Guelph Jazz Festival logo, used with permission
Guelph Jazz Festival logo, used with permission

Depending on your taste in jazz, you can attend four different jazz festivals in Guelph next week:

  • a world-class jazz and improvised music festival with a focus on the avant-garde, but with some interesting mainstream and Canadian artists as well
  • mostly-Canadian jazz groups outdoors on Saturday afternoon and evening, in a pleasant, medium-sized Ontario city with a friendly, small-town vibe
  • an impressively diverse Nuit Blanche – solidly grounded in jazz, and with links to the visual arts
  • an accessible academic colloquium (with concerts) which links jazz and improvised music to larger social issues, and also gives listeners a chance to learn about jazz history and about new experiments in improvisation, and to hear interviews with leading jazz musicians.

Or a combination of all four. In fact, you'll probably get most out of the five days (or even just the Saturday) by mixing and matching. All are part of the 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival.

This year, the festival's main programming will feature four artists in particular:

  • South African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim, in a solo performance. The festival describes his music as a “deeply soulful blend of gospel, kwela, and Ellington-inspired jazz that is elegant in its simplicity” and his compositions as “deeply lyrical”. Ibrahim was mentored by Duke Ellington in the 1960s and early 70s, and played with the Ellington Orchestra. In the 1970s, he founded the Cape Jazz sound: his music was used to support the black revolt against apartheid. Ibrahim will also be interviewed on Friday afternoon at the end of the colloquium.
  • British guitarist and composer Fred Frith, known for his use of prepared guitar and for his skill in free improvisation, in a solo performance. Frith played in the art-rock band Henry Cow in the 1960s and 70s. He will also be interviewed on Friday morning during the colloquium. (Fred Frith's Guitar Quartet was an inspiration for the Walrus Quartet, which debuted this spring in Ottawa).
  • American pianist and composer Myra Melford (last heard in Ottawa in 2011 with Kenny Wheeler, and in 2009 with Trio M) in two performances: solo, and with violinist Jenny Scheinman. Melford says her musical approach “incorporates such idiosyncratic and wide-ranging elements as the 'organic architecture' philosophy of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Eastern spirituality of akido and Zen Buddhism, the imagery and metaphor of poets from Rumi to Muhammad Al-Jawahiri, the style and subject matter of such authors as James Joyce and Eduardo Galeano, and the colorful artwork of the late Sacramento-based artist Don Reich” (upon which she has based a series of solo piano pieces).
  • American avant-garde pianist Matthew Shipp, in a duet with alto saxophonist Darius Jones. Shipp formerly played in the David S. Ware quartet and in Roscoe Mitchell's Note Factory.

Unusually for Guelph, several of this year's performers will be hearkening back to Miles Davis and John Coltrane. On Saturday, Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær and his trio will play from his latest album, Baboon Moon, which the festival says extends “the vocabulary of Miles Davis's electric bands of the 1970s”. Molvær was last seen in Ottawa in 2006 and is known for his use of electronic effects and loops.

On Friday, two groups will give two different interpretations of John Coltrane's 1965 composition, “Ascension”. At 5 p.m., saxophonist Jeremy Strachan with a group of Toronto improvising musicians will perform the piece, which the festival describes as a “one of the conceptually prismatic touchstones of free jazz and free improvisation”. Then at 8 p.m., the Rova Saxophone Quartet from California will reimagine the composition. Rova has been composing, interpreting, and improvising powerful and challenging music for more than three decades; for this project they have included electric and electronic instruments, as well as two violinists, “which create a sound world at some distance from Coltrane's”.

And then on Saturday afternoon, in a free concert, Toronto saxophonist Michael Stuart will pay tribute to Coltrane's “trailblazing legacy” together with the Boston saxophonist and educator, Jerry Bergonzi. They will be joined by several top-notch Toronto and Guelph musicians: Brian Dickinson on piano, Jim Vivian on bass, and Ted Warren on drums.

Opening the festival on Wednesday is a collaboration by Toronto singer Mary Margaret O'Hara with Vancouver cellist, Peggy Lee. They're currently on tour with a mixture of original songs, covers, and improvisations with an ensemble of Vancouver musicians including drummer Dylan van der Schyff.

