Hamid Drake ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Hamid Drake plays two shows – one a percussion duo and with other with bagpiper Erwan Keravec – at the Guelph Jazz Festival this week ©Brett Delmage, 2013

This year's Guelph Jazz Festival features master performers on musical instruments rarely if ever seen at a jazzfest.

The Breton bagpipes (Erwan Keravec); the jaw harp (chik white); Taiwanese moon lute, Korean gayageum, Japanese biwa, and Korean soribuk drum (Jen Shyu); hurdy-gurdy (Ben Grossman); harpsichord and Casavant pipe organ (John Kameel Farah); shakuhachi (Ab Baars); and pedal-steel guitar (Susan Alcorn) will all be showcased in indoor or outdoor concerts at the festival. Even a street-sweeper bristle will be used to play off-kilter walking bass lines (Ryan Driver, of The Titillators).

The festival's associated academic colloquium is also taking up this “Improvising instruments” theme, and Ottawa's Jesse Stewart will be speaking on Thursday about the unusual instruments he's been playing. He told OttawaJazzScene.ca he'll likely demonstrate the waterphone, the palette, and the handpan at his free lecture. But he'll also debut a new instrument: the euphone, which an instrument builder in France has been building for him and will deliver to him at the festival. Its sound comes from finely-crafted glass rods, which when stroked trigger tuning rods and metal and fiberglass amplifying resonators, creating haunting, bell-like resonances.

Music ranging from mainstream jazz to crossover to highly experimental will all be included at the festival, which runs Wednesday to Sunday in locations around Guelph, Ontario. It's known for being the first – and sometimes only – Canadian jazz festival to present musicians at the forefront of new jazz trends, but it features highly accessible music as well.

Listeners can choose from ticketed indoor concerts; free outdoor concerts, including a Friday night street dance party and daytime and evening jazz shows on Saturday; and a variety of shows from vocal jazz to dance-hall music to experimental jazz at bars and restaurants around town.

This year's festival highlights also include

  • drummer Tomas Fujiwara's 7 Poets Trio with vibraphone and cello;
  • two concerts with renowned drummer Hamid Drake, one with long-time Chicago percussion partner Adam Rudolph and the other with bagpiper Erwan Keravec;
  • Toronto saxophonist Brodie West's quintet with pianist Tania Gill mixing “post-Coltrane bebop” with “rough-hewn lyricism”;
  • pianist John Kameel Farah, who combines Renaissance, Baroque, and Middle Eastern music with electronics;
  • a tribute to jazz composer Thomas Chapin, by the Eyevin Trio, three Montreal musicians who were a hit at IMOO Fest last Saturday;
  • a creative quartet of Montrealers Lori Freedman on clarinet and Nicolas Caloia on double bass, meeting iconoclastic Dutch reed player Ab Beers and violist Ig Henneman;
  • the cross-border band Way North, which interprets roots music in jazz;
  • Montreal pianist Marianne Trudel leading the Guelph Youth Jazz Ensemble; and
  • ground-breaking violinist and composer Malcolm Goldstein with guitarist Rainer Weins.

Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tom Rainey, who were featured at IMOO Fest in Ottawa last weekend, will team up at Guelph with cellist Hank Roberts.

Scott Thomson ©Brett Delmage, 2013
The Guelph Jazz Festival's artistic director, trombonist and composer Scott Thomson ©Brett Delmage, 2013

The result is “somewhat surprising, maybe a bit unconventional”, says festival artistic director Scott Thomson, himself an active jazz musician who has toured with many different groups to Ottawa, and brought large-scale site-specific compositions to the National Gallery and Ottawa City Hall.

OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor recently interviewed Thomson about this year's Guelph Jazz Festival, and how he encountered and why he's excited about the musicians he programmed for it. This is an edited and condensed version of the interview:

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What did you take as your centerpiece for this year's festival? Was it around a theme, or certain artists, or certain styles?

Scott Thomson: As always, I'm striving for – and this year especially, we are striving for, since this year I am programming collaboratively with my new assistant [director], Karen Ng – we're striving for a kind of balance, a stylistic balance providing a rich variety of different approaches to creative improvised music.

And also a balance of continuity with the kinds of artists and the kinds of styles that the Guelph Jazz Festival has presented historically – along with some new voices, some new artists, some new approaches that may not have been featured here in the past, either by us, by me, or by my predecessor.

