By Doug Hallett
If there’s anything harder than programming a festival that pushes the boundaries of jazz, it might be singling out five “must-see” shows from among the many offerings of this year’s Guelph Jazz Festival.
But the festival’s founder and longtime artistic director, Ajay Heble, is up for the challenge.
The theme of the 21st annual festival, which starts on Wednesday Sept. 3 and runs to Sunday Sept. 7, is based on the 100th anniversary of the birth of the pioneering American jazz artist known as Sun Ra, who died in 1993.
So it’s no surprise a Heble “must-see” is the Sept. 6 main-stage concert at the River Run Centre that will bring together the Sun Ra Arkestra, under the direction of American saxophonist Marshall Allen, together with the Quebec dance company Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie.
The Sun Ra Arkestra’s shows “are always a multimedia spectacle and now they are joined by an amazing dance troupe. Expect a wildly energetic multimedia performance featuring big-band standards, cosmic dancing and choreography, exciting visuals and Sun Ra’s most captivating original songs,” Heble told the Tribune in an email.
The Sun Ra Arkestra will parade in front of city hall at 2 p.m. that afternoon. “Last time the Arkestra landed in Guelph in 2001, they paraded down Gordon Street in their space outfits, and it was a huge hit,” he said.
Here are Heble’s other four top picks (also in no particular order, he says):
• A double bill on Sept. 4 at the River Run’s Co-operators Hall that includes Vijay Iyer, “one of the hottest and most accomplished contemporary pianists in jazz,” he says. He’s playing with his trio. The other part of the double bill features Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger, who is joined by fellow Dutch musician Harmen Fraanje on piano and by Senegalese multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Mola Sylla
• A Sept. 5 show by the “legendary” American pianist Randy Weston, who will perform with his African Rhythms Trio on the River Run’s main stage. “Weston has received America’s highest jazz honour when he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts,” Heble says. “His landmark 1960 recording Uhuru/Afrika, inspired by independence movements in Africa . . . is one of the those desert-island must-have discs”
• A Sept. 5 show in Co-operators Hall in which American drummer Milford Graves will be joined by Canadian pianist D.D. Jackson and New Orleans saxophonist Kidd Jordan. It’s a rare area appearance by Graves, a leading figure in free jazz, Heble says
• An opening-night show on Sept. 3 at 8 p.m. at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre that celebrates the 80th birthdays of Montreal percussionist John Heward and French-based bassist Barre Phillips. “In honour of their birthdays, they’ll be joined by an all-star ensemble featuring pianist Dana Reason, clarinetist Lori Freedman and multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee,” Heble says. It’s worth noting, he adds, that Heward is “one of Canada’s leading abstract expressionist painters, and we’re thrilled, in collaboration with the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, to be exhibiting some of Heward’s paintings as part of this year’s edition of the festival.”
The festival’s thematic focus this year is “Sounding Futures,” based on the Sun Ra centenary, Heble said. “We’re asking the questions, What does your future sound like? How might jazz and improvised music offer ways into other and future realities?
“This focus carries over into several of the programming choices I’ve made and is also the topic of this year’s colloquium,” a free daytime event that runs from Sept. 3-5 at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, he says. “We’ll have three keynote presentations during the colloquium, all focused in some way on the lifework of Sun Ra. It’s going to be very exciting!”
Heble’s picks are all among the festival’s ticketed concerts, but there’s also free entertainment. This includes 12 hours of outdoor music in front of city hall starting at 1 p.m. on Saturday Sept. 6. This year’s expanded “Jazz at Market Square” event will have more stages than in the past, including a new stage showcasing emerging young, local jazz artists.
Heble, a University of Guelph English professor, is going on sabbatical for a year and is being temporarily replaced by interim artistic director Rainbow Robert after this year’s festival ends.
“It’s always hard to let go of something that you’ve created and nurtured for over 20 years,” he said in the email. But he felt he had to step back from his festival-related duties to focus on his research projects and on his new role as director of the Guelph-based International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation. He plans to remain involved with the festival in an advisory capacity, though, “and many of the programming priorities for the 2015 edition have already been mapped out since I do my programming well over a year in advance,” he said.
For more on this year’s festival visit www.guelphjazzfestival.com
By Doug Hallett