On the surface, artists who play traditional jazz and artists who play free jazz (or close to free jazz) are on polar opposite ends of the musical spectrum. But every time I listen to one or the other, I find similarities which surprise me. To my ear, early Dixieland music - with its group improvisation, even if carefully structured - for example, can at times sound just as cacophonous as some of the freest jazz. By the same token, I'm often surprised at how, in the middle of a particularly intense "no time no changes" musical excursion, a distinct rhythmic groove or harmonic progression will emerge. Perhaps it's the required balance between tension and release - I'd argue that music, to be truly enjoyable, must have both - which transcends the "trad jazz" or "free jazz" label.
All that said - we have some good examples of both as part of the free programming at this year's Festival. And while your tastes might gravitate more to one than the other, I encourage you to explore all ends of the jazz spectrum. As is so often the case, you never know what might resonate!
The Far Out
Here are seven bands who each get away from traditional melody and harmony in their own way.
Gorilla Mask: Saturday June 23, 7:00 pm at Heliconian Hall
Peter Van Huffel (saxophone and compositions), Roland Fidezius (electric bass and effects) and Rudi Fischerlehner (drums, percussion) team up for what they call "a type of sonic madness roaring with a restless, implacable energy that totters dangerously on the verge of total chaos." Dive right in and see what this Berlin-based Canadian is up to - they are sure to have Heliconian Hall rocking.
Joseph Shabason "Aytche": Monday June 25, 7:00 pm at Church of the Redeemer
An important reminder that "free" means different things to different musicians. With "Aytche", Joseph Shabason and his bandmates challenge some of the traditional music-making conventions, but do so while coming from a place more of introspection. The focus here is on musical texture and sound design; this ensemble truly explores the concept of "less is more". The music from the acclaimed album of the same name is sure to sound enthralling in the acoustic of the church.
Beats & Pieces Big Band: Monday June 25, 8:00 pm on the OLG Stage on Hazelton Avenue
From Manchester, this 14-piece ensemble references the important big band lineage of people like Duke Ellington and Gil Evans, while incorporating more contemporary musical influences like Michael Jackson, Bjork and Radiohead. Their music can move quickly from swinging to rocking out, with a refreshing dose of freedom thrown into the mix.
Samuel Blaser Trio with Marc Ducret & Peter Bruun: Thursday June 28, 7:00 pm at Heliconian Hall
A chance to see three important names on the European creative music scene. Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser is earning acclaim for his pure sound and approach to improvisation; guitarist Marc Ducret is a regular collaborator with Tim Berne; and drummer Peter Bruun can be seen with the outstanding pianist Django Bates. Expect moments of brilliant composition and fiery soloing.
Gilliam, Milmine, Pottie Trio: Friday June 29, 7:00 pm at Heliconian Hall
Three important contributors to Toronto's improvised music community - Bill Gilliam (piano), Kayla Milmine (soprano saxophone) and Ambrose Pottie (drums) - combine in this trio. While their exploration of free improvisation is impressive, what hooked me was the composing - their interesting melodies always create a home base from which the soloing departs and, ultimately, returns.
Grex, Tryal: Saturday June 30, 7:00 pm at Church of the Redeemer
Here again, the idea of freedom sounds different. Alex Samaras is one of this city's (this country's, I'd argue) most gifted vocalists. With a cappella quintet Grex, five outstanding singers defy what vocal music is "supposed to" sound like; Tryal then mixes voice, acoustic instruments and electronics to draw out emotions in ways which are anything but "standard."
Otterville: Saturday June 30, 7:00 pm at Heliconian Hall
In a brilliant feat of programming (sorry), at the same time as the vocal extravaganza at Church of the Redeemer, Andrew Downing presents his Otterville at Heliconian Hall. Andrew has always skirted musical convention, and can often be found playing with this country's top improvisors. For Otterville, his compositions evoke the peace, quiet and simplicity of small-town Ontario, and are played by an all-star lineup of Tara Davidson (alto saxophone), Michael Davidson (vibraphone), Christine Bougie (lap steel guitar), Mike Smith (bass guitar) and Nick Fraser (drums).
The In Crowd
One could argue that there are far more bands on our stages that play more "down the middle", but here are four that specifically evoke a different time and place.
Alex Pangman's Hot 3: Monday June 25, 7:00 pm at Heliconian Hall
Alex Pangman's excellent voice is perfectly at home when exploring the jazz compositions of the early 20th Century. Performing music recorded direct to 78 rpm last year in New Orleans, Alex will be joined by the unique ensemble of Drew Jurecka (fiddle), Nathan Hiltz (guitar) and John MacMurchy (bass sax) - trad jazz, for sure, with some outstanding soloing.
Dixie Demons: Tuesday June 26, 3:15 pm on the OLG Stage on Cumberland Street
Harkening back to the glory days of Dixieland, the 6-piece Dixie Demons have been together for 26 years. Clarinet, trumpet, trombone, banjo, tuba, drums, and a full set of high energy traditional jazz.
Amelie et les Singes Bleues: Wednesday June 27, 2:30 pm on the OLG Stage on Hazelton Avenue
When Amelie and her mates take the stage, you'll certainly hear echoes of Edith Piaf and Serge Gainsbourg - the French Chanson tradition - but you'll also hear the band's contemporary take on that tradition. They call it French cabaret jazz-country-ska-mariachi-swingtorch-Motown-samba-rock and roll-trip hop. And while I don't remember seeing that category at my favourite record store growing up, Amelie and her Singes are able to cover all of that territory in fine fashion.
Red Hot Ramble: Friday June 29, 12:30 pm on the OLG Stage on Cumberland Street
This is pure New Orleans party music. Pianist and vocalist Roberta Hunt is joined by Allison Young (saxophone), Jamie Stager (trombone), Jack Zorawski (bass) and Glenn Anderson (drums) to play traditional jazz, blues and funk, with a healthy serving of second line. We may not be able to turn Cumberland Street into Bourbon Street, but if anyone can get us close it's Red Hot Ramble.
So - a little bit trad, a little bit free, and a whole lot of great music. Enjoy the ride! As always, check the full listings here.
I'm not sure whose idea it was to book so much music, but we have a ways to go, and I admit that I'm running out of themes to explore. Maybe tomorrow we'll go "further afield", and chat about musicians who, either by virtue of musical style or place of residence, bring something a bit different to the stage...and then Friday we'll touch on the outstanding local artists playing at the Festival not already mentioned elsewhere.
Two days to go...