Suoni per il Popolo (Take 2)
Last Seen Headed (June 12)
A trio comprised of three seasoned improvisers going under the name of its second recording (issued on the French label Ayler records) performed at mid-festival point at the larger Sala Rossa. Ex-Montrealer and longtime resident Vancouverite François Houle nimbly played both Bb and A clarinets (sometimes blowing both together), Madame Contrebasse herself, Joëlle Léandre, was true to form while Raymond Strid skittered around his pared down drum kit. While Strid is a Free improviser coming out of the post-free jazz and European free music tradition, his partners are more converts to the cause after earning their first stripes in classical and contemporary music. (Lest we forget that Léandre made her mark early on by being mentored by Morton Feldman, Giancinto Scelsi and John Cage, while Houle has delved in everything from Brahms to Boulez.) These Twentieth Century Music connections are by no means incidental in the bassist's career, nor on Houle's (whose wondrous tone is always a marvel to hear). Both of these formidable musicians have developed a range of techniques (extended and traditional) that plumb the possibilities of their respective instruments. Such was the case of their performance, which from a free music perspective (or 'jazz' if you insist on the word) did not have all of the panache and gusto fans of the genre expect, but evidenced more restraint than anything else: pieces tended to develop very slowly, sometimes too much so, all too often ending at a point when they could have taken off. As mentioned previously, Strid skittered around his kit in nervous gestures, punctuating the dialogues of his partners in unexpected ways. Each musician was given the opportunity of beginning a piece alone, with his/her partners creeping in along the way. Given its basically subdued nature, the aural result of the music was not that far from a lot of small ensemble contemporary chamber music, minus the obligatory music stands and scores spread out over them. All told then, this was a performance that held its own, but could have been a little more gripping with some extra sparkle, or some high point to lift it beyond a basically workmanlike outing.
Many World (June 13)
On the night after, and across the street in the smaller Casa music room, a modest size audience gathered for the passage of another multi-national music unit. With Montreal drummer Michel Lambert providing the local component, pianist and nominal leader Greg Burke and reedman Henry Cook (flute, soprano and alto saxes, ethnic flute) hail from the States but now reside in Rome with the group's bassist Ron Séguin, known locally for his association with Sonny Greenwich, before departing from our shores in 2002. Based on a recording of the same name (appearing last year on 482 Records), the group eschewed the album's content (including a half hour all improv suite giving the the title to it) and elected to play off tunes, mainly composed by the pianist with a couple by the bassist and one by the drummer. While festivals like to present music in keeping with their orientations, this one, of course, dedicates itself to all strands of experimental music (from free improv to rock to noise to electronic and what not), they sometimes include shows that come across as 'odd men out', which was clearly the case here. In fact this group came across as a programming misstep of sorts, somewhat like not being the right band at not the right festival, as there was nothing on the outer limits here, which goes to show you that music appreciation is very much conditioned on context, not just content. In a more conventional type of festival, this band may have well sounded daring, but the truth is that a lot of pieces proceeded on vamps with rather limited harmonic materials to work on, and no one seemed ready to stretch or break through the chosen parameters. Quite interestingly, at the break between sets, a good number of spectators drifted out, leaving a rather thin crowd for the second half, which says something indeed.
Satoko Fujii Ma-Do and with the Cégep Saint-Laurent student orchestra (June 19 and 20)
A week later, it was up to Japanese pianist to show her mettle, first as a performer with her own group of compatriots, the following day as a composer, with her music performed by a spirited ensemble of students. Probably her most current group, one of almost a kizallion she has put together at one time or another in her jam packed career, Ma-do casts her in the company of her life and musical partner, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, and rhythmicists Noikatsu Koreyasu (bass) and Akira Horikoshi (drums), the latter playing their supporting roles impeccably. Together they produce a most stimulating take on contemporary jazz, where compositions act like springboards for free form variations that go beyond customary harmonic variations, even standard playing techniques (as in Tamura's occasional sputterings and half valve effects). Also worth noting is the considerable development of Tamura over the years, his playing moving with confidence between traditional melodic development and more timbral explorations (with little use of mutes). Compositions, for the most part by Fujii, her husband contributing only a couple of his own, served as strong anchor points from which the group roamed at will, but never aimlessly, as they knew when to come back, or when to move on, a nice feature here being the pairings of different compositions in suite-like forms. While the first was quite satisfactory on the whole, the second shined even more as the played a good 40 minutes non-stop, with no dry spots whatsoever.
As for the student workshop, it occurred during the noon hour and was sparsely attended, but information has it that this was originally slated to be the evening concert though prevented through some scheduling miscue. All too often student ensembles are viewed askance or rather dismissively by the cogniscenti because they don't measure up to full blown professional standards, but such a stance is a misguided premise, for the very initiative of enabling young musicians to discover, play and interact with a talented composer of today need not only be applauded but supported by music fans interested in the music's future. The student orchestra's director, Philippe Keyser, must be commended for his commitment to the cause, and he is a rare bird in our educational landscape who has brought his charges to play visionary works by Bob Greattinger, Don Ellis, Sun Ra and Steve Lacy rather than falling back on those typecast big band charts that make so many student bands sound all the same. Keyser's 20-piece group not only succeeded in infusing Fujii's three selected charts with considerable energy, and the pianist herself was visibly surprised by their renditions, but Keyser also reshaped two of them quite radically, in effect re-appropriating them far beyond what any other student ensemble leader would dare do with more standard fare. What's more, attending rehearsals present an added benefit, that of hearing not only music as a product, which the concert unavoidably represents, but as a process, during which music is shaped, reworked and lifted off the paper. Of course, what lacks here are the soloing capacities of the young players, but that comes with time and appropriate encouragement from their teachers and, even more importantly, from an audience willing to support them in spite of their shortcomings. After going through the three pieces in rehearsal-like fashion, they ended this fine three-hour session by playing them as a real-time performance, the results clearly showing how much the players drew on the composer's encouragements to open themselves even more to the music. If the Suoni per il Popolo festival had a hidden gem in its program this year, this one was clearly a very fine diamond in the rough.