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11th Annual Guelph Jazz Festival & Colloquium
Guelph ON, 8-12 September 2004

(Left to right) Jean Derome, Ellen Waterman, and Susie Ibarra in workshop performance

This year's now legendary Guelph Jazz Festival continued to live up to its reputation of providing musicians and fans of jazz and improvised music with an unparalleled opportunity to create and hear a variety of sounds, musical combinations, and performances that would unlikely exist were it not for the festival. Through a combination of workshop performances, keynote lectures by Amiri Baraka and Archie Shepp, an academic colloquium, and a variety of concerts peppered throughout the city, the Guelph Jazz Festival approaches its programming seriously, ideologically, with the hope of showing how jazz and improvised music can help bring about a better, more equitable world.

While this is an admirable goal, music is often a sketchy affair, as anyone involved either as a performer or organizer will attest. Simply, as Anthony Braxton has stated in Forces in Motion, "the history of music evolution is not the history of nice guys, it's the history of human beings who have their frailties, their strong and weak points". What happens when real people are superimposed upon a political construct is perhaps inevitable and is resistant to any neat critical formation. This year's festival brought that into striking relief and will most likely continue to be the stuff of debate and controversy for many more festivals to come. But let us get to that later.

Theo Bleckmann and John Hollenbeck: electronicatrancefreejazz

Guelph's festival has much going for it, some benefits being perhaps less obvious than others. The size of Guelph, a small college town an hour southwest of Toronto, is ideal for a jazz festival. There are enough restaurants and establishments nearby, but not enough to distract the music fan from the business at hand. Because of its size, concertgoers ultimately form quick connections with one another, and after the first day, addresses and business cards are exchanged. Meals, libations, and rides are shared. Festival sponsors are knowledgeable, organized, and responsive, and several are impressive musicians within their own right. It is an enviable community, displaying a palpable commitment to and love for music.

Pieces of Time laying it down

The music selected for this year's festival focused on the sound of the voice in all its incarnations. With a heavy emphasis on the female voice, performances included a workshop group of women singing, the impeccable cellist and vocalist Anne Bourne (in trio and workshop setting), festival "regular" Yoon Sun Choi and her group 4inObjects, and Susie Ibarra's trio. Standouts were many, but the honors tended to go to the lesser-known acts. A blistering set by the group Barnyard Drama (with the twinned guitars of Justin Haynes and Bernard Falaise) featured the almost exclusively non-linguistic vocals of the phenomenal Christine Duncan. Her range is extraordinary, and she benefited from the sensitive support of Jean Martin on drums and electronics. The entire set was an early highlight with the last track morphing into a freaked-out country tune, complete with Pentecostal glossolalia, degenerating into the festival's first standing ovation. Another highlight was the voice/drums duo of Theo Bleckmann and John Hollenbeck. Focused on prepared kit (made to sound almost electronic), repetitive rhythms, and heavily processed vocals, it was a hypnotic affair, moving toward electronica at times.

The better-known groups didn't fail to deliver, with Oliver Lake in particularly fiery form. Depending upon appetite, Mary Redhouse's ability to mimic a variety of birds was either moving or an utter distraction. Either way, the set was filled with driving rhythms and keening solos from all. Andrew Cyrille's "Pieces of Time" picked up the drummer's long-term project, first recorded under that name in 1984. Now featuring Cyrille and original member Famoudou Don Moye, two more percussionists, Obo Addy and Okyerema Asante, have also joined the mix. While their performance lacked anything truly profound, it was inspiring to hear the group cut loose. Following the form of the original recording, all drummers made "personal statements", with highlights from Moye and Cyrille.

Joëlle Léandre and Barre Philips on ghost-bass

Joëlle Léandre and India Cooke performed in an intuitive, moving duet, showcasing their complete musicianship and mastery of their respective instruments. Léandre also performed in an ad hoc workshop with Ibarra, Jean Derome, Anne Bourne, and Guelph faculty-member Ellen Waterman. Those in the United States who have never heard Jean Derome must search out his work immediately. He is a master musician and an incredibly powerful flautist. The performance also included the ghost-bass of one Barre Phillips, hidden by the room wall, dragging his bass across the floor, sliding it back and forth, and generally making merry.

The most talked about event of the entire festival, however, was none of the above. Rather, it was a by now heavily discussed performance by the trio of Sainkho Namtchylak, William Parker, and Hamid Drake, which involved the nearly unprecedented halting of the performance and pulling of Namtchylak from the stage, shortly after a mass exodus, because of Namtchylak's willful defiance of both audience and musical partners. The irony of such a move at a festival as ideologically and politically invested as that of Guelph did not go without notice, and the comments by those members of the crowd who called for a pubic apology went unanswered.

Sainkho Namtchylak and William Parker prior to the hook

Ultimately, the performance was a painful moment, both for fans of improvised music and certainly for the concert promoters. The decision to remove Namtchylak only resulted in the eventual continuation of the performance, which ended up going much longer than originally scheduled; if one is to yank, one must be committed to that decision. The inevitable roars of the crowd and the comments about "acts of violence against the artist" were not surprising. In many ways, the Namtchylak affair was built into the very fabric of the festival, with the crowd trained to read music as an inherently political act.

The conflation of musical freedom with explicit struggles toward political freedom are by no means new—one need only look at the career of Albert Ayler to see how the political can be misapplied to the aesthetic. What is new, though, is the censorship of those who do not conform to the ideal. Had the performance continued as is, it would have simply been a bad show (not unlike the mess that was Ursel Schlicht's Ex Tempore Project, a musical disaster that also resulted in a mass exodus). Instead, the show was interrupted, directly calling attention to a conflict between theory and practice. What seemed to have been lost on the promoters of the event is that music is made by people, sometimes disturbed, sometimes difficult. To lose sight of this is to lose sight of the power of music, and to ultimately construct a very different tale.

This event, certainly controversial, unfortunately hangs over the 11th annual Guelph Jazz Festival to an undue extreme. What is lost by simply focusing on the event and the aftermath are the days of concerts and colloquium presentations that were revelatory, moving, and transformational. Guelph truly is a one of a kind festival supported by committed promoters who love the music. It is a place where, after a workshop entitled "Instruments Voices Narrative", a group of improvisers from around the world—Hamid Drake, Barre Phillips, Susie Ibarra, Joëlle Léandre, William Parker, Jean Derome, Anne Bourne, and Ellen Waterman—can chat and linger, unmolested by the audience, and yet not directly removed from them either. It is a place where a real community feeling is pervasive, where a bunch of people who have never met become friends and share many meals. It is a place where people freely offer a ride to the next show and exhibit real compassion when an altercation with drunkards over a D'Angelo t-shirt nearly turns ugly. It is a place where the music can call home, and where one can easily anticipate returning to again and again.