Saturday, September 13, 2008

Guelph Jazz Festival 2008: Spanning Between the Street and the Ivory Towers

With a touching and familiar sense of enthusiasm for participating in the art of improvised music the young, and instinctively artful member of Guelph's KidsAbility sitting just to the left of Matana Roberts sprang to his feet at nearly the moment the call for volunteer conductors was announced. It was in this first set under the tent on Upper Wyndham Street on a day of free street performances stretching past midnight that the principle of giving back to the community through music and improvisation was at its clearest and most positive manifestation. Rich Marsella dutifully handed over the baton and conducting signs and placed himself before this child's feet as a performer realizing a new vision. With an ensemble of percussion instruments - many homemade - designed to allow an ensemble of youth with varying developmental challenges along with additional support and direction from Matana Roberts on alto saxophone produced the sound of sheer joy in creating and participating before a warm audience. The breadth of a festival and colloquium that approaches creative improvisation with uncompromising passion that includes both the heady, ponderous academic work along side moments of real, street-level realizations of astonishing inclusiveness serves to challenge and expand one's sense of what this music is and what it can be. Improvised music can be many things; sublime, agitated, transcendent, an expansion of tradition, a prayer for the soul or a display of impressive virtuosity. Matana Roberts, Rich Marsella and the KidsAbility Ensemble presented a side of this music that is deeply generous, playful and affecting.

Earlier in the week, Matana Roberts performed the prologue from her Coin Coin project. The prologue is a solo set for voice and alto saxophone designed as a "bloodsound narrative," a deeply personal work that weaves the stories of Roberts' ancestors into a performance that connects to her extended family through sound. With candles lit and photographs projected along the white wall behind Roberts this prologue began with song that moves slowly from words to linear material on the alto. The ache to connect to deep roots ever present in sound and manner. As the performance shifted slowly back to words sung along the melodic contours that make up this creative expression one could almost feel the presence of an approving lineage of souls so lovingly acknowledged and celebrated by this performance. Matana Roberts has set upon a path of self-discovery and artistic sensibility that speaks toward a larger humanity. I am curious to hear the other movements of Coin Coin.

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