This year it just so happens that there's a whole lot of programming that features instruments that you seldom or never hear at anything called a jazz festival. That wasn't necessarily a thematic goal. It's the residue of us having been excited to present musicians like the Breton bagpiper Erwan Keravec or the Baltimore pedal steel virtuoso Susan Alcorn, or the radical jaw harp soloist from Nova Scotia chik white.

Once we booked a few of these, we released that this is turning into some kind of theme, but it was never intended as such. It's a happy outcome.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Does that happen often?

Thomson: This is my third year programming, and last year there was the happy outcome of different approaches to singing and song. I don't think this is a big enough test size to be able to detect a trend, but two years in a row, two out of three years, there may be something to that. I'm not sure.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Is this a process of exploration for you and Karen?

Thomson: Absolutely! They're creative choices, and with creativity comes risk, and so we're trying to present a program that, while each of the individual parts excites us enormously, as a composite we don't know how it's going to work as a gestalt until we experience it. And as such, it's very exploratory.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: But Guelph has always had a tradition of doing something that's more risky than your average jazzfest.

Thomson: Yes. That's the kind of tradition I'm interested in. Jazz, as a genre from its inception, it's primarily been about taking chances and trying new things. So, insofar as this music fits under a broad heading of jazz music, it's that trait that identifies it as such.

Nicolas Caloia ©Brett Delmage, 2019
Nicolas Caloia ©Brett Delmage, 2019

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How long ago did you start booking for this particular festival? During previous festivals?

Thomson: Yes. The longer I'm in this role, the longer the timelines are towards future projects. When I got hired in 2017, I sat down with Lori Freedman, for example, who's my longtime colleague and friend, and I said to Lori, “I'd like to be able to present a new project of yours when it's ready. Let's work on that.” And 2½ years later, I'm able to present her new collaborative project called NAIL, which is the combination of two duos: her duo with Nicolas Caloia called Mercury, and the duo Baars Henneman from Amsterdam. So that's a really exciting new project – and the seeds got planted a long time ago.

At the same time, we booked our last artist just a month ago! So there's a whole range, depending on what we think will be effective programming, what we can afford, what we're hoping to achieve.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: I noticed you included many solo performances this year, more than usual. How did that come about?

Thomson: Again, it was just a residue of things that were exciting us. I really like solo playing – I find it to be an very intimate way to get to know somebody's music-making, and it just so happens that the musicians we were interested in, they're featured at their best as soloists. I mentioned Erwan Keravec, chik white, Susan Alcorn. Ben Grossman playing the hurdy-gurdy – a Guelph resident and a master of his instrument. John Kameel Farah, who's based in Berlin but is more in southern Ontario, and is doing two solos: one on the magnificent pipe organ at St. George's Church, along with synthesizer, and also a harpsichord solo at Silence, which is a much smaller and more intimate venue.

Probably the marquee solo is the extraordinary show by Jen Shyu, who is a polymath composer [and] performer. She sings her own songs in eight different languages, and accompanies herself on almost as many instruments, both from Western and Easter musical traditions. She also dances. It's a beautiful solo narrative show called “Nine Doors” that I'm so happy to be able to present.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How do you balance Canadian versus international artists?

Thomson: It's not hard. There's so many amazing Canadian musicians working in the field of creative improvised music – and they leap out as important voices to present no matter what. So a group like the Brodie West Quintet: Brodie's record from 2018, Clips, is both his best work and also for my money, one of the very best Canadian jazz records of that year. So it's just extraordinary work, and easy to choose and to fit in a program such as ours.

Malcolm Goldstein ©Brett Delmage, 2018
Malcolm Goldstein ©Brett Delmage, 2018

The same goes for Malcolm Goldstein and Rainer Weins, a duo from Montreal, or Lori Freedman, for example, or about half of the soloists I mentioned before. These are important voices.

In terms of international artists, Karen and I have a long list of international artists that we'd like to be presenting. Some are more available than others, some are more affordable than others, so we try to balance different things. But it's important to have a key subset of international artists that reflect the broader field of creative, improvised music.

