Like the nightly prowls of the fetish-club connoisseur, an ongoing music column easily degenerates into a priapic search for novel contortions: Would I write this week about the deliberately dumb rock -- maybe meta-dumb rock -- being pimped out to market by that shrewd Andrew W. K. ( Sept. 7 in Toronto at Lee's Palace )? Would I, and should I, then lump him in with mustachioed semi-Southern-Rockers Kings of Leon ( Lee's Palace, Sept. 8 ), who by comparison at least seem to know their way around a riff?
Would I then contrast them both with the mature song-smithing of Canadian country-folk singer Willie P. Bennett ( Hugh's Room, Sept. 6), and knit it all up into a screed about new-millennial masculinity as a minstrel-show dress-up of traditional guydom, attitude without the baggage of competence, something we might call Blokeface?
I could, but it would require listening to Andrew W.K. and maybe watching The Man Show. So I'll let you take it from there.
Instead, I'll tell you what I'm actually thrilled about this week, the 10th edition of the Guelph Jazz Festival, starting today and running through Sunday. This festival is the kind of event that lets you fantasize, despite the dismal attempts our supposed protest-song writers made this year, that music can change . . . something. Not stop wars, no, but it can cause people and places to mutate.
Places like Guelph, this runty Southern Ontario college town that never stops hiccupping up cultural surprises. Somehow its volatile compound of redneck cattlemen and ex-student post-hippies catalyzes a brazen looseness, and if it teeters to the flaky side, that's a small ticket to pay for all the kids there who've been drinking in the Jazz Festival's rather radical fare since before they could read.
Guelph may be the only place where the young girls are slightly unsure whether Justin Timberlake is all that much more famous than overtone-blowing British saxophonist Evan Parker, even if they still prefer Justin. Festival management, led by impresario Ajay Heble, has pulled an Oz- or Truman Show-sized prank on the populace, brainwashing them that it's perfectly normal for an avant-garde music fest to be supported by the whole town's volunteer labour, like a barnraising or a pie-eating contest.
And so Guelph is a place where a troop of elderly black men in shiny robes can get on stage at the local arts centre to play antique synthesizers and sing Sun Ra's anthems for the planet Venus, and the crowds turn out like it's a Neil Diamond revival. Improvising tuba players lead little children on parades through the streets at noon and nobody calls the vice squad. They've been duped into believing jazz is a living and dangerous art -- at a time when even most New Yorkers see only a graveyard of Verve compilations and sepia-toned PBS miniseries -- and they'll never look back.
The setting is good for the jazz too. Musicians and visiting fans drift blissfully beneath trees, watching the late-summer sun that swaddled the free afternoon shows give way to star-sprayed twilight as they amble to gigs in local churches and halls. It helps bring out the humanity (or bird-warbletude) of a squawking sax or blurting bass, and makes the days of immersion in intense sound much less exhausting than at more urbane jazz blowouts.
Enough rhapsodizing and on to the rhapsodizing: Even leaving aside the specially commissioned jazz opera (covered elsewhere in these pages by Mark Miller), Guelph's program this year merits a bouquet of exclamation marks:
The William Breuker Kollektief, a 30-year-old Dutch cabaret-orchestra that juggles genres like a quiver of rubber joke-shop knives. Splitting a show tonight with the aforementioned Evan Parker. (And for Torontonians, Breuker et al appear tomorrow at the Rex on Queen.) DJ Spooky, that Subliminal Kid, the New York hyperintellectual sample-spinner who has lately been messed up with free-jazzers Matthew Shipp and William Parker. Doing a late-night set tonight at Guelph disco Trasheteria, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Raw Materials, the South Asian all-stars. New York-based, self-taught pianist Vijay Iyer is one of the most promising voices in jazz, with his African and Indian rhythmic mojo, modal tone washes, and the attack of a young Don Pullen or Randy Weston or even Thelonious Monk. With saxman Rudresh Mahanthappa, Friday.
Steve Lacy, soprano-sax-wielding Monk disciple and supple-minded jazz legend. A record-collector's Everest, with his bottomless catalogue of obscure masterworks. Playing solo Saturday morning and that night with his Beat Suite Quintet, which does intoxicating settings of Kerouac's and Burroughs' and Creeley's spiels, sung by Irene Aebi with George Lewis on trombone.
Damo Suzuki, the erstwhile lead vocalist for crucial early-seventies Krautrock unit Can, with Toronto noise-sculptors the Excalceolators. Gave an unforgettably shamanic Toronto performance last year. Claims his shows now are neither improvised nor rehearsed. (What could that mean?) Late Saturday night, in a church that may regret it Sunday morning.
Plus Halifax's Iron Sky, with classic jazz drummer Jerry Granelli (whose drums you hear on the Charlie Brown Christmas theme). American pianist Myra Melford and Canadian violist Tanya Kalmanovitch. Chicago AACM pioneer Kalaprush Maurice McIntyre. The Vancouver Who's Who, led by a cellist, that is the Peggy Lee Band. Virtuoso bassist Mark Dresser and his trio. A tribute to late great jazz poet Paul Haines including Evan Parker, David Mott and Michael Snow. And all-day tent concerts Saturday.
Music talk usually takes plenty of mental folding, spindling and mutilating, which is all great fun. But it's nice now and then to find a motherlode of sound so sensually surfeited that it requires nothing but your eyes and ears and it's all systems go.
Schedules and information: http://www.guelphjazzfestival.com