Justin Haynes and Linsey Wellman played together for the first time at IMOOfest 2013. ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Justin Haynes and Linsey Wellman played together for the first time at IMOOfest 2013. ©Brett Delmage, 2013

Improvising Musicians of Ottawa/Outaouais
IMOOfest 2013, night 1
Friday, November 8, 2013
GigSpace Performance Studio, Ottawa

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The second edition of IMOOfest opened with three performances, which each reached their audience's hearts and minds, but in quite separate ways.

The festival is being held this year in the intimate GigSpace, which gave it a warm, inviting, and informal feeling: where a peaceful baby could snooze in his mother's arms during quiet sections or watch and listen (protected by ear muffs) to louder passages. There was lots of time between acts and before and after the show for the performers and listeners to chat together, enjoy refreshments, and look at the performers' CDs.

The festival opened with an extended solo guitar piece by David Jackson. Playing electric guitar with a variety of effects pedals and loops, Jackson layered sounds on top of each other like a watercolour painter. He started with a simple musical aura, produced using his effects pedals while he lightly drummed on his guitar body. He added a few harmonics, and then superimposed on another light overall tone on top of the first.

It was an exploratory, yet melodic half-hour of ever-shifting music, which included him “preparing” his guitar by placing metal rods underneath the strings to change their timbre, and bowing the guitar strings. The combination of sounds became steadily more complex, yet the overall peaceful vibe remained. In fact, the applause at the end was louder than the music.

Concentrating in the dark

Then, after a short break, the lights went out. It was a deliberate choice: as Jennifer Giles said, “we like playing in the dark.” Giles at the piano, Justin Haynes on guitar and percussion mid-stage, and Linsey Wellman switching between alto sax and bass clarinet were only barely illuminated by the eerie blue and magenta light from the curtain accent lights and audio equipment.

The concept was to increase the audience's awareness of the music. It certainly did give a different impression when you couldn't quite tell what each was doing other than the general idea of which instrument they were playing.

They played one extended improvisation, lasting 35 minutes. It had a huge dynamic and stylistic range: you couldn't have predicted from the quiet, romantic solo piano section which started the show that shortly after the music would turn dramatic and dissonant. Wellman explored the percussive click of sax keys, while Haynes banged a small cymbal against his body and the floor and twisted it around in the air like a fan.

There were graceful, sparkling passages on piano, light bluesy lines on guitar, and melancholy deep notes on clarinet. And there were a few points where Wellman's sax was so outspoken that I was surprised how much sound a relatively small instrument like that could produce. But what was really obvious was how much innate musical vocabulary all three had in order to produce such an interesting and varied conversation.

This was the first performance for this trio: Giles has frequently performed with Wellman in many different combinations, and this summer she often played with Haynes (though frequently with him on piano and her on accordion!) But at this show they smoothly reacted to each others' innovations: you wouldn't have know that Wellman and Haynes hadn't played together before.

A controlled stream of consciousness

The final show of the evening marked the too-long-delayed return to Ottawa of Barnyard Drama, the Toronto duo of vocalist Christine Duncan and her partner, drummer Jean Martin. For 45 minutes, Duncan vocalized, talked, rapped, sang, and totally mesmerized the audience. At the same time, Martin looped and/or echoed her vocals as appropriate, played drums that ranged from whispery to thundering, and added percussion and other effects, all immeasurably contributing to the emotional and musical impact of the music.

I first saw Barnyard Drama more than a decade ago, when they played the NAC Studio as part of the Ottawa Jazz Festival. They were accompanying the showing of a water-themed movie by a Halifax filmmaker, and Duncan's extraordinary wordless vocalizations, which stretched the limits of even her multi-octave range – quite unlike anything I'd heard before – made this one of the most memorable concerts I'd seen.

The IMOOfest performance was again completely improvised, essentially a controlled stream of consciousness. Duncan's voice soared and flew, making abrupt twists and turns and then suddenly fell again. She treated words as percussive phonemes, creating rhythmic patterns. At one point, she was singing about how the bells were ringing, and Martin responded by playing a small chiming toy.

But Duncan also ventured well beyond vocalizations. She sang Jimmy Rowles' jazz standard, “The Peacocks” – with the audience providing wind and rain effects underneath – and performed a humorous rap on handling friends' emotional detritus and the problem of singers including too many ballads in a row on their albums. There was a short gospel-influenced passage (Duncan grew up singing in church choirs) and a tribute to Aretha Franklin's “Respect”.

After “The Peacock”, she sang wordlessly like birdsong, with Martin looping her voice, and then suddenly produced vibrating, wrenching growls, highly rhythmic. Both her vocals and Martin's drums doubled in intensity and volume and built higher and higher, until she swallowed the last note and the set ended.

There was a moment's stunned silence, and then the audience strongly applauded the bravura performance.

At the beginning of the night, IMOO (Improvising Musicians of Ottawa/Outaouais) co-programming director Craig Pedersen had asked the audience to respect the “very quiet music” that would be produced that night. That certainly occurred, but the first night of IMOOfest was balanced by highly intense moments as well, for an expansive and memorable evening.

Duncan and Martin return tonight for the second evening of IMOOfest 2013, playing with the IMOO Chamber Orchestra in its first performance. The festival continues tonight and Sunday, with three different performances each night, featuring a diverse group of local and Montreal and Toronto improvising musicians.

   – Alayne McGregor

The 2013 IMOOfest continues until Sunday, November 10. View the IMOOfest schedule

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All photos © Brett Delmage, 2013