And among them this year are for example, the trio of Ingrid Laubrock, Tom Rainey, and Hank Roberts. What happened was Karen was in residence in New York City last summer, and, after that experience, we started brainstorming about the programming for this year's festival. I said it would be really great to present Ingrid and Tom, whom I knew were playing in Ottawa at the IMOO Festival, because I like that duo very much. And Karen said, “you should get the trio with Hank Roberts!” I said, “What trio with Hank Roberts?” And I scoured the Internet for documentation and there was nothing. She'd heard a trio out of just a little club, a one-off trio, and it was apparently just amazing. So I wrote to Ingrid, and I said, “So is this a band?” And she said, “Well, we played one gig – but I sure would like for it to be a band!” We're very happy, based on that little bit of serendipity, to be able to maybe make it into a band, by presenting it at our festival.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So New York City to Guelph to the world?

Thomson: We'll see. One gig at a time. I'm excited to hear the music, let's put it that way.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Could you tell me more about the trio's music?

Thomson: They're improvisers. They'll be playing group improvisations. Tom and Ingrid together have three duo records, the last one called Utter.

They're able to create very coherent forms in their improvisations, and they're very tuneful while not being clichéd in any way. They're obviously creating new forms, but there's a rich musical sensibility with every gesture. Very patient, very smart collective music-making. I haven't heard the trio with Hank Roberts, but the music of Hank Roberts that I do know has the same qualities, especially at the level of rhythm, and I can see how the three of them would be very simpatico. It's an experiment – we'll give it a try, and I think it's going to be great.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How do you integrate the festival's outdoor events, like the Friday Night Street Music Party and the Saturday Market Square Stage, with the indoor shows? How do they fit together in terms of the overall feel of the festival? Do they attract different audiences?

Thomson: They definitely attract different audiences. We have a loyal, dedicated audience that will travel very far to hear the music in the ticketed concert series. But the festival is not just for those audience members – it's also for the city of Guelph, and also people from the region who are interested in an uncommon musical experience but may not be interested in spending money on tickets to do so.

So the free outdoor concerts serve a really important role. They really are the public face of the festival, and we take great pride in presenting a range of music that is both inviting for new listeners, but also somewhat surprising, maybe a bit unconventional.

This also has to do with how we choose to present the music. Last year we introduced the Street Music Party and it was a hit! Instead of the music being played amplified from a temporary stage in Market Square, we had four groups playing all-acoustic, human-powered dance music in among the audience. And just the intimacy of that, something that I've experienced in my many visits to New Orleans, was something that people really got excited by. Based on that feedback and the feeling alone, we decided to do it again, and this year it's going to be even more exciting with the lineup that we have.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: There's quite a range of artists at that street music party, from not necessarily jazz to trad jazz...

Thomson: That's true – it's called a jazz festival but as I said earlier, jazz is a spirit of exploration, in my mind. It's an ethic more than a style of music, in 2019. So if the Montreal Jazz Festival can present Katy Perry and Bob Dylan, more power to them! I can present solo jaw harp music, inspired by punk. There's no problem there, so long as it fits within an ethic, and all of the music, both in the ticketed music series as well as the free outdoor series, fits the bill, as far as I'm concerned.

More importantly, I think, the music is all wonderful!

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What are some of the highlights of the outdoor series?

Thomson: I think the street music party is going to be exceptional this year. It's four groups in four very different styles. The Eighth Street Orchestra plays traditional New Orleans brass band music. They're from a younger generation, traditionally-minded but forward-thinking jazz musicians from Toronto. Followed by Maracatu Mar Aberto, which is an Afro-Brazilian percussion ensemble, also from Toronto. Followed by Montreal's Urban Science Brass Band, playing hip-hop classics and standards in a 15-member brass band. And then last but not least, the Chippewa Travellers, who are an award-winning Anishinaabeg powwow voice and drum ensemble.

The complementary nature of those four groups, I find incredibly exciting. I think it will be a highlight of the festival – not just of the free concerts, but of the festival all told.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Getting on to specific artists – drummer Hamid Drake has been a long-time friend of the festival. Can you tell me about his two concerts?

Thomson: When we were talking before about my desire to achieve a balance between continuity and novelty or innovation, the choice to bring Hamid here was very much inspired by his long commitment to and friendship with the festival, as well as his extraordinary musicianship.

I wanted to present Hamid in two contexts. One is a working band – that's Karuna, the percussion duo with Adam Rudolph. He and Adam have been working together since they were teenagers, playing together with Don Cherry, Yusef Lateef, and many others. Karuna is a group of many different sizes, and this is the most compact one, a duo. We're presenting it in a very intimate venue [Silence] that I think is going to work extremely well. That's on Friday, September 13.

And then on Sunday the 15th, Hamid's going to play for the first time with Erwan Keravec, the Breton bagpiper. That was a proposal by Erwan, whom I booked to play solo, which is the context I found most compelling for him. But I thought, if he's coming all the way from France, he should play twice, so I asked him with whom he'd like to play and he mentioned Hamid without hesitation – and I said yes without hesitation.

After Guelph, they're going on tour. They're playing Montreal and Halifax. So that might be a new going concern, as well.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So you're like a matchmaker?

Thomson: Well, I try to facilitate these things. I'm reluctant to pair people to play for the first time – I'm more interested to ask them with whom they'd like to play. As a player myself, I'm pretty open to playing with other people, but I don't assume everyone else is. So I'd rather give other musicians the chance to make creative choices about the context and content of their work, rather than relying on me.

Ben Grossman ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Ben Grossman playing hurdy-gurdy at the Guelph Jazz Festival ©Brett Delmage, 2012

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Ben Grossman has played hurdy-gurdy before at the festival. What will he be doing this time?

Thomson: I heard him play a hurdy-gurdy solo in Montreal in December, and it was magnificent. Yes, Ben has been featured several times at the festival. We presented him last year in a really great duo with Alison Cameron. I just thought, that given the fact that we're featuring soloists playing instruments that you seldom hear at a jazz festival, it just makes a whole lot of sense to have Ben involved as well, based on just the quality of the music. Do I know what he's going to perform? No, but I have a strong sense of what it's going to contribute to the overall event.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Tomas Fujiwara and his 7 Poets Trio?

Thomson: That was a stroke of luck, that Tomas Fujiwara reached out to me just at a point where I was looking for just such a group, that is in a way more conventionally rooted in jazz vocabulary. Tomas is a beautifully swinging drummer, but it also has an unconventional instrumentation, with two extraordinary bandmates – Patricia Brennan on vibraphone and Tomeka Reid on cello. And with that unconventional instrumentation, they have this amazing flexibility to change roles – soloist, accompanist, rhythmic support. It moves very fluidly through the group, and that's in part the amazing capacities of the players themselves and also Tomas' very smart writing for the group.

So Tomas reached out to me about what was a very new band, saying that they were going to have their record ready for September. He sent me some of it, and it was just so exciting to be able to say yes.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: The Eyevin Trio plays Thomas Chapin?

Thomson: Ivan [Bamford] is a good friend and a colleague from Montreal. We play together in a couple groups. I'd been curious to know about his own work, and so I've heard the Eyevin Trio several times. And I've loved Thomas Chapin's music for 25 years. He was an under-sung hero in the New York downtown scene, who died way too young. His music has this rock energy, but it's also smartly composed and often the music's very funny, very witty. Ivan's done some amazing work, investigating, researching that, going down to New York to visit members of Chapin's family, to uncover scores. He also has a really nice eight-piece version playing Chapin as well, but the trio has this core intensity that I really wanted to present this year. His bandmates, Stephane Diamantakiou and Aurélien Tomasi, are wonderful.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Atlas Revolt?

Thomson: Atlas Revolt is [bassist] Bret Higgins' group from Toronto. It's a six-piece band, broadly inspired, I would say, especially by John Zorn's Masada project. [It's] delving into the melodic and rhythmic vocabularies of Eastern European and Roma music traditions, but also South American music traditions. But it's got this rock intensity and this flair for the psychedelic that I find really exciting, and I think will work very well on the Market Square stage.

And speaking of Zorn, the group's first record is actually on Zorn's Tzadik label, and rightly so.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Way North, with Petr Cancura, Rebecca Hennessy, Michael Herring, and Richie Barshay?

Thomson: I have a long background with Rebecca and Michael, especially. We played together in Dave Clark's Woodshed Orchestra for many years, and developed a deep friendship. So I was excited to hear about this new group. I've always admired Petr's playing.

I got to hear the group at the Open Waters Festival in Halifax in January. There's a sweetness and a degree of invitation in that music that I recognized immediately, especially from some of Rebecca's other projects. But given the nature of the group – it's a piano-less jazz quartet – there's a flexibility

to be able to explore a whole bunch of different kinds of music, in really compelling ways. But always with this loving vibe, this very compelling feeling of invitation that I think is going to suit the context beautifully.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: The Vertical Squirrels?