On Thursday, Montrealer Colin Stetson, who plays many reed instruments but particularly bass saxophone, will play solo, followed by Guelph musician Ben Grossman on the vielle à roue (hurdy gurdy).

Friday features the Norwegian band Huntsville, which intricately interweaves the sounds of different folk and popular music in a way that evokes the flavour of folksong and extends it into realms of electro-acoustic noise and minimalist composition. They will be joined by guests, Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche (from the rock band Wilco, who will also play together late Thursday evening).

On Saturday, the free outdoor concerts have moved to a newly-constructed plaza outside Guelph City Hall, and will run from 11:30 a.m. until midnight. Canadian groups playing include the Ernesto Cervini Quartet (see our review and photos from FIJM), Gordon Grdina's Haram, Michael Stuart, The Chris Tarry Group (which got an excellent response at the Ottawa and Montreal festivals this year), and The Shuffle Demons (which has recently put out a new album after a gap of almost 20 years).

This being Guelph, the free concerts will also include the totally-improvised Guelph Jazz Workshop (led by Mark Laver); Austrian trombonist Werner Puntigam and Mozambique percussionist Matchume Zango playing contemporary Afro-European soundscapes, in "a delirious, trance-inducing, and undeniably funky experience"; and Shye Ben-Tzur playing music that crosses between traditional Israeli and classical Indian.

Saturday's ticketed concerts also include a trio of composer and improviser Miya Masaoka, who will play the koto (a Japanese instrument somewhat like a zither), along with well-known improvisers bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Gerry Hemingway.

And the last concert on Sunday will feature multi-instrumentalist Charles Spearin, with indie rock creds as as a member of both Do Make Say Think and Broken Social Scene. The raw material for his "The Happiness Project" was interviews that Spearin conducted with his neighbours, folks of different ages and from diverse backgrounds, about their notions of happiness. The ensuing album was awarded the Juno for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2010.

The Guelph festival consistently features women musicians. This year they include Myra Melford, who has been playing at the festival since 1997, Jenny Scheinman, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Peggy Lee, and Miya Masaoka. The festival also passes the Bechdel test: women musicians play with each other, not just male musicians.

The Colloquium: many connections to improvisation

Leading Canadian jazz writer Mark Miller talks about Diana Krall at 'Representation, Myth and Power', part of the 2011 Guelph Jazz Festival Colloquium
Leading Canadian jazz writer Mark Miller talks about Diana Krall at 'Representation, Myth and Power', part of the 2011 Guelph Jazz Festival Colloquium
The Guelph Jazz Festival is one of the few events in North America to combine a scholarly colloquium with a music festival. The colloquium, which is free, runs during the day from September 5 to 7 at Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, at the north end of the University of Guelph. This year's colloquium explores the relationships among musical improvisation, pedagogy, social justice, and activism.

Besides the Friday interviews with Frith and with Ibrahim, the colloquium features

  • an evaluation of the legacy of Gil Scott-Heron
  • University professor David Ake on the ethics of teaching jazz
  • the Jimmy Giuffre 3's approach to teaching improvisation
  • Gretchen Schwartz (formerly of Ottawa) on how sound creation directly impacts human relationships, specifically relating to Musikaddict, a Montreal-based music improvisation project whose purpose is to engage and empower under-served at-risk minority English-speaking youth.
  • Colin Stetson, Ben Grossman, Debashis Sinha on one-man bands
  • how jazz improvisation can promote diversity and inclusiveness in business
  • the story of the women Beat poets, and their relation to jazz improvisation and feminism
  • an examination of the role of music as a communication tool in social movements
  • Black Blowers of the Now: Jazz and Activism from King’s Birmingham to Coltrane’s Alabama
  • connecting Pauline Oliveros' Deep Listening practice to Marshall McLuhan's writing about cultural change
  • improvisation and how South African jazz musicians do business
  • whether ironic detachment was essential to the success of jazz musicians of the 20s to 50s, such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis.
  • a live concert of Drones and Tones, Trance and Dance, featuring musicians from Europe, Mozambique and Ontario: Ivar Grydeland, Tonny Kluften, Ingar Zach, Werner Puntigam, Matchume Zango, and Matt Brubeck

While the colloquium is academic, its material and post-presentation discussions are generally accessible to keen listeners who want to go beyond the acoustic pleasure of listening to music.

