Jesse Stewart thought outside the box for his performance ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Jesse Stewart thought outside the box for his performance ©Brett Delmage, 2013

Improvising Musicians of Ottawa/Outaouais
IMOOfest 2013, night 3
Sunday, November 10, 2013
GigSpace Performance Studio, Ottawa

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Jesse Stewart, solo percussion

For his previous solo show at GigSpace, percussionist Jesse Stewart brought in a vibraphone, a set of heavy, carefully-tuned marble blocks, a drumkit, a giant sawblade, and many other percussion instruments: a load you'd need a large car or van to carry.

He showed up at IMOOfest 2013 with a plain cardboard box under his arm, about a cubic foot in size and obviously trivially light. He ignored the two full drumkits behind him, and he played the box in every possible way.

Opening the last night of the festival, Stewart embodied its pure improvising spirit – and playfulness. He began by simply shaking the box, letting the contents crash around inside. Then he turned it over and around. He rubbed the stubble on his face against it, and then put it down and ran his fingers over the corrugations on the side, creating light scratching sounds.

He drummed on it with his hands, on both the sides and top, starting with simple patterns which evolved into more complex and interrupted, and turned into a thundershower of sharp beats. He opened the box and pressed the flaps down alternately, fast and hard. Using a violin bow, he bowed the side of a flap, creating an attenuated screech like a creaking door in a horror film, and then pressed down harder and harder until the sound popped.

Then he unpacked the box, unearthing two mallets, two drumsticks, and two brushes, and used the mallets to create a very resonant drumbeat on one of the box flaps. He moved among all four flaps, changing ends on the mallets to sharpen the sound.

Stewart pulled a small cymbal out of the box (by this point reminding me of a magic show) and bowed it. He turned the box 90 degrees so its open side faced the audience (see, nothing else!) and rested the cymbal on the box, bowing it and making it sound much like a theremin. He rubbed the edge of the cymbal against the box at the same time as he also rubbed the end of a drumstick, creating a circle of sound.

And then he explored the sound qualities of his sticks: rubbing drumsticks together and pressing the edge of one against the ridges on the other; creating a fast vibration by running a brush against a drumstick; rustling a brush across the surface of the box; swishing both brushes through the air; rolling both brushes together in his hands, then on the surface of the box; balancing one brush on the edge of the box and letting it fall back onto the box; and finally drumming again with sticks, fast and hard.

He followed that by running brushes in a fast repeated pattern on the box surface, like ice skating, while whistling a simple, rather jaunty tune in time. The rhythm became more syncopated, and finally ended with a flourish.

Then Stewart packed everything back into the box and commented that he'd never before had such a fast set-up or take-down. The audience was amused, and applauded vigorously.

It was an object lesson in the possibilities of percussion – and interestingly enough, completely different from what I had seen him do in a classroom situation (Stewart is a music professor at Carleton University). For one class project, his students had formed a Paperphonics orchestra using only paper products, but the way they used cardboard had no overlap with what Stewart did here.

Stewart made a point of talking to the audience afterwards, telling them that the cardboard box was more than just a box. It was one of 60 into which he had packed the jazz LPs which former Ottawa Jazz Festival programming director Jacques Emond had collected for many years.

The song Stewart had whistled earlier was an old bass-and-drums jazz number from the 1930s called “Big Noise from Winnetka”, made famous by the Bob Crosby Orchestra. And why did he pick that tune? Because this particular box was labelled “Rosemary Clooney to Bob Crosby”.

Pedersen / Magill / Warren

IMOO co-founder Craig Pedersen's friends managed to surprise him at the beginning of his trio set with a small iced cake, complete with three candles. It was to celebrate his 30th birthday, which actually occurred on the first day of the festival. The entire audience joined in, as requested, with improvised variations on Happy Birthday, with piano accompaniment by Jennifer Giles.

Pedersen was performing with two drummers, Rory Magill and Scott Warren, who are both IMOO regulars, but not together – the only time I remember them in the same group was in the DoubleSpace quartet which appeared at IMOO in August 2012.

The set started out quietly, with Magill lightly screeching a drumstick around the top of a cymbal, and Warren softly blowing into a squeaky toy and then using electronics to let the sound vibrate. Warren followed with ominous tapping on cymbals while Magill tapped two drumsticks together and then rang a small bowl. Pedersen entered, both tapping on and playing through his trumpet, pressing it against the vocal mic to get the heaviest sound.

The overall feel was abstract and a bit uncoordinated as they continued, with Pedersen later singing a conceptual, Arabic-sounding wordless drone over heavy rumbling drums, and producing more percussive than melodic music on his trumpet.

Then it turned into a wild-man show, with each musician putting out the maximum amount of energy possible. After three evenings of improvisation, it was almost too much strong meat for me. It slowed for a moment, with Pedersen playing a gospel-influenced melody on trumpet, but then speeded up again before closing with drones, squealing toys, and hand-drumming. They followed with a second, shorter piece featuring recorded voices, brushes rubbing on the surface of the snare, and Pedersen bowing his trumpet.

While the set had interesting moments, I felt it lacked cohesion and direction and could have benefited from some pre-planning to determine what they wanted to emphasize. The combination of trumpet, drumset, and loops has interesting possibilities, but it didn't feel as though they exploited either the differences or the similarities among the instruments.

Ellwood Epps and Joshua Zubot’s Land of Marigold

Land of Marigold is the long-standing duet project of trumpeter Ellwood Epps and violinist Joshua Zubot. The two Montrealers were mid-way through a cross-Canada tour promoting their first album, which was recorded in 2006, but only released this January on Bug Incision Records. Zubot said they will be recording a new duo CD soon.

What was particularly interesting about their music was how unexpectedly well the tonal ranges and the feel of their two instruments worked together. Sometimes one followed the other or they were almost in unison; sometimes they played contrapuntal rhythms, with the trumpet floating above as the violin vibrated below. At times they each produced very clear, pure sounds; other times Epps muted his instrument (he had a wide selection of mutes in front of him) while Zubot created screeches on the violin. Or they would contrast the bright metallic plucking of violin strings with trills and multiple sliding notes on trumpet.

They played four pieces, all primarily improvised, although with some connections to the CD. The pieces were exercises in texture, melody, and vibration, but always with a strong thread binding the two performers into a cohesive whole. Their music was interesting and varied, easily filling the room, and quite imaginative in how they deployed the sounds coming from their instruments.

However, I think Epps and Zubot would have connected even better with the audience if they'd talked more on-stage about what they were doing, how they started playing together, and how their instruments worked together, because of the abstract nature of their music. This is something that folk musicians do much better than jazz or improvising musicians, and I think it's important to make that emotional and intellectual contact with the audience so they understand what the musicians are trying to do.

This was the final evening of the 2013 IMOOfest, but at the end many people almost seemed reluctant to go, still standing socializing and looking at CDs during the tear-down. The evening's performers stuck around to chat with listeners, continuing the informal and happy vibe of the weekend.

Overall, the festival was clearly a success, with some truly memorable performances. Even the few which didn't quite work still had moments of interest (and learning opportunities – don't play too loudly in GigSpace!), and could have been better if there had been time or energy for more planning. I'm looking forward to what the organizers present in 2014.

   – Alayne McGregor

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All photos © Brett Delmage, 2013