Improv on the Speed River

Guelph, Canada – a pleasant university town nestled in the forrested low meander of the mis-aptly named “Speed River” is invigorated by its weeklong jazz festival, scholars’ colloquium, and $4 million research grant from Canadian governmental forces, devoted to study of music improvisation’s relation to social change and community-sustenance.

I know few details of the $4 million grant, only that the funding will go to support of five books, contracted by my own publisher Routledge, but still to be commissioned. ANd other projects. The dollars are the most ever turned to research (which will inevitably include documentation) of improvisation as a dynamic interaction. A subject I’ll report on in more depth (after I get back home after two weeks away, and deal with whatever urgent I put off)
Meanwhile, among highlights at the ?th annual Guelph fest – and fest is too small a word for this invasion, which while within it seems at least as significant as the Toronto Film Festival garnering international attention, some 70 miles north:
Composer unbound, reeds marvel and spokesman for the “friendly experiencer” Anthony Braxton headlined with a joyful lecture in which he detailed many of the idioms, elements and processes applicable to his mulitfarious and unique music; he conducted an improvised yet rigorously atonal concerto for an 18-piece ensemble comprising members of the new AIM-Toronto musicians collective, inspired by Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians; and just minutes from now as I write he’ll play reeds with trumpeter Taylor Bynum and guitarist Mary Halverson — I gotta go, but here’s more:
bassist William Parker grooved with drummer Hamid Drake, while singer-dancer Lena Conquest wailed and Amiri Baraka ranted on themes of Curtis Mayfield — a three man saxophone section alternated between free-blowing (which didn’t make as much impression as it should have, vanquished by room mix) and basic but satisfying soul-band riffs — the vital jazz rhythms and Ms. Conquest’s gospel-like fervor redeemed Baraka’s archaic anti-white agit-prop, most inappropriate here/now, virtually a museum piece;
bassist Charlie Haden and pianist-arranger Carla Bley led their Liberation Music Orchestra through stately anthems rendered dryly, opened for garrulous solos by trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, french hornist Vincent Chancy, tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, altoist Miguel Zenon, and others — Mr. Haden loves ballad tempos way more than I do, and at last week’s Chicago jazz fest his 3 pm under-the-sun set with local jammers about put me to sleep, but in Guelph his blues-conflicted “America the Beautiful” with intimations of Ornette Coleman’s “Skies of America” as well as references to “Lift Every Voice” and several other protest movement standards was a welcome bit of patriotic demonstration of North American civil principles . . .
Montreal’s Catherine Potter demonstrated extraordinary technique on the Indian bansuri flute, and performed a very pleasing repertoire with her understated, empathetic band — subtle electric guitarist, upright bassist, traps drummer and strong tabla player — sort of the flute Shakti, less sparkly fire more water flow —
and most triumphant was the high energy, lyrical and good humored set by the 3Ms trio (Myra Melford-Mark Dresser-Matt Wilson), which communicated directly their love of playing and discovery through instrumental mastery — third hit of three nights in a row, the night before being at John Zorn’s recital space The Stone, on 2nd St. and Avenue C in downtown New York — if they can turn audiences out as they did this one, which leapt to its feet, cheering, spontaneously, at several junctures — they will do more for improv than al the research all the scholars could pursue —
oh yes, the colloquium (at which I delivered a talk that ranged from Don Cherry’s explanation of Ornette’s Harmolodic theory to Cecil Taylor explaining his generation of a distinct musical language on Chris Felver’s prismatic portrait of the pianist, All The Notes, to the video clip of Miles Davis ending his performance at the Isle of Wight Fest of 1971, from the dvd A Different Kind of Blue): guitarist Marc Ribot spoke on the practicalities and challenges facing downtown musicians and free improvisers everywhere — diverse academics presented their positions on various personal and/or arcane topics — Amiri Baraka and William Parker expressed their frustrations and rejections of the way the mainstream world treats African-American free jazz musicians . . . the freshest moments came from questions from astute observers such as James Hale, Alan Stanbridge, Pauline Oliveros, and jam sessions including one featuring my friend Alain Derbez, poet, broadcaster, journalist, historian, and soprano saxophonist from Vera Cruz performing with a kora player from Mali.
So far, a good time’s been had by all . . .

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  1. says

    Great post. Makes me upset that I wasn’t there. We’ve got Exploding Star Orchestra (Rob Mazurek, Matt Bauder, Nicole Mitchell, etc.) coming to Philly next week – excited about that.
    The “3Ms Trio” you refer to is actually called Trio M and they will have their first album out together on Cryptogramophone on October 23. Stay posted for more on that.

  2. Howard Mandel says

    thanks for the correction on the Trio M designation, Matt — the Braxton “trio + 1” gig I was rushing off to was another amazingly high-level engagment of creation in constant flux. Braxton played sopranino and double-bass clarinet as well as alto brilliantly, with great technique and wild ideas — Halverson and Bynum, neither of whom I’d heard live, were at hs level and personally contributive, as was the tenor player (Canadian, I think) whose name (like those of all sidemen mentioned in my main post) I’ve got to get. Braxton starts each set turning over an hour-glass; he ends when the sand’s run to the bottom. This music held my interest by being clear and concentrated, seeking variety and forward development at elevated levels of melodic-rhythmic intersection. (Gee, can I write like one of them, too?) It was a sensual mental pleasure.

  3. says

    Yes. I’ve seen Halvorson and Bynum do their thing with Tomas Fujiwara. They are both excellent players who keep the listener on edge. Strangely enough with all his recent activity and all, I’ve still not had an opportunity to see Braxton but since all these folks are his musical progeny I’d imagine I’d find him appealing as well. I particularly like Bynum’s carefree blowing and Halvorson’s sharp dissonances and the way she uses the various pedals to complement what she’s playing on the fretboard.

  4. Jean Burrows says

    This is the Improvisation, Community, and Social practice project. The book series will be published by Wesleyan University Press.