by Mike Chamberlain
I have been thinking about music recently in light of remarks by Erdem Helvacioglu and Satoko Fujii, two musicians for whom I have nothing but the highest respect as musicians, thinkers, and human beings. The questions have to do with categories, how we label music, how we talk about and what we expect from the music we listen to. Helvacioglu, in an interview we did in New York in April, talked about how he wanted to validate beauty in avant-garde music. The avant-garde has concerned itself in large part, Helvacioglu was saying, in terms of dealing with expressions of the negative and ugly in life., and he, who self-identifies as an avant-garde musician, is putting “beautiful sounds” (my quotation marks) in his own cinematically-inspired electronic music. Fujii, a pianist and composer whose list of recordings and collaborations is totally astonishing both for stylistic breadth and sheer output, after a concert at the Sala Rossa in Montreal during the recently-concluded Suoni Per Il Popolo that could fairly be described as beautiful in its various aspects, asked if I thought there was such a thing as jazz—Fujii questioning her own position within and among the categories of jazz and avant-garde music.
What is jazz? is the oldest and most boring question around, but discussions about the meaning of the term go far beyond mere definition. It’s interesting to me that rock fans don’t obsess over the meaning of the term rock, at least not nearly to the same extent that jazz fans and music geeks do with the term jazz.
Part of it is due to the fact that rock is much more secure as an industry and a place for musicians to make money. The Beatles, the death of John Coltrane, and the schism wrought by Miles’ going electric killed off jazz as part of mainstream culture. Wynton Marsalis came along in the early 80s and attempted to “save” jazz by taking possession of the term, defining it as a philosophy wedded to a certain set of sounds, a definition that devalued experimentation in jazz. This wouldn’t have been such a problem if no one had paid attention to Marsalis, but when he became the most public voice of jazz, his ideas about the music helped to shape the definition of jazz in the public mind, or those who were still paying attention, and in the minds of people like festival programmers. There isn’t much money in jazz (Fujii and her husband, the trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, rode the “magic bus” from Toronto to Montreal for $10 on their way to play the Suoni Per Il Popolo. I don’t think that Stevie Wonder and his entourage came anything but first class to play a free outdoor show at Montreal’s big jazz festival, the FIJM, last year), and jazz is simply not found much in the general public’s daily lived experience. But although there’s less money in jazz, the term itself is sold by festivals and venues around the world, and there is much discussion among we self- or otherwise appointed music commentators about how the marketing aspect of the term becomes at least equally as important as to how the festivals work to promote the careers and help to further the music that could be labeled as jazz.
I’m not a purist. I saw Patti Smith and Elvis Costello each for the first time at the Montreal jazz festival— and many others who are not jazz artists. It doesn’t bother me that the Montreal jazz festival presents a lot of music that no one in his right mind would call jazz. First, I don’t listen only to jazz, so I’m pleased any time the programmers book an artist or group I am interested in seeing live, no matter what they’re playing. Second, I buy the argument that the festival makes about how the bigger concerts, by artists like Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, Sting, and Prince, help to pay for the artists who don’t produce as much money at the box office.
But there’s a problem. The pool of “big name” jazz artists who headline at the FIJM is aging and going on to the great jazz band in the sky. Perennials Dave Brubeck and Tony Bennett are performing in Montreal this week, and not to be too disrespectful to either of those men, one wonders if the pair have more than 10 or 12 more FIJM appearances in them—put together, of course. The problem has to do with what the festival has done or not done over the years to renew its jazz content, and to pay attention or give opportunities to some artists whose music is considered to be “too” avant-garde. Why has Anthony Braxton, for example, never been invited to do an invitation series at the FIJM? It’s a no-brainer. Of course, I grant that it might not be possible to arrange such a series easily, given personal and business considerations on both sides, but assuming some kind of mutual willingness, it seems that the set of concerts would benefit both Braxton and the festival. And there is an audience for such endeavours. But people like Andre Menard and Laurent Saulnier, who book Montreal, seem to either not see it or not want it. Case in point: virtually the only artists from Chicago who ever play Montreal are Kurt Elling and Patricia Barber. Nary a Ken Vandermark, a Von Freeman, or a Nicole Mitchell in sight at the Montreal festival, to name just a few. The so-called avant-garde jazz that is included in the festival is basically a token. The John Zorn double concert last year is the exception, not the rule. There is no real commitment to making a prominent place for the tradition of experimentation in jazz, unlike, say, at the Vancouver jazz festival.
