By Irwin Block
Guelph, Ont. – The “cosmic spirit” of Sun Ra continued to illuminate the five-day Guelph Jazz Festival, celebrating its 25th anniversary with an array of Canadian and international avant-jazz and improvising performers over five days that ended Sunday in this city, 58 miles west of Toronto.
The festival opened Wednesday night with a high-spirited show from Sung Ra: The Rakestar Arkestra, dedicated to the Sun Ra legacy, and New York-based singer Amirtha Kidambi rekindled the flame Friday, artfully manipulating keywords and phrases from the Sun Ra vocabulary, backed by the richly-toned alto saxophone of Darius Jones.
The second half of that concert featured the brilliant Barcelona-based pianist Agustí Fernández, with Montreal alto sax improviser Yves Charuest. After two pieces of dialogue – essentially a re-acquaintance – each played solo, exploring and extending sonic possibilities before reuniting in a spirited call-and-response closer that ended fast and furious.
In sounded like the fire this time: Steve Swell’s Soul Travellers filled the River Run Centre with a stimulating and energetic avant jazz set. Led by composer/trombonist Swell, the band was charged for action: Jemeel Moondoc (alto sax), pianist Dave Burrell, bassist William Parker, and drummer Chad Taylor delivered a swinging, joyful, and richly soulful experience. The music – Moondoc’s deep, rich tone, Burrell’s staccato attack, and Swell’s inventive solos – was a call to shout it out, as Charles Mingus did in his prime.
Bassist Parker was back Saturday morning, performing solo his Flower in a Stained-Glass Window. He played part of that suite, which he composed after he dreamed he saw a flower next to the body of Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination in Memphis, 40 years ago. After a fast-paced intro, Parker bowed a more mournful and contemplative section, which gradually increased in intensity. A flurry of notes then morphed into dream-like imagery, ending with slowly strummed chords that simulated a funeral cortege. Parker’s is a deep and resonant voice, always big and clear and precise, and his message is hope and optimism: “There’s a rainbow in the ghetto,” he told the audience, and its spirit is turning “knives into violins.”
Two double-bills filled out Saturday afternoon and evening. The first was an improv trio of Guelph-base pianist-violinist Marielle Groven and her partner, bassist Aaron Lumley, with Amsterdam guitarist Jasper Stadhouders. We liked the group’s energy that developed as the concert proceeded, featuring such engaging moments as pianist Grove’s Cecil-Tayloresque solo excursion and rich keyboard colors, and Stadhouders’ adventurous guitar work.
Japanese pianist Satuko Fujii, her trumpeter partner Natsuki Tamura, and new recruit Takashi Itani played pieces from their This is It! CD. It was an original set, a mix of avant techniques and more straight-ahead lyricism. Fuji and Tamura are veterans of the avant circuit and continue to play original and captivating music. They closed up-tempo and bright.
The evening double-bill began with a tribute to the art songs of American jazz saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy, who died in 2004. The program was developed and performed by veteran Montreal-based woodwinds player, Jean Derome, who studied with Lacy in 1977 and also played with him not long before his death. The songs’ lyrics reflect Lacy’s eclectic reading, from ancient Chinese and Japanese poetry, to a Herman Melville text, and friendships, including pieces he co-wrote with beat poet Brion Gysin – the delightful Somebody Special and Blue Baboon, an exercise in rhyme. These modal tunes were beautifully rendered by Montreal-based vocalist Karen Young, extended by Derome’s sparkling solos on alto sax and flute. Derome said he decided not to play soprano sax to avoid copying Lacy. Several solos by pianist Alexandre Grogg added colourful contours to the tunes, and Young closed with a delightful scat.
Next was the collaboration of American alto saxophonist Darius Jones and French vocalist/composer Emilie Lesbros, both based in New York, performing songs that are a follow-up to their 2015 CD Le bébé de Brigitte (Lost in Translation), with English and French lyrics. At times resembling spoken word, the songs were alternately playful, prophetic, and ironic. She uses her voice like an instrument, contrasting with Jones’s visceral and rich alto.
Sunday’s lineup began and ended with unusual instrumentation. The first was an exploratory improv set featuring Austrian Philip Zoubek on prepared piano, Montreal’s Pierre-Yves Martel (viola de gamba), and German Carl Ludwig Hübsch (tuba). Each played in unconventional ways, using avant techniques to explore sonic possibilities and ended up sounding cohesive.
Challenging, yet eminently accessible and beautiful to hear was the captivating duo set of Toronto-based improvising pianist Marilyn Lerner and trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud. They’re called Brass Knuckle Sandwich, but their collaboration is all about individual creative expression, complicity, and a commitment to refined aesthetic values. Lerner called on a vast background – from classical to Klezmer – to develop themes that mesh with Rampersaud’s trumpet explorations and sonic techniques, providing another festival highlight.
The final concert brought together Alison Cameron, the Toronto-based composer-improviser and her array of instruments – electronic keyboards, piano, organ, banjo, crackle boxes, etc. – and Guelph-based Ben Grossman on hurdy-gurdy. They placed themselves in the middle of the room, surrounded by the audience, and the table they shared was covered with Cameron’s objects, toys, and electronics. The concert began with improv pieces, then morphed into the rendering and extension of written material – 90 minutes of spontaneous creation and exploration that added up to a fascinating set.