By Doug Hallett
The man who founded the Guelph Jazz Festival 20 years ago and has led it ever since says he’s amazed by what it has become as it celebrates a milestone anniversary.
“Although we were ambitious from day one, I don’t think any of us thought it would reach the heights it has,” says Ajay Heble, the artistic director of the festival that runs this year from Tuesday Sept. 3 to Sunday Sept. 8.
Not only has the Guelph Jazz Festival won an international reputation that draws an international audience, but it has also developed a “discerning, fiercely committed” local audience, he said.
In fact, Heble said, several jazz artists who perform all over the world have told him they find their best and most attentive audiences at the Guelph Jazz Festival.
It’s a change from the festival’s early days, when people coming to the Guelph Jazz Festival “expecting a more mainstream festival may have been disappointed,” he said in an interview.
What’s special about the festival is its “mix of innovative jazz and real community spirit,” said Heble, who lists three must-see events among the many ticketed and free shows being presented this year.
At the top of his list is an evening double-bill show on the River Run Centre’s main stage on Saturday Sept. 7. Tenor player Pharoah Sanders, who has played with the late John Coltrane and many others, will perform in collaboration with two ensembles led by Rob Mazurek – The Chicago Underground Duo and the São Paulo Underground.
The other half of the double-bill is a quartet led by trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith.
Heble also points to an evening double-bill at the River Run’s Co-operators Hall on Friday Sept. 6 that includes a first-ever collaboration between Montreal-based pianist Marianne Trudel, bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake.
Sharing this double-bill will be Dawn of Midi, featuring bassist Aakaash Israni, pianist Amino Belyamani and percussionist Qasim Naqvi, whose music draws on their Indian, Pakistani and Moroccan cultural roots.
“Their music is absolutely spellbinding. It is like nothing else I have ever heard,” Heble said.
His third “must-see” is a free evening concert in Co-operators Hall on Tuesday Sept. 3.
Presented in partnership with the University of Guelph, the concert will celebrate the launch of a new research institute at the U of G directed by Heble, the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation.
Performing at this show is an improvising percussion quartet made up of festival veterans Jesse Stewart and Hamid Drake, along with international guests Dong-Won Kim of South Korea and tabla master Pandit Anindo Chatterjee of India.
“Four master percussionists together for the first time,” Heble said.
“It does feel like a landmark year, a milestone,” says Heble, who’s also a U of G English professor.
“I don’t really have an answer for where we go from here, but it is something I am always thinking about,” he said.
The festival’s biggest challenges as it turns 20 relate to “organizational stability and funding,” he said.
Helping the festival meet those challenges, he said, is the new executive director it hired this year – Julie Dawn Smith, a former director of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival.
Another festival challenge is what to do when Heble decides to step away from the central role he has always played.
“There really is no succession plan at this point for me,” he said. “I’d like to have someone to step into this role and take the festival into its next phase.”
One major new element that Heble added to the festival in 2010 was a local version of the all-night arts extravaganza known as a Nuit Blanche, which also happens in Toronto and some other big cities.
“We’ve had to scale it back a bit” this year, he said, because of a lack of “dedicated funding” this year from the province and Ontario Trillium Foundation.
“There is all sorts of amazing programming, but it is not as full as it has been in the past because of limited funding.”
As always, the festival will present a jazz colloquium this year from Sept. 4-6 at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre. The free three-day event is a mix of panels and keynote addresses by top music scholars, along with eclectic workshops and concerts featuring festival musicians.
Another free attraction returning this year is a series of performances on a community stage in Market Square in front of city hall, starting at 1 p.m. on Saturday Sept. 7 and going past midnight.
For more information about the festival, visit guelphjazzfestival.com
By Doug Hallett