-end melody lines, often expressed through understated half-valve slurs, expressive growls, vocalised sounds and dramatic vibrato.” Mazurek, who was last at Guelph performing with sax legend Pharoah Sanders, adds electronic sound manipulation to his cornet playing, filling halls with new sounds and textures created by computer programming, electronic effects and keyboards. His cornet becomes the centre of a shifting soundscape.

Jane Bunnett   ©2013 Brett Delmage
Jane Bunnett ©2013 Brett Delmage

Song Everlasting, a tribute to NYC pianist and improviser Don Pullen (Friday evening, ticketed): Don Pullen, who died 21 years ago, was famed for his individual, percussive style and wide range of collaborations, from bebop to the avant-garde to Brazilian music. Jane Bunnett made four albums with Pullen: In Dew Time in 1988, New York Duets in 1989, Live At Sweet Basil in 1991, and The Water is Wide in 1994. She'll lead a sextet of NYC and Toronto musicians, with David Virelles on piano, to perform Pullen's “lyrical masterpieces that have gone largely unheard since his untimely passing”. The concert will in particular feature tuba and brass virtuoso Howard Johnson, who has performed with everyone from Charles Mingus and Gil Evans to The Band.

Hamid Drake (Saturday early evening, free): Chicago-based percussionist Hamid Drake creates musical adventures on the drumset, as those who have heard his Ottawa concerts with Jesse Stewart can testify. He's a first-call drummer for both jazz musicians and free improvisers, and a Guelph Jazzfest perennial. In his performances, he uses the full capabilities of the drumset and the frame drum, incorporating Afro-Cuban, Indian, and African percussion instruments and musical traditions. In this solo performance, Drake will play drum kit for half the concert, and then combine frame drum and chanting vocals.

So Long Seven (Saturday evening, free): Banjo, tabla, violin, and guitar isn't an obvious musical combination, but in the hands of these Toronto and Ottawa musicians, it becomes a fast-moving and highly engaging mix of jazz, roots, and world music – with an improvised edge and ever-changing rhythms. Their show in Gatineau in August was enthusiastically received [read our review].

Jean Dérôme performs at the Guelph Jazz Festival  ©2011 Brett Delmage
Jean Dérôme performs at the Guelph Jazz Festival ©2011 Brett Delmage

Esmerine (Friday noon and evening, free): This ensemble won a World Music Juno Award in 2014 for Dalmak, and mesmerized a full house at the 2015 Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival. They combine jazz, chamber, and Turkish musical influences, centred on cello and percussion, in rapturous soundscapes.

Ottawa percussionist Jesse Stewart will appear five times at the festival, including in the Improv Finale, and with the Stream Quartet and the Stretch Orchestra. But two of his colloquium appearances are particularly interesting.

On Friday morning, he explains his “We Are All Musicians” research-creation project, which gives opportunities to make music to all, regardless of their musical training, the size of their bank accounts, or their physical or cognitive abilities. Stewart has worked with a variety of mixed-abilities groups, collaborating locally with Propeller Dance and H’Art of Ottawa, and in Guelph with Kidsability. He's also worked on musical projects with students in an Ottawa public school in a low-income area, and run a course at Discovery University (associated with the Ottawa Mission). With each of these groups, he's used improvisation to create musical performances with less-common percussion and electronic instruments.

Then in the afternoon, Stewart unveils his Guelph Jazz Festival Remix Project. Stewart is one of the rare musicians heard regularly performing on the Reactable, a virtual modular synthesizer and digital sampler. It has an an illuminated game surface atop a pedestal, on which the musician can move and turn blocks to engage and morph sampled sounds. It looks like a very large tom drum with an eerie blue glow on top – and is amazingly flexible in combining and altering sounds. Stewart has been working with it for more than two years now, including at -25C. For this show, he will remix and reconfigure the musics of past festivals, improvising with them in real time.

Ajay Heble performs at the Guelph Jazz Festival ©2013 Brett Delmage
Ajay Heble performs at the Guelph Jazz Festival ©2013 Brett Delmage
The festival will officially end Sunday morning with an Improv Finale, featuring Myra Melford, Ernest Dawkins, Ravi Naimpally, Jesse Stewart, and quite likely some unannounced friends. It's a classic Guelph Jazzfest show – a tightrope act where the musicians balance their own and others' ideas, making music out of thin air. But these are all musicians accomplished in this type of community improv, so the results are likely to be fine indeed.

For those who can stick around Guelph Sunday evening, you have one more chance to see Ajay Heble show off his love of free jazz. At 8 p.m. on Sunday, September 18, the Vertical Squirrels will perform at Silence. The Squirrels are a free improvisation musical collective, mostly from Guelph, dedicated to diverse musical expressions as a teaching and learning tool––and also as a vehicle for building community. Their music? “Free jazz and post rock sensibilities with nods to Indian ragas, jazz-inflected minimalism, Zappa-esque bouts of sonic anarchy, and 70s German rock music.” The group consists of Heble, Daniel Fischlin, Lewis Melville, Rob Wallace, and Ted Warren; at this performance, they'll be joined by special guests Korean percussionist Dong-Won Kim and multi-instrumentalists Jeff Bird and Gary Diggins.

    – Alayne McGregor

Full disclosure: The Guelph Jazz Festival connected us with generous jazz fans who will be billeting us when we report from the Guelph Jazz Festival. Our sincere thanks to Gail and Paul.

See OttawaJazzScene.ca's coverage of the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival and the 2014 Guelph Jazz Festival. Both stories link to additional reviews at the bottom.

September 8: Updated the description of Jesse Stewart's collaborations to clarify that Propeller Dance is a mixed-abilities group.