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Guelph at 20: How a simple idea evolved into one of the most distinctive of jazz fests

Ajay Heble, founder and artistic director of the Guelph Jazz Festival.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

In 1993, when Ajay Heble first decided to mount a jazz festival in Guelph, Ont., where he was a newly arrived English professor at the university, he had a fairly simple idea.

"What I wanted to do was to feature artists that you wouldn't get to hear on the stages at the other festivals," he recalls. "There were plenty of opportunities for more mainstream artists across Canada, but fewer opportunities for artists playing experimental and avant-garde jazz and improvised music."

He was inspired in part by the new-music festival in Victoriaville, which once a year turned a tiny town in Quebec into an international hub for experimental music, and also by sense of community created by the Eden Mills Writers Festival, not far from Guelph. "I wanted to draw the aficionados who would travel far and wide to hear the music that they wouldn't hear at the other festivals," he says. "But I also was really interested in staying rooted in the local community, and building a local audience for the music."

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It's not the standard formula for putting on a jazz festival, but that may be the reason why, 20 years later, the Guelph Jazz Festival has an international reputation for innovative programming and music that broadens the scope of improvised music while blurring traditional notions of genre.

This year's program, which started on Wednesday with a "world percussion summit," includes everything from the premiere of a new work for string quartet and drum set to a one-of-a-kind collaboration between free jazz legend Pharoah Sanders and members of the cutting-edge groups Sao Paulo Underground and Chicago Underground.

The idea behind this year's programming, says Heble (who is the festival's artistic director), is to convene a sort of World Artists Summit. "From year to year, what I try to do is have some kind of thematic emphasis that will run through the program."

That makes Guelph unique among North American jazz festivals, says Nate Chinen, a music critic for The New York Times and a columnist at the magazine Jazz Times. Chinen attended the festival in 2005, and was struck by the "very specific focus" of the programming.

"It felt unique among jazz festivals I've experienced, in that it was an event propelled by an idea, rather than by some commercial mandate," he says. "It wasn't following the usual script for a jazz festival."

That year, the emphasis was on musicians from the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective that includes such avant-garde icons as pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, saxophonist Chico Freeman and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But what struck Chinen about Guelph's approach was that it included a panel discussion in which the history of the AACM was recounted by key members of the group. "It was really valuable, and not something that you typically see at a jazz festival."

Pianist Marianne Trudel also has fond memories of that round table. "That was profound," she says. "And maybe I remember it well because I had to transcribe the whole thing for publishing it," she adds, laughing.

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Trudel, who is the hottest young pianist on the Montreal jazz scene, has been at Guelph both as a performer and as a listener, and this year will be performing on Friday at the River Run Centre. She initially had offered to bring her current trio, Trifolia, which had played a number of other Canadian jazz festivals earlier this summer, but Heble had another idea. "Ajay always wants to do something different," she says. "He came back to me and said: 'How about a trio with William Parker and Hamid Drake?' And I said: 'Oh, wow.'

"So, I said yes, and now I'm scared because we have never played together," she says with a laugh. "I should say I'm very excited. They've played with everybody everywhere, and I'm just a baby. But I'm ready to do it."

A TRIO OF GUELPH 2013 HIGHLIGHTS

Want to hear the young lions? Pianist Marianne Trudel with bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake, plus the electro-acoustic trio Dawn of Midi. 8 p.m., Friday, River Run Centre.

Want to hear the old giants? Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and his Golden Quartet open for Pharoah Sanders, who plays with members of Sao Paulo Underground and Chicago Underground. 8 p.m., Saturday, River Run Centre.

Want to hear music from the greatest baroque composer who never lived? Cellist Matt Brubeck joins Ben Grossman on ghironda for a performance of music by Guido Buonarroti non Papa, the fictional "Italian Futurist of the baroque era." 4:30 a.m., Sunday, Silence.

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The Guelph Jazz Festival runs until Sept. 8 in Guelph, Ont. (guelphjazzfestival.com).

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