Twenty years after its modest beginning, the Guelph Jazz Festival (GJF), which this year takes place September 3 to 8, has grown to be one of this country’s major improvised music celebrations. Unlike many other so-called jazz fests which lard their programs with crooners masquerading as jazz singers, tired rock or pop acts, or so-called World or C&W performers who make no pretence of playing jazz, the GJF continues to showcase committed improvisers in sympathetic settings including during the fourth installment of the dusk-to-dawn Nuit Blanche.
Perhaps the most celebrated innovator at the GJF is trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. His Golden Quartet, which shares a double bill at the River Run Centre (RRC)’s main stage September 7, performs a variant of his classic Ten Freedom Summer suite, shortlisted for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in music. Part of that program was recorded with an orchestra, and you can get an idea of Smith’s structural blending listening to Occupy The World (TUM CD 037-2 tumrecords.com) as the 21-piece TUM Orchestra (TUMO) interprets another Smith composition. The selections’ intricate arrangements serve not to frame Smith’s muted brass flurries, which bring Miles Davis-like ballad mastery into the 21st century, but open up to the talents of the mostly Finnish orchestra. You can hear that on the title track when the trumpeter’s tale told through rubato grace notes and squeezed triplets is matched with tom-tom-like passages from TUMO’s three percussionists, followed by massed polyphony pierced by legato strings, a tremolo harp sequence and Smith’s conclusive brassy and heraldic tones. The Golden Quartet’s bassist John Lindberg is soloist on Mount Kilimanjaro, where his magisterial double and triple stopping establish a staccato pantonality which encourages the five-person string section to abandon legato thrusts for stirring sweeps, and despite being performed at warp speed, encourages a satisfying orchestral mosaic. Leaving space for split-second sonic blasts from the entire band, before the warm and welcoming conclusion, Lindberg joins the other tremolo strings for a sequence of scrubs and sweeps. Incidentally, Swedish tenor saxophonist Fredrik Ljungkvist, part of the Atomic band, which is at the RRC’s Co-operators Hall September 4 during the GJF, is one stand-out on Queen Hatshepsut when his bravura churning and almost vocalized tenor saxophone lines make a perfect pantonal contrast to pointillist smears from accordion and piano.
Balancing a delicate outer shell with a steely core, American flutist Nicole Mitchell is another major improv figure whose Indigo Trio plays St. George’s Church’s Mitchell Hall September 5. A similar configuration with bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Frank Rosaly expands with additional colours on Aquarius (Delmark DE 5004 delmark.com) when the three and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz make up the Ice Crystal band. What Herbie Mann’s combo could have sounded like if he had ignored rock-pop blandishments, even Mitchell’s blues and Latin tunes trade simplicity for sophistication as four-mallet, bell-like tones from the vibist and her gruff tremolo gusts are as linear as they are lyrical. Other pieces such as Above the Sky reflect mood rather than linearity, borne on metal-bar smacks and swooping flute flutters. Another standout, Sunday Afternoon has a pastoral title, yet adds Chicago grit to become a straight-ahead swinger, following Abrams’ stentorian solo that expands into string multiphonics while maintaining a steady pulse. Meanwhile the rhythmic adaptability of Rosaly is succinctly showcased on Adaptability. He proves that a program of rim shots, rolls and pops doesn’t retard the beat but instead underlines the metallic origin of the other instruments Adasiewicz and Mitchell transform with extended techniques, to soar and bounce as well as peep and resonate.