By Ottawa standards, the Guelph Jazz Festival and Nuit Blanche and Colloquium is small. Its total audience of 14,000 is almost matched by one large Ottawa Jazz Festival concert in Confederation Park.

Yet, despite its relative size, or perhaps more accurately, because of it, the Guelph Jazz Festival both gives, and earns, respect. Founded in 1994, it continues to be a festival where jazz and creative improvised music lovers can enjoy the music without repeatedly being told that their musical tastes are unpopular and unaffordable.

The festival leans to the edgier, the avant-garde, the innovative, and even the academic. The Guelph Jazz Festival's publicized headliners celebrate the festival's musical truth, rather than unrelated rock and pop acts. The festival proclaims its clear musical vision, mission statement and values: directly linked to from the front page of its website. From that comes an understanding that the festival cannot and will not be all things to all people - but nonetheless, it will be special and the music will be worth listening to. Others have thought so, too: the Festival is a three-time recipient of the Lieutenant Governor's Award for the Arts (2001, 2000 & 1997) and the winner of the 2010 Premier's Award for Excellence in the Arts.

It is therefore not surprising that many people who attend the Guelph Jazz Festival fall in love with its programming and overall experience. I became one of them, on my first visit there in 2009. editor Alayne McGregor and I will return to the Guelph Jazz Festival from September 7 to 11, 2011 to report on this year's experience. We won't be going alone. Ottawa-Gatineau is well-represented this year by some of our top musical improvisers, jazz musicians, and experienced listeners. We asked if they would share their top picks so we can share them with you, and they enthusiastically responded. There is, after all, still time to join us there if you become as interested as we are. And if you can't join us, watch for our festival coverage starting on September 7.

Ron Sweetman is no stranger at the Guelph Jazz Festival, having already attended it for nine years. On August 10, he aired an “A-to-Z” sonic preview of this year's artists on CKCU-FM's In a Mellow Tone, which he has hosted for 35 years. As anyone who has listened to his show will attest, Sweetman has an ear that's open to anything and everything interesting. Following his comprehensive “A-to-Z” Guelph Jazz Festival preview show, he shared what he particularly hoped to see/hear and his reasons, in a “7-to-11” list:

  • "Wednesday September 7 - The Rent - Relatively new Canadian group
  • Thursday September 8 - Paul Plimley, William Parker & Gerry Hemingway  -  Master improvisers
  • Friday September 9 - Christine Duncan and the Element Choir  -  Never heard them live
  • Saturday September 10 - Trevor Watts & Veryan Weston  -  Old pals from the 'sixties
  • Saturday September 10 - The Necks  - Young OZ group
  • Saturday September 10 - Lotte Anker, Craig Taborn & Gerald Cleaver  -  Familiar grouping
  • Saturday September 10 - Mash Potato Mashers -  Ottawa's pride; fun group!
  • Saturday September 10 - Henry Threadgill's Zooid -  Rare live appearance
  • Sunday September 11 - Creative Collective - Interesting improvisers."

Christine Duncan and the Element Choir Project with William Parker is a hot pick by the Ottawa gang
Christine Duncan and the Element Choir Project with William Parker is a hot pick by the Ottawa gang
Multi-instrumentalist and composer Mike Essoudry (percussion, clarinet, xylophone) has been steadily busy in the last few years with projects ranging duos to his own octet/septet. His marching band, the Mash Potato Mashers (MEMPM), appeared at Ottawa's own jazz festival in 2010 and 2011. They've been in demand at festivals all over Ontario this year, and Guelph will be their next appearance. Essoudry identified in a few pointed words what was on his aural radar at Guelph this year:

  • "Henry Threadgill sounds cool.
  • Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (research)
  • The Element Choir will be very Unique and Powerful
  • Craig Taborn, Gerald Cleaver are both fabulous free players"

Linsey Wellman (saxes, flutes, clarinets) and Craig Pedersen (trumpet, composer) are co-founders of Ottawa's Improvising Musicians of Ottawa/Outaouais (IMOO) concert series. Both are versatile musicians who can play everything from bebop to swing to free jazz; Pedersen also plays in classical and chamber music concerts, and Wellman plays calypso, Punjabi folk/fusion and other music that catches his ear. Pedersen also performed on the Ottawa Jazz Festival's OLG Stage this year with his own quartet, which includes Wellman. But their hearts are in the avant-garde, as one can see in how they've curated the IMOO series.

IMOO will celebrate its first year anniversary on the Sunday after the Guelph Jazz Festival. Wellman and Pedersen have been successful in establishing an artistically interesting, year-round, regular improvised music series, which has had guest artists play from across Canada. They have brought a bit of the Guelph Jazz Festival experience, and more, to Ottawa listeners year-round.

Wellman and Pedersen will play at the festival during Nuit Blanche, as part of the Mash Potato Mashers. But in addition to performing, they will be listening. It won't be their first visit to the Guelph Jazz Festival, as both have attended in the past.

Craig Pedersen trumpeted his picks, derived from personal experience:

  • "Henry Threadgill's Zooid - I read a super interesting article of Threadgill in Signal to Noise, and am intrigued to check out his music.
  • Aerials by François Houle - I had a really interesting lesson with him last Summer. He is one of the big reasons I began improvising, stemming from concerts I heard him do in Victoria in the first few years of my undergrad.
  • Continuous by William Parker - Linsey's enthusiasm about William Parker has left me intrigued to see the legend himself!"

Linsey Wellman has recorded several CD's of avant-garde music, including his haunting, dream-like solo saxophone album Ephemera: for solo saxophone, when he hasn't been busy performing live.

He extended his usual enthusiasm about things musical to the festival's lineup : “There are so many interesting shows at this year’s Guelph Jazz Festival that it’s hard to keep my best bets down to 5 picks.” As Linsey said:

  • "Anything with William Parker – he’s just so good, his time feel and energy are remarkable.  Check out the show he’s doing with the element choir under the direction of Christine Duncan (one of the most creative vocalists I’ve ever heard), the show with Plimley and Hemingway, and especially the group with Alvin Fielder, Joel Futterman and Kidd Jordan (I was blown away by Kidd Jordan when I first heard him many years ago, and would consider myself lucky to hear him again).
  • Henry Threadgill – I’ve never heard him play live, and here’s a great chance to check out a legend.
  • Lotte Anker / Craig Taborn / Gerald Cleaver – I first heard Lotte Anker play at the Ottawa Jazz Festival as part of an unaccompanied saxophone trio with Tim Berne and Chris Speed (!) I was struck by her playing and bought a beautiful album by this trio.  I’m also a huge fan of Craig Taborn’s playing.
  • Aerials by François Houle – A great Canadian clarinet player who redefines what can be done on the instrument.  I’ve the recording of this piece (it’s a suite of solo clarinet improvisations) - it’s fantastic, and I’d love to see it live.
  • TILTING – the Nicolas Caloia Quartet – Caloia is a very active Montreal based bass player, who I’ve had the chance to jam with in the past.  He sounds great.  The other quartet members are Jean Derome (I’ve been a fan of his playing for a long time), Guillaume Dostaler and Isaiah Ceccarelli (Ottawans will know him from the fantastic group Quartetski with Pierre-Yves Martel).  While you’re there, stick around for the second act with Paul Plimley, William Parker and Gerry Hemingway – you can’t go wrong with these guys.
  • Here’s a bonus selection – check out the Stretch Orchestra, with ex-Guelphite and current Ottawa guiding light Jesse Steward along with Kevin Breit and Matt Brubeck.  Also, Jesse’s got an art installation at the MacDonald Stewart Art Centre over the course of Saturday night / Sunday Morning."

Jesse Stewart is the Guelph artist who they let get away, to the great benefit of Ottawa residents. He knows their festival well, having served on the board of directors, and as the festival's Assistant Artistic Director. Stewart has performed there every year except one. In Ottawa, he has played with artists ranging from Michael Snow to Jandek to Pauline Oliveros, and many fellow percussionists. In his role as Carleton University music professor, he has challenged his students to perform Cornelius Cardew's Treatise, and play with paper and with balloon instruments.

Jesse shared his picks, including one which goes back to when he had a hand in organizing the festival: “I am particularly excited about Henry Threadgill's Zooid. [Guelph's Artistic Director] Ajay [Heble] and I used to talk about bringing Henry to Guelph. I am very pleased that it is finally going to happen. I happen to think that Threadgill's 2009 release “This Brings Us to Volume 1” is the most original "jazz" recording that I have heard in years. I am also looking forward to hearing The Necks, an interesting group from Australia. Sadly, I'm going to miss the Plimley, Hemingway, Parker collaboration, much to my regret. Having performed with all three of them in different contexts, I think that will be a very interesting world premiere collaboration given the different sensibilities involved.”

Alayne McGregor, editor, will report on many aspects of the festival next week, but shared some of her personal favs:

"I've been a fan of Christine Duncan's vocal prowess ever since I first heard her singing with Hugh Fraser's VEJI many years ago. She has a sensibility that challenges your concept of what a human voice can do, and I'm fascinated what she might do with the Element Choir project – and especially in conjunction with avant-gardist William Parker.

Only the Guelph Jazz Festival colloqium would bring three drummers into the library to interpret a graphic score. The audience was, as expected, respectfully quiet. ©Brett Delmage, 2009
Only the Guelph Jazz Festival colloqium would bring three drummers into the library to interpret a graphic score. The audience was, as expected, respectfully quiet. ©Brett Delmage, 2009
But what sets the Guelph Jazz Festival apart – for me – is the academic colloquium associated with the festival, and open to pass-holders. This is the only regular and ongoing academic event of its kind attached to a major jazz festival, and I found it a mind-stretching event when I attended it in 2009. I'm looking forward to Lisa Williams' biographical-historical examination of Bix Beiderbecke, Sara Villa's study of the Representation of Improvised Jazz Solos in Jack Kerouac's Major Novels, and Ogunbowale Mopelolade's paper on musical improvisation as a tool for social advocacy in 21st century Nigeria. And the interview with Henry Threadgill. And a bunch more sessions that look interesting and unclassifiable."

The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble was identified by several musicians and listeners as a group they'd like to hear. It seems that despite the group playing Ottawa several times in recent years, not everyone has heard them yet, but listeners are still hoping to hear them. Don't forget to enter our free draw for a pair of tickets to hear them in Ottawa on Sept. 8. See the details in our Upcoming shows page.

And as for myself: I am especially delighted that I will truly be able to put my odd experience and skill: staying up until 3,4,5,6 or even 7 a.m., to good use! I'm eagerly looking forward to discovering and reporting on the many Nuit Blanche performances that will animate Guelph all night long. I like the broader community partnering of the Guelph Jazz Festival and will be taking that in. The multi-media collaborations intrigue me as a photographer.

And, as Mike Essoudry exclaimed, “ I also looked at the Nuit Blanche acts, showings and exhibits. This night looks to be amazing!!!!!”

    – Brett Delmage

Find out more about the 2011 Guelph Jazz Festival and Nuit Blanche and Colloquium on their website.
Listen to sample tracks by some of the artists who will be performing.

Other 2011 Guelph Jazz Festival coverage: