Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Best Wishes for Ajay Heble

It was a shock to learn today that Ajay Heble – founder and artistic director of the Guelph Jazz Festival & Colloquium – has suffered a heart attack. One of the most creative festival directors in the world, Ajay has established an enviable record in Guelph, despite the festival's relatively small size. Earlier this spring, he was nominated for a Jazz Award by the Jazz Journalists Association.

Here's the official release on the state of Ajay's health:

GUELPH – Guelph Jazz Festival artistic director Ajay Heble suffered a heart attack Monday during a return flight from Paris where he was attending a conference. He was attended to by physicians and nurses who were on his flight, and the airplane made an emergency landing in Goose Bay, Labrador, where he was transferred to hospital. He is now in stable condition.

Heble's wife Sheila O'Reilly was on the flight with him, as was colleague Bill Brydon of Winnipeg and his wife. All three are with Heble now in Goose Bay.

Michelle Lobkowicz, president of the Guelph Jazz Festival, said, "Our thoughts and prayers are with Ajay, Sheila and their two children. We're thankful that he received prompt medical attention and is over the immediate crisis."

Heble is the founder of the Guelph Jazz Festival and has been its artistic director for the past 15 years. He is also a professor of English at the University of Guelph, and the director of a multi-million dollar social research project entitled Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice. It was in regard to the latter project that Heble was in Paris over the previous week.

It's not yet clear when or how Heble will be moved from Goose Bay, for specialized cardiac care closer to his home in Guelph.

With regard to this year's Guelph Jazz Festival, executive director Derek Andrews says that Heble's heart attack is a tremendous shock but adds that this year's lineup of musicians has been largely decided and booked by Heble. The organization was planning to announce the feature artists for the 2008 Festival this week. Although that announcement has been postponed, Andrews says the Festival still plans to unveil the full season lineup in mid-June, even though Heble in all likelihood will not be present.

"We're glad Ajay is safe, and for the time being, his well-being is all we're worrying about," says Andrews. "Our board will meet later in the week to adjust our plans for the three-month Festival run-up period."

(June 4 Update: Ajay is now recuperating at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, after being transferred from Goose Bay.)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Re-discovering Braxton

If you're like me, you probably have chunks of your vinyl collection that you haven't gotten around to replacing with digital copies or updating to reflect re-packaging, re-mastering, etc. For me, it's Anthony Braxton. There were holes in my collection to begin with, largely because my discovery of Braxton coincided with the years when I worked in campus radio and had ready access to a lot of his prime work and ample time to play it. And once you're behind in collecting Braxton, there's a lot of room to make up. So, I've determined to make it a priority for this year.

This was spurred by hearing him talk and play at last fall's Guelph Jazz Festival and Colloquium, and also by the flood of new Braxton releases that have landed on my desk lately. It has been a particularly rich time for Braxton recordings – both current and a few years old. I'm presently reviewing two new Victo releases – featuring his Diamond Curtain Wall Trio and the other his 12+1tet – and on their way to me are a handful of his Black Saint releases and the lauded Quartet (Coventry) 1985 on Leo, which somehow has eluded my listening all these years. I'm looking forward to this with more anticipation than I've felt in a long time.

One thing that strikes me listening to new Braxton is that he has recently employed two of the most-interesting guitarists around: Mary Halvorson and Kevin O'Neil. Both of them play with enormous texture and sonic breadth, and sound quite unlike the prevailing jazz guitarists of the past 15 years.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Join Us In Ottawa

Time to reveal the full plans for three events at the Ottawa International Jazz Festival that I've been working on in my role as vice-president of the Jazz Journalists Association.

Over three days in late June we'll be staging public events over the lunch-hour in the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage.

A core trio for these events will be myself, veteran jazz journalist Howard Mandel (whose book Miles Ornette Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz was published this year) and Reuben Jackson, who's a poet, journalist and archivist at the Smithsonian Institution.

On June 24, we'll be joined by pianist and educator Andy Milne and Dr. Alan Stanbridge from the University of Toronto to discuss the rich tradition of improvising on popular songs. Whether it's Charlie Parker spinning harmonic magic from "Embraceable You," John Coltrane turning "My Favorite Things" into a dervish dance or Herbie Hancock plumbing the emotional depths of Joni Mitchell's songbook, jazz musicians have long found rich improvisational ground in pop songs. But what is the common ground? We'll discuss. This panel follows a performance by Hancock's all-star band at the festival, so we'll have plenty of fuel. In addition, one of Milne's three(!) recent CDs finds him interpreting music by Mitchell, Neil Young and other contemporary singer-songwriters, and Stanbridge has written frequently on popular music.

The next day, we'll be joined by veteran arts administrator Richard Davis from the Canadian Department of Heritage and others to conduct a workshop on arts journalism. The fundamentals and standards of professional arts journalism remain little understood or discussed in this era when the arts – in particular music – are increasingly available to and commented upon by eager consumers. We're planning to have a wide-ranging discussion of issues of connection and impartiality, reported observation and personal explanation.

Finally, on June 26, we'll be getting warmed up for that evening's performance by Return To Forever by looking back over 40 years of fusion music. Born in 1968, when leading jazz musicians began exploring the sonic possibilities of electric instruments, fusion music dominated jazz in the '70s. Artists like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke and Miroslav Vitous – all of whom will be at this year's Ottawa jazz fest – found new avenues of expression and inspired a generation of young improvisers. We'll be joined by two musicians who were influenced: guitarist Wayne Eagles, who teaches at Carleton University, and pianist Peter Hum, who is the assistant arts and culture editