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Saturday, September 23, 2017

On the last two days of the Guelph Jazz Festival…

By Connor Kurtz

"The piano ain't got no wrong notes," says Monk; Matthew Shipp's Saturday morning solo performance in the River Run Centre was a clear continuation in that thinking. Shipp's set, much more-so than the previous night's trio, was largely filled by emotional exploration using juxtapositions of beauty and dissonance. The dissonant sections were intense and maniacal; the crowd sat in uneasy expectations for the profound emotional relief that Shipp so expertly brought. Shipp used plenty of melodic patterns within his performance, but they refused to let themselves become obvious. The pace flew freely as Shipp drifted from high to low notes, drifting from incomprehensible mayhem to minimalist pseudo-waltzes. Much like Peter Brötzmann's performance just three nights earlier, Matthew Shipp gave a masterful and challenging performance which resulted in a strikingly honest presentation of emotion which could resonate with the entire audience.

Photos by Owen Kurtz

Not long later, the crowd moved to the Guelph Little Theatre for the first of the day's two double bills. The first act to play was Way Out Northwest; the trio of John Butcher, Torsten Müller and Dylan van der Schyff (the latter two performed alongside Peggy Lee the previous night). Although the whole cast was present in the previous night's double bill, Way Out Northwest sounded quite a bit different than either act. The largest difference was that they focused on a form of acoustic improvisation that was far more subdued than what was earlier heard. Müller in particular drifted towards a much more minimalist approach, calling reference to musicians like Eddie Prévost in several sections. Due to the contextual changes, Dylan van der Schyff was allowed a larger role in the spotlight; he took this as a possibility to focus on more quiet and more varied explorations. Butcher completely set aside his electronics, as well as most of his ultra-extended-techniques, to perform a set which was more traditional, yet true to his distinctive language. Butcher often occupied the role of the main focal point, but, to this reviewer, it was Torsten Müller' multifaceted drumming which was the highlight.

On the second half of the double bill was René Lussier' MEUH, which features Pierre Lavoie on lap steel guitar, Martin Tétreault on turntables and Lussier on electric guitar. MEUH hit the audience with great surprise by opening with a track that might be described as a slight perversion of the country & western musical formula, but the greater surprise was to find that the group's entire set was based on this type of song, and not just that, but that it was incredible! Lavoie held the songs together with his impeccable lap steel playing which, while hardly eccentric, simply oozed technical and creative ability. Martin's turntables were abstract and scratchy; they largely existed to cast otherworldly ambience over the tracks, but there were several moments where he was directly cued by René to provide beautifully imaginative counterpoints to his guitar improvisations or even just the song's own melodies. It was typically impossible to detect the source of his LP's, which switched many times through the set, but the brief moments where they played near 33rpm to expose old jazz recordings filled the crowd with joy. René's guitar rested some place between the two performers. Largely, he played bluesy riffs alongside Lavoie to keep the songs rolling, but he often unexpectedly broke into wild improvisations, sounding completely out of place in the context of the song, but in the context of the festival right at home. René also had microphones placed on the floor to amplify his feet, so he could tap away to create an awkward pseudo-percussioninst which came and went. The set, although an odd addition to the festival, was wonderful, sincere, joyous and a huge success.

The day's second double bill brought us back to the River Run Centre to listen to Josh Zubot's Montreal quartet, MendHam. MendHam burst right into a powerful riff, which seemed to be largely inspired by John Zorn's Masada. The quartet played with extreme focus, all sticking closely together both figuratively and literally. Drummer Isaiah Ceccarelli's swinging rhythms are complimented by Nicolas Caloia's walking bass, and this is the first time that something so blatantly "jazz" was performed in this festival. Baritone saxophonist Jason Sharp belts out thick coughs of sound, leaving the melody to Zubot's violin, which often lays closer to classic Canadian fiddling. When the group breaks into improvisation, the song seems to drift away instantly. The improvisations are surprisingly minimal and sparse, especially in comparison to the bombastic themes. During improvisations, Zubot shines brightly, performing a vast amount of styles including the knocking of the instrument's base and col legno bowing.

BassDrumBone, the trio of drummer Gerry Hemmingway, bassist Mark Helias and trombonist Ray Anderson, started off their set with a gigantic mess of free improvisation. It sounds bizarre, conflicting and all wrong. Not too long later, the trio bounced up into a lengthy repeated theme which is both lovely and accessible. During what was certainly the best banter of the festival, it's announced that the piece was written by Hemmingway and was largely inspired by Don Cherry. Throughout the set we were exposed to lengthy compositions by all three performers, and they all had their own eccentricities and strengths. Gerry Hemmingway proved himself to be one of the most talented drummers in contemporary jazz (or in the festival, at least). He performed with a large array of tools and techniques, all mastered to his own unique style, and they were all executed in their perfect moments. One unaccompanied drum solo was easily the most virtuosic of the night. If this were any other ensemble, I'd likely have already gone into Mark Helias' genius. Especially during his own composition, he shines as a marvelously talented improviser who seems to be largely influenced by minimalist classical music. Trombonist Ray Anderson keeps his sounds subtle and sophisticated. He rarely does anything to draw much attention to himself, but he provides an essential counterbalance to the other performers. His own composition is another beast in itself, calling new age ambient music to mind.

The festival's final double bill, the second last event, began on Sunday at noon with a solo performance by Mark Helias. He opened with a gorgeous longform minimalist improvisation, seemingly influenced by Stefano Scodanibbio: a wonderful way to start the day, in this reviewer's eyes. He played melodies that were enchanting and comforting; this level of beauty was rare in the festival. During the improvisation, Helias made subtle switches between traditional and non-traditional styles; resulting in an exciting performance. Next, he played an original composition titled Like I Said. The piece is much more focused on harmony than the improvisation, and cements my belief that he must take strong influence from minimalist composers like Scodanibbio. The last piece played was a piece by Don Cherry, which was a spectacular ending to an otherwise subdued set.

Following up Mark Helias was the very exciting reunion of Tom & Gerry (analogue synthesist Thomas Lehn and percussionist Gerry Hemmingway). As a big fan of the duo's 1999 Erstwhile Records release, this was the most anticipated event for this reviewer; and it came very far from disappointing. At the beginning, the duo played with remarkable restraint and maturity. Just as the 1999 CD was an essential document in the era's budding reductionist improvisation scene, Sunday's performance paid homage to the contemporary reductionist improvisation scene which is quieter than ever. But not just was the set the festival's quietest performance; it was also the loudest. When havoc appears, the whole room begins to shake and it becomes the only moment of the entire festival where earplugs may be recommended. But not just are these moments bombastic and visceral; they are also welcomed, warranted and deserved. Nothing is simply done for shock or anything so easy, this music is careful and methodical. Gerry's toolkit had only grown since the previous night's performance, but Lehn's had actually shrunk as he moved towards a more refined and subtle method of improvisation. Although the performance does have a comfortable spot in the field of contemporary improvisation, it carried much more emotional weight than may be expected in this form of music. In certain moments, Thomas Lehn emitted high tones and beeping LFO's to create brain-shaking pseudo-techno beats. A long section of Gerry simply humming into a harmonica while Lehn worked on harmonizing high pitch tones with soft waves of static was a highpoint, and another was when one of the highest dB catastrophes quickly collapsed into Gerry ringing tiny bells over Lehn's soft processed static. In short, Tom & Gerry continue to be just as spectacular, contemporary and provocative as they were nearly 20 years ago.

The festival ended with one last performance at Silence.: the local duo of Barnyard Drama (singer Christine Duncan and Drummer Jean Martin). Very quickly, Barnyard Drama established themselves as a powerful provocative force; as Duncan shouts out oddball poetry, and gives shoutouts to a large amount of the audience. Jean Martin creates an equally oddball beat, which moves around randomly and often detaches from any form. Martin also controlled electronic modifications of both performers through a laptop and MIDI pad, where he enabled delay effects, tones and sequences. The set was enchanting, and the hour-long performance floated away like minutes. Barnyard Drama had cast their spell, and they had brought the Guelph Jazz Festival to an ending which was both intimate and weird.

The 2017 Guelph Jazz Festival was the first for artistic director Scott Thomson, and he's put together a wonderful string of concerts. There were plenty of surprises and odd decisions; but there wasn't a single ticketed event that I wasn't grateful for having attended.


Dan said...

Just as a point of clarification, Torsten Muller is the bassist and Dylan van der Schyff is the drummer in the Way Out Northwest trio.

Connor said...

Ack, thanks for pointing this out Dan! There was a bit of confusion in my notes for that night, so I'm not overly surprised by that being the one I messed up... Both put on wonderful performances either way!

Dan said...

Yes, together, they are one hell of a rhythm section!

Richard said...

Hi Connor,

Did Way Out Northwest say anything about a new album? They haven't
released anything in close to 10 years, I think.

Connor said...

Way Out NW said nothing about anything, sorry!