Guelph Jazz Festival

Henry Threadgill Headlines and Opines

Henry Threadgill

AIR LORE AND MORE: Several years ago, the late, great Pulitzer-winning composer Henry Brant—who spent the last stretch of many years as a Santa Barbaran—contacted me with a pointed question. As part of the committee behind the MacArthur “Genius” Grant organization, Brant was keen to hear about potential recipients in the jazz world, something he was interested in, if not up to date on. My response was immediate: Henry Threadgill. Here we have one of America’s most unsung musical visionaries, who has, for decades now, carved out his own unique method and language of jazz, a self-generated and self-defined world where jazz, free improvisation, and elements of contemporary classical thought and folk traditions from around the world come together, but in a Threadgill-ian way, not as a random or flimsy pastiche.

Unfortunately, because he remains an visionary artist without proper props and cultural/commercial support, the New York-based Threadgill doesn’t get out much, in terms of having opportunities to travel way out west, for example. (He did, however, put on a wildly fine show with his Very Very Circus band at the Museum of Natural History back in the late ‘80s, ending with the band circumambulating around the room in high avant-circus style).

Those of us without the benefit of an NYC-adjacent address have to seize live encounters when and where we can. So, hearing that Threadgill and his current band Zooid was the featured guest at the Guelph Jazz Festival was the clincher for my wanting to get outta’ Dodge and get thee back to Guelph, Ontario, the lovely college town an hour’s drive from Toronto, and a portal into the outer jazz limits. Hear this: the Guelph Jazz Festival, which completed its 18th annual edition last weekend, is one of North America’s finest left-field and/or experimental jazz occasions.

In the large River Run Center theater, Threadgill—on flute, alto flute and alto sax (the last his strongest suit as an instrumentalist)—gave a powerful performance, mixing structure and exploratory improv in his own special way and with sympathetic allies in such attentive players as guitarist Liberty Ellman, bassist Stomu Takeishi, drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee and tuba/trombone man Jose Davilla. All seem tuned in to the challenging syntax of Threadgill’s musical thinking.

Somehow, Threadgill’s music, most recently heard on recordings for the visionary Pi label, transports us into a musical place both timeless and represented mostly by just the party before us. Thankfully, he has built up a sizable discography over the years, going back to his work with the trio Air and some truly brilliant Sextet (and seven-piece Sextett) albums in the ‘80s for the About Time labe l— When Was That? and Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket. Columbia Records even gave a left-leaning nod to the man, releasing three Threadgill discs recorded between 1994 and 1996, Carry the Day, Makin’ a Move, and Where’s Your Cup?.

As part of the colloquium aspects of the Guelph festival, with panels, papers and general discussions re: jazz, Threadgill offered an intriguing public interview on Friday afternoon. Among other things, he took the opportunity to question the general m.o. of jazz education at the moment, saying “I take exception to schools trying to perpetuate what is jazz… You have to let each individual discover what the art is,” he surmised. “This is not entertainment. This is not pop. This is art. Not everyone is supposed to do it.” As he commented later in the interview, as musicians with something to contribute to the cultural conversation and developing landscape, “you put yourself in the picture by being a discoverer.”

Of course, that’s easy for him to say: Threadgill is one of the more fascinating and uncompromising discoverers in jazz of our time.

Meanwhile, back in the dense and loveable Guelph program this year, you could drift over from the Threadgill Saturday night soiree into the festival’s all-night “Nuit Blanche” doings. Post-Threadgill, I took on City Hall, where the Toronto-based Penderecki String Quartet (a repeat visitor to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s great chamber music series) played music of Erki, Sven Tuur, and Bela Bartok, and then experimental koto/electronic musician Miya Masaoka concocting her special brand of quixotic post-koto magic. Heading down to the riverfront (the Speed River, that is) Guelph Youth Music Centre, we caught drummer Gerry Hemingway doing up an impressive solo performance, with projections on the side. (On a formerly local note, former Santa Barbaran drummer Rob Wallace—who did post-graduate work at Guelph University—performed in the wee-er hours, but this aging scribe’s stamina had run out, demanding pillow time).

Other highlights of the 2011 Guelph festival included a soulful visit from Norwegian mystic Trygve Seim, teaming up with pianist Andreas Utnem in the suitable worshipful setting of St. George’s Church sanctuary (check out their beauteous 2010 album on ECM). Late on Friday night/early on Saturday morning, the Canadian power trio now known as Stretch (formerly the Tallboys, a name changed under legal duress) featured Canada-based cellist Matt Brubeck, of Brubeck family fame, and the truly amazing guitar work of Kevin Breit, who manages to be both a rangy, sound-twisting guitar geek’s delight and a musician of depth and curiosity.

Free jazz is alive and well in this town, at least during festival time, as well. From the veteran British free jazz annals came saxist Trevor Watts and pianist Veryan Weston, in an engaging and engaged morning concert, followed by the potent poetic free improvisational trio of Danish saxist-of-note Lotte Anker, piano great Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver, in the afternoon. And at the witching/wakening hour of 10:30 on Sunday morning, the festival drew to a memorable close with the improvisational powers of an all-American team of free thinkers: saxist Kidd Jordan, bassist William Parker (a Guelph regular), drummer Alvin Fielder, and pianist Joel Futterman, playing it and inventing it like they mean it, and are aware of the importance of, well, being discoverers.

HEADING NORTH, CLOSER TO HOME: On a closer-to-home note, this weekend brings the rightfully legendary Monterey Jazz Festival, quite possibly the greatest jazz fest in America, and certainly the best world-class jazz festival within driving distance of Santa Barbara. Whether you get main arena tickets or just the grounds pass, with access to multiple stages, the Monterey County Fairgrounds transforms into an enticing jazz-drenched compound for a weekend.

Arena acts include Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, a fresh new festival commission by Geri Allen and her band Timeline, India.Arie and a Sunday night gala “Miles Davis/Gil Evans: Still Ahead, Music from Miles Ahead, Porgy & Bess and Sketches of Spain,” with charts by Vince Mendoza, and musicians including Miles Evans, Peter Erskine and Terence Blanchard in the surrogate Miles chair. Grounds-wise, the property plays host to a long list, including Steve Coleman, Robert Glasper, James Farm (featuring Joshua Redman and Eric Harland), Donny McCaslin, Joey DeFrancesco, Eldar Djangirov, and more… The jazz-loving mind reels.

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