The Rob Clutton Trio.First launched in 1994, the Guelph Jazz Festival has defined itself as a champion for the music’s creative edges, whether artistic or social, over the years, having presenting major international artists such as Randy Weston and Anthony Braxton. For its 2021 edition, running from September 14 to 19, the festival is rising to new challenges, shifting its programming to include new venues and more free events and presenting varied music throughout the day and throughout the city of Guelph, creatively and socially engaging within the limitations imposed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, the festival has shifted its usual downtown outdoor presentation of continuous bands to an innovative set of park concerts: three programs of three bands each, with each program presented daily from September 16 to 18, at different parks throughout Guelph. The concerts include a program of groups exploring “Old Jazz Made New” (see details below); “Percussion International,” with Amadeo Ventura’s Spoken Rhythms, Aline Morales Baque de Bamba and Ensemble Jeng Yi exploring different rhythms from around the world; and “Pops said All Music is Folk Music,” with Turkish Music Ensemble, Boxcar Boys and Abebe Fikade’s ETHIO AZMARI.

There’s also a traditional series of ticketed evening concerts focusing on distinguished Canadian performers. On September 16, turntablist SlowPitchSound presents “Bending Things We Know So Well,” a project which includes field recordings from the Guelph area; longstanding duo of trumpeter Jim Lewis and drummer Jean Martin employ live electronics as part of an improvised music set on September 17; the Rob Clutton Trio performs on September 18 (see below); and, closing the series on September 19, Montreal’s distinguished Quatuor Bozzini performs works by Toronto composer Martin Arnold.

Other festival programming this year showcases a remarkably varied range of music, including reinvented instruments, a sound installation and witty street art. Three distinguished pianists explore Andrew Wedman’s radically retuned pianos in Bass Piano XII (September 17 to 19, see below). At the Goldie Mill Ruins, Guelph sound artist Lisa Conway presents SOUND MILL, using underwater recordings, analog synthesizers and light sensors to create a shifting soundscape based on river flow and changing light (September 14 to 16). For “The Birds of Marsville”, Oakville-based composer Friendly Rich Marsella plays his mechanical street organ at three different outdoor sites, exploring the songs of 80 different (and imaginary) species (various times and locales, September 16 to 18).

Read more: What to listen for as Guelph Jazz Festival takes to the parks

chessThere is an indescribable beauty that comes from a quintet working as one on stage to dazzle an audience. The most amazing, calming physical sensation accompanies those moments where your preparation and instinct have successfully married one another. At the chessboard, it is also this beautiful. The drums, bass and piano are like your rook, bishop and queen. The jazz happens from move one to checkmate. The applause from the audience is the hand reached out to you from across the board.      — Michael Shand

I was recently digitally flipping through an old DownBeat magazine from 1937, and came across an article on musicians who played chess by mail, by forwarding moves on penny postal cards. It made me think of our current state in the global pandemic, and how people are finding creative ways to connect without the ability to be in the same room.

As a pastime, chess has enjoyed a resurgence during COVID-19, in part due to the acclaimed Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit. I have not been immune to this trend; learning the intricacies of bishops, rooks and knights has helped to fill the long hours at home. But as a musician, my interest also stems from stories about our jazz heroes playing chess.

From Anthony Braxton playing in Chicago’s Washington Square Park for money, to Charlie Parker setting out the board during breaks at the Rainbow Ballroom in Denver, Colorado, to Dizzy Gillespie playing on a plane against Chief Justice of the United States Earl Warren, there is a rich history of jazz musicians dedicated to the game. Several even incorporated it into their musical work – trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson’s group Sicilian Defense, organist Freddie Roach’s album Good Move! and Charles Mingus’ album Chazz!. Art Blakey was also a chess player – the first track on The Big Beat (1960) is The Chess Players by Wayne Shorter. (I’m tempted to add that America’s greatest blues record label is named Chess Records, but it was named after Phil and Leonard Chess, the brothers who owned and operated it. So let’s just leave it there.) 

Is this devotion still around? In fact, fans may be surprised to learn chess is as popular as ever in the jazz community in Toronto and environs, in part fuelled by a recent swell of interest among young musicians who, like me, have started to play online on sites like chess.com. Here are short interviews with four musicians (from earlier this spring) explaining their love of the game!

Read more: From move one to checkmate

February 20, 2020: Harrison Squared, at Buckingham Palace (Calgary!) Left to right: Vetro, Argatoff, Wallace and Murley. Photo credit Buckingham PalaceWith the COVID-19 pandemic having passed the one-year mark – and with recent ominous developments indicating we’re likely looking at another year of it – and with the university teaching year just finishing, this article will be a kind of retrospective diary of the past annus horribilis from the perspective of a jazz musician and teacher.

Lest I forget

In February of 2020, about a month before COVID hit North America, I did a tour of Western Canada with Harrison Squared, a quartet co-led by two young musicians named Harrison – Harrison Argatoff (tenor) and Harrison Vetro (drums), with saxophonist Mike Murley and me aboard as greybeard mentors. The band was born out of a few sporadic gigs, but some chemistry was there and we’d just released a CD called Trout in Swimwear, so the tour was a chance to promote the CD and for the band to coalesce with eight concerts spread over two weeks. The first day was the most gruelling: an eye-wateringly, early-morning flight to Vancouver, renting a van and taking the ferry to Nanaimo, then driving to Courtenay to do our first gig in a club that night, with just hours to spare. That our first gig was in Courtenay was significant for me as it’s become like a second home – my sister-in-law Fran and her son Kyle (like a third son to me along with my own two) live there, and her cousin Frank is just down the street, so I’ve visited many times. However, the tight schedule didn’t allow much time for socializing. 

Read more: How did I not see that coming? A (Lost) Year in Retrospect

From Left: John Sumner, drums; Steve Wallace, bass; and Mark Eisenman, piano in 2007, playing a Carmen Unzipped cabaret with Jean Stilwell. Photo byPeter MartynJazz is not easily boiled down to any one element but when you get right down to it, learning to play jazz is largely about learning how to listen. Really listen, hard, to many things simultaneously while making spontaneous decisions based on what you’re hearing. This is true of all music to some extent but especially so with jazz because it’s so unscripted: there’s often very little on paper to tell you what to play or how to play it, or when. The best jazz is like a coherent conversation between musicians using sounds instead of words, and what makes it coherent – or not – is whether the “conversationalists” are not only speaking the same language, but also really listening to one another. 

As a player you have to learn to divide your ear to monitor many aspects at once: the form and structure of the tune being played; the melody, which you try to hold in your ear even after it’s been abandoned; the harmony and its variations; the dynamics; the rhythmic pressure/development and other minutiae; all while trying to hear the big picture, the overall arc of a performance. You have to listen to yourself closely, but also to what everyone else is doing. But while doing all this listening you also have to act and react instantaneously – to not only listen hard, but fast. Hesitate, even for a second, and you’re lost.

Read more: Listening Fast and Hearing Long

Many would agree that 2020 was the worst we’ve ever been through and we were all anxious to see the end of “The Year of Living Covidously.” So good riddance, 2020, and don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out. But of course the root of all our problems and suffering – the pandemic – hasn’t gone anywhere and simply flipping over to January of a new year on the calendar hasn’t solved it, any more than anything else we’ve tried. And Lord knows we’ve tried lots, at least most of us. Masking up, staying at home, social distancing, keeping our bubbles small, working from home (that’s if you still have a job), forgetting what eating in a restaurant or hearing live music feel like. Stores and schools closed, then open, then sort of half-open, then not. And still the numbers go up as we chase this invisible enemy, to the point where The Myth of Sisyphus no longer seems a metaphor but something we’re living on a daily basis. Keep pushing that boulder.

None of this is to say that we should join the ranks of the anti-mask loonies or herd-immunity-at-any-cost-COVID-deniers, not at all. We have only to look south of the border to see how well that hasn’t worked, as Samuel Goldwyn might have put it. Clearly we must stay the course with these mitigation measures because they’re the best tools we have and, just as clearly, we would be even worse off without abiding them in the last year. It’s just that after nine months and counting of cave-dwelling isolation… well, it’s getting harder. To quote one of Mose Allison’s more sardonic later songs – “I am not discouraged. I am not down-hearted. I am not disillusioned… But I’m gettin’ there… yeah, I’m gettin’ there.”

Mose Allison. Photo by Mose Allison

Read more: New Year, Same Old
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