One way of looking at jazz is as a process of constant discovery: new combinations, new ideas, new ways of working with sounds – within the jazz tradition, but often stretching it as well. The Guelph Jazz Festival is a great place to hear music that you're less likely to hear on the regular festival circuit – as well as new and different combinations of artists.

What other jazz fans say

The Guelph Festival has attracted a regular core of Ottawa jazz fans.

Among them is Bradley Evans, who will be attending this year, his fourth time at the festival (2002, 2008, 2011). He said he loves “the venues, the mix of free and ticketed events, and the overall vibe of the small-town festival.”

Major draws for him this year include “Rova's 'Electric Ascension' project, Nels Cline, and Matthew Shipp (three long-time favourites I've never seen before), Peter Brotzmann's duo with Jason Adasiewicz (old and new favourites), B.C. guitarist/oud player Gord Grdina, and Toronto's banjo-led avant-prog group Muskox (seriously!). Hoping I can stay up to catch Rob Mazurek's Sao Paulo Underground (2:30 a.m. Saturday night/Sunday morning) but that's pretty tough with a five hour drive home on Sunday afternoon.”

Ottawa trumpeter Craig Pedersen, a co-founder of the Improvising Musicians of Ottawa/Outaouais (IMOO), highlighted several acts he would love to see, "all of whose music has been important influence on my own work." IMOO is running its own mini-festival of improvised music in Ottawa in early October.

"First, Colin Stetson is a monster musician. I love the way he plays, and I love the way that he has found a way to balance a pursuit of popular song form and contemporary improvised practice. I feel like he's an important figure on the scene right now, and that for many, will serve as a 'gateway drug' into other improvised music – and I don't mean that to downplay his musicianship, expertise or skills at all. Like I said, he's a monster musician.

"Next, I'll jump at any chance to hear Montreal's Quartetski. Again, I really feel like they've found a really interesting balance between free improvised music, experimental classical, early music and everything in between. All virtuosic players in their own right, they're dedicated improvisers. Last year they released a recording called Quartetski does Satie that I thought was incredible, and that I've been listening to ever since. I aspire to create music that speaks as much as theirs does.

"I'm disappointed that I won't be able to see Scott Thomson's Riveradiant. I had the pleasure of performing in Scott's Chamber Elements piece at the National Gallery this summer. It looks like Riveradiant is another site-specific composition for improvising brass players. I was really blown away this summer with Scott's attention to detail in his work, and how he is able to draw out the sounds of the space he's working in. If I could be there, I would.

"Of course there are others who I wish I could see – Ikue Mori, Peter Brotzman, Fred Frith, Gord Grdina and more – but for some reason my choices this year are a little more local."

Getting there

It's a six hour drive from Ottawa to Guelph. Frequent Greyhound and Via Rail service is available, with transfers in Toronto. Greyhound offers more flexibility and frequency; Via offers more comfort and is a bit faster. Via Rail is currently offering 50% off its fares for this period, but you must book by August 31. Both the train and bus stations are downtown.

And while you're there

The festival occurs after the peak tourist season ends on Labour day. Accommodation and travel costs are generally lower than in major cities; the traffic and crowds are smaller, and the heat and humidity are not nearly as oppressive as during the early summer Festivals.

Downtown Guelph, where most of the concerts occur, is compact and quite walkable. The Macdonald Stewart Art Centre is a short bus or bike ride from downtown, and also offers car parking.

There's a good variety of restaurants downtown, including the newly-famous Canadian landmark Pierre's Poutine (“Pierre Poutine” ). There's one hotel downtown and whole series of chain hotels in the main suburban shopping strip to the south of the university (also served by public transit).

   – Alayne McGregor

Updated August 30 with comments from Craig Pedersen.

Watch for further coverage by from the Guelph Jazz Festival on September 5 to 9.

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