Thomson: The Vertical Squirrels are being presented as part of our Around Town programming, which is another stream of programming that fleshes out the festival. So Karen and I book the ticketed concert series. We also book the Market Square [free outdoor] series. And then we invite venues, mostly pubs and bars, but also a space like Silence where the Vertical Squirrels are playing, to book music like they would like to present. Then we partner with them and we promote it as part of the festival.

It just so happens that Silence is featuring the founding artistic director of the Guelph Jazz Festival, Ajay Heble, along with his colleagues in the Vertical Squirrels: Daniel Fischlin, Lew Melville, and Ted Warren, with two guests: Douglas Ewart (a master musician, instrument builder, visual artist etc. who has been artist in residence in Guelph and is going to be in town to launch a book, a chronicle of that residency), and also my friend Kathryn Ladano, who's a brilliant bass clarinetist.

It's really exciting to be able to have that as an ancillary part of the programming, but it's not something that I book directly. It's certainly an important part of the overall feeling and structure of the event.

Scott Thomson ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Marianne Trudel at the Guelph Jazz Festival ©Brett Delmage, 2013

OttawaJazzScene.ca: The Guelph Youth Jazz Ensemble, which will be playing with Marianne Trudel?

Thomson: They're going to start the workshops the week of the festival, and I have every confidence it's going to work beautifully. That is another partnership: we work with the academic International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) and the same artist-in-residence program of which Douglas Ewart is a part, Marianne is a part this year. So as artist in residence this year she's doing a number of things and working with Brent Rowan's Guelph Youth Jazz Ensemble is one of them.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: The Guelph Jazz Festival Colloquium is a joint project with IICSI?

Thomson: Yes, it's another partnership. Before I was hired as artistic director, Ajay Heble would be at the helm of programming both the music of the festival and also the colloquium. So it was much more thoroughly integrated. Since I've been hired, it's been more of a partnership. IICSI has its own academic and research priorities, and so I leave it broadly to them to introduce programming that complements ours and that serves their needs. We try to work together to work thematically. So, for example, they're working thematically this year on the idea of the instrument, based on what we were talking about previously about there being many players of unconventional instruments this year.

Their programming, which is largely during the day on Thursday the 12th and Friday the 13th, features different artists and scholars working around, talking about, playing around that theme.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Compared to four or five years ago, the colloquium seems to be a bit sparser now.

Thomson: I think that IICSI has had to consider what is practical in light of their other projects. They have many projects afoot and they definitely want to keep the colloquium going but I don't know if it was serving their needs for it to be as large and elaborate as it had become.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How do you think it complements the music?

Thomson: I think that it's important to provide programming that engages people in different ways. So, if an entire festival is the same, even very different kinds of music being presented from the same kind of stage, with the same kind of seating set-up with the same kind of acoustics in the hall, it can lend itself to a certain homogeneity.

We pride ourselves in presenting music in a range of not only content but also context. And I think the colloquium complements that nicely by adding context where there can be more discussion, there can be different kinds of discourse including an academic discourse, artists can be interviewed so they can contextualize their work – and indeed that's happening a a couple of artists' talk-backs that are part of the colloquium programming.

Different media, including books – we have a book launch with Douglas Ewart, and also Chris Tonelli, a researcher in Amsterdam who has an exciting new book about improvisation and the voice [Voices Found: Free Jazz and Singing].

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Looking at the festival as a whole, what's exciting you about this year's festival?

Thomson: Partly because there's going to be some surprises, I don't know what the shape of the overall thing is going to be. But we're working hard to make it a positive experience and hopefully an inspiring experience for everyone involved.

I would like people to attend the festival. If they want to do so, they can go to our website where they can get information about acquiring tickets. And those that aren't interested in attending the ticketed events, can feel free to attend the free programming at Market Square. There's something for everybody.

The Guelph Jazz Festival will run from Wednesday, September 11, to Sunday, September 15 in Guelph, Ontario. The associated free colloquium, with talks, workshops, and artist talk-backs, runs from Wednesday to Sunday. Indoor ticketed concerts run from Thursday to Sunday; outdoor free concerts occur on Friday and Saturday (daytime and evening). Local bars and restaurants will also offer shows from Wednesday to Sunday. Ticket information at guelphjazzfestival.com/2019/tickets/