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Two jazz masters show the contrariness of the form

Sax giant Pharoah Sanders’s most famous music seems to build towers of dissonant tenor-saxophone runs to ascend to a higher plane.

Jim Ross/The Globe and Mail

Pharoah Sanders and the Underground; Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet
Guelph Jazz Festival
Guelph, Ont.
Saturday, September 07, 2013

Saturday night's marquee double-bill at the Guelph Jazz Festival was a study in the contrariness of the form. Both parts featured jazz masters in their early 70s. In the first half, a closely knit virtuoso ensemble played gorgeous compositions with precision and grace but, for this listener at least, it was a chore to get through; in the second half, an improbable conglomeration of a legend with a younger gang of sonic futurists went on a haphazard trip full of slack segments and clashes of intentions, and it was perpetually riveting.

The latter set was the latest in a collaboration of several years' standing between John Coltrane disciple and free-jazz visionary Pharoah Sanders and two overlapping ensembles led by Chicago trumpeter Rob Mazurek, the Chicago Underground Duo and the Sao Paulo Underground. In both its American and Brazilian incarnations, Mazurek's Underground combine rhythms informed by global music, hip hop and funk with acoustic jazz and synthesized effects. This cosmopolitan update of jazz fusion fills rooms with hazy clouds of space taffy sliced by the silvery rays of Mazurek's piercing, post-Miles Davis trumpet style.

It was a bold thought to blend that already dense grouping with Sanders, whose most famous music seems to build towers of dissonant tenor-saxophone runs to ascend to a higher plane. Add that Sanders has about three decades on the whole Underground ensemble, and the complications multiply. I've always found Mazurek a bit of an overbearing leader, and that contributed to a continuing tension: Sanders usually played for quick bursts, with long pauses in between – was it due to a shortness of breath brought upon by age, or because Mazurek wasn't offering him enough space to play?

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Midway through the set it seems Mazurek had the same thought, because the band began pulling back a bit and setting up grooves Sanders could take off on. Sometimes the sax giant did so, unleashing hymnal or bluesy long tones or riffs evocative of his signature "sheets of sound," but other times he'd merely toss a few notes their way, then half-shuffle, half-dance back to his chair in the corner. It was mysterious, a little comical and grippingly unpredictable.

Perhaps other listeners weren't as hung up on this mini-drama – it probably depended how much of a Sanders showcase you'd come hoping for – but there was plenty else to be entranced by. There was always something sinewy or sensuous coming from the two of Brazilian players, Guilherme Granado on synthesizers and Mauricio Takara on percussion, especially when the latter picked up the cavquinho – the mini-guitar common in samba and choro music – and added a spry third melodic flavour to the group's complex feijoada.

Mazurek's Chicago drumming partner Chad Taylor was uncharacteristically laid-back, though he made his couple of solos count, as did Matthew Lux on bass. Styles rotated from bubbling grooves to modal lullabies to chromatic harmonies reminiscent of Nino Rota movie music. It was only toward the end of nearly two hours that the momentum began to flag – the band could have skipped a bit sooner to the chant-like round (which may have been an early Sanders piece I didn't recognize) that closed the show, but it was hard to walk away unsatisfied.

Sadly the same couldn't be said about the first half of the bill. Wadada Leo Smith is one of the more underappreciated jazz veterans today, a long-time stalwart of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music, the Afrocentric experimental alliance best known as the home of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. A trumpeter born in Mississippi, Smith was first recognized in the late 1960s as a member of the Creative Construction Company with Anthony Braxton and Leroy Jenkins. He went on to become one of the most accomplished composers in the field, along with fellow AACM members such as Braxton and Henry Threadgill.

This year he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his work Ten Freedom Summers, a suite dedicated to milestones in the civil-rights struggle, and he brought the current configuration of his Golden Quartet to Guelph to perform portions of that five-plus-hour piece this weekend. Aside from the dreadlocked leader, it was a studious looking group, with long-time collaborator Anthony Davis on piano and more recent additions John Lindberg on upright bass and Anthony Brown on drums, all paying close attention to the thick, bound scores on their music stands.

And it was this feeling of fidelity to plan that undermined the music, which on record feels majestic and expansive but here seemed too often strict and narrow, as if held back on a leash from breaking into a run. Paradoxically, while every tone the musicians generated was beautiful in its own right, the whole was less than the sum. The rhythm section in particular seemed earthbound, except in the final 20 minutes or so, where solos from Lindberg first and then Brown finally seemed to break the group out of schematic time and transport them into the final, lyrical, more song-like section that at last lived up to the promise. It was built around a short, fanfare-like trumpet line from Smith that pianist Davis, in particular, found ways to unpack into thrilling torrents of melodic possibility.

A few theories: The recorded version of Ten Freedom Summers includes orchestral backing, and it might be that a quartet alone is too sparse to summon up the scale, landing in a more monotonous and self-important-seeming middle ground. As well, the concert could have benefited by context – if Smith had introduced each of the pieces, which are titled for historical events and concepts, it might have helped centre our listening and prevent the works from blurring together. Instead, the music was accompanied by an unfortunately amateurish video backdrop of waveform patterns (looking a bit like the title sequence of Doctor Who) mixed with still photos of civil-rights icons and intercut with live footage, which was more distracting than clarifying. And finally, I've long found Guelph's Riverrun Centre an unfortunately sterile (although comfortable and acoustically well-designed) room – extroverted concerts lively it up nicely, but more stubborn and restrained sounds tend to have a soporific effect there.

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So perhaps the odds were against the Golden Quartet, but this evening the true gold remained Underground.

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