Fortunately, we in Montreal are well-served by a smaller but in ways more vital festival, the Suoni Per Il Popolo, held at the Casa del Popolo, Sala Rossa, and associated venues in the first three weeks in June. (This year, the Suoni finished the same weekend that the FIJM kicked off.) The Suoni’s name invokes people, not a musical category, and in its eclecticism and DIY spirit reflects the sensibility, along with relatively cheap rents, that has made Montreal fertile ground for artists of all descriptions.
Since Mauro Pezzente and Kiv Stimac opened the Casa del Popolo in September 2000, avant-garde jazz has been a feature of the programming during the regular season as well as the Suoni itself, alongside electronic, noise, musique actuelle, folk, rock, cabaret, spoken word, and so on. They have built a small empire on the upper end of St-Laurent Boulevard that for some years now has included the gorgeous Sala Rossa on the understanding that the constituencies for the various music overlap in this city, and more important, on the ethos that creativity comes from the margins, and this year’s Suoni program included the likes of Omar Souleyman, Martin Tetreault, Borbetomagus, Malcolm Goldstein, the Shalabi Effect, and Keiji Haino as well as Charles Gayle, David S. Ware, Satoko Fujii’s Ma-do, Farmers By Nature, the Full Blast Trio, Atomic, and The Thing. This eclecticism and commitment to the avant-garde is the rule, not the exception, at the Casa/Sala/Suoni.
Of the concerts I attended, I was impressed, as always, by turntablist Martin Tetreault’s inventiveness and wit as he trawls the cultural landscape for materials for his constructions. His duo with David LaFrance, a member of Tetreault’s Quatour Tournedisques, was inspired by recent prophecies of the Apocalypse; he billed it as music for before, during, and after the end of the world, a 40-minute piece that delightfully blended electronics and snippets of music and radio broadcasts that carried the listener through dread and destruction to pastoral.
Fujii’s Ma-do is a quartet comprised of Fujii, Tamura, bassist Notikatsu Koreyasu, and drummer Akita Horitoshi. Delicacy, aggression, beauty, and power all have a place in the sensitive interplay of the quartet. The first set was exploratory and tentative, but the quartet opened things up on the second set, Tamura—surely the most underrated trumpeter in jazz—showing his incredible range, the quartet deferring resolution until the tension would resolve in a burst of aggression or joyous swing.
David S. Ware played a solo set in which he did two long improvisations, one on tenor, one on sopranino. He put out bursts of single-note lines in a performance that I found more rigorous than engaging. I was only able to catch Farmers By Nature’s first set, and again, the trio seemed to spend much of the 45 minutes searching for the “it” that improvisers seek. I found much to like, especially in Craig Taborn’s provocative note placements, but I didn’t find enough moments of clarity to suit my taste. The second set, from what I was told later, was much more satisfying in this regard.
I have seen The Thing three times. Each performance was different. And each was impressive for its beauty, power, and inventiveness, whether they were crushing Sixties’ soul and R’n B, freaking energy music, or as in this concert, engaging in improvisations that included a version of “Summertime” that re-imagined the piece to evoke not a southern pastoral lament but the summertime energy of a big-city and a section of “A Love Supreme.” Mats Gustafsson and Joe McPhee challenged one another, bassist Ingebrigt Hacker-Flauten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love (my favorite drummer this side of Hamid Drake) churning out funky swing, turning time on a dime when the moment called for it.
In all of this, there was a commitment to creativity, to inventiveness, to a bricolage of the 90-year history of jazz and the popular musics that are now a part of the common musical vernacular. Beauty? Yes. Jazz? Most assuredly.