Sunday, October 12, 2008

Improvisation: A Tale of Two Festivals

2008 Guelph Jazz Festival - Septemper 3 - 7, Guelph, Ontario, Canada
2008 High Zero Festival - September 16 - 21, Baltimore, MD, USA

With sponsorship ranging from the Government of Canada, the Ontario Arts Council, the Wellington Brewery (just to name a few) along with the resources of the University of Guelph the Guelph Jazz Festival and Colloquium celebrates the art of improvisation through a combination of concerts, community outreach and formal presentations of current academic research into the art of improvised music.  Now with fifteen years of celebrating world-class avant jazz music the operation led by Ajay Heble presents a remarkable balance of formal and casual events that both challenge and invite ears of all degrees of interest intensity.  

The Wyndham Street Jazz Tent is the most visibly community-centric component of the Guelph Jazz Festival.  Free and open to the public along with plenty of food and drink the mix of music and accommodating weather - miraculously timed between days of heavy rain - is a tangible reminder that creative improvised music is easily incorporated as a positive part of the larger cultural fabric.

That same motivation to bring improvisation to the streets takes on a decidedly renegade quality with the High Jinx portion of the High Zero Festival.  These often take the form of a free music parade through the Fells Point neighborhood, music performed upon plants, music performed upon bicycle parts or a small mob chewing carrots loudly at an upscale supermarket.  High Jinx prides itself upon its unsanctioned, edgy quality that unleashes improvised expression upon an unsuspecting populous.  While such performances may create socially uncomfortable situations they rarely trigger anything approximating the "danger" implied by permit-less street performance.  

One such High Jinx was the "Dog Poop Chorus" one evening at a Mount Vernon park popular with dog owners.  A small ensemble of performers armed with a bass clarinet, balloons and other instruments stood by and waited to serenade any dog actively relieving themselves.  The humor of this happening was not lost on the dog owners.  And strangely enough, the dogs appeared to enjoy the attention as well.  As community outreach this had the effect of disarming attitudes on both sides of the creative improvised music divide.  This music was not aloof or overly serious as public creative expression.  And the general public is open minded enough to take in the experience for what it is.

The primary difference between the Guelph Jazz Festival and High Zero is found in their respective funding structures and the relationship with institutions that stems from that.  Both draw upon individual contributions and volunteers and have a commitment to infusing an international mix of performers into the experience.  The Guelph Jazz Festival operates as an inside-the-institution entity that adeptly channels resources toward celebrating the current state of avant jazz.  This is reflected in a concert series that features touring groups and established ensembles along with a smattering of new collaborations debuted at workshops along the way.  High Zero operates as a community of outsiders that places its focus on individual players.  Their concert series features long sets at the Theatre Project as a laboratory of mixing together free improvisors with no previous history of collaboration.  The contrast is striking.  The Guelph Jazz Festival presents what is possible with large government and institutional support.  And it is beautiful.  High Zero presents what is possible within a "do it yourself," ad-hoc mindset.  And it is beautiful.  

What would be possible with a cross-pollination between the 15-year-old and 10-year-old festivals?  High Zero does feature a small series of lectures by individual guest performers.  What would an expanded colloquium of academic papers look like within the High Zero framework?  A published set of abstracts from both festivals would be a welcome addition.  Thinking and debating this music is as much a part of this world as playing and hearing it.  What would an additional emphasis of mixing contrasting performers look like at the Guelph Jazz Festival?  High Zero aggressively records and documents each performance and has a healthy catalogue of CDs and a DVD as a result.  An expansion of the media coming out of the Guelph Jazz Festival workshops would produce a mother lode representing that experience.

What is also striking is how the Guelph Jazz Festival and High Zero are similar given the contrast between funding, location and attitude.  Improvisation is a living, complicated expression that is evolving along several trajectories.  Each attracts a core of passionately creative individuals.  Each offers up new artists to discover and fill the ears.  My ears were strongly pulled toward Burnt Sugar at the Wyndham Street Jazz Tent as something new to explore.  High Zero piqued curiosity in the music of Liz Allbee, MV Carbon and Bill Nace - just to name a few.  At the end of it all, these ears were very full, but still hungry.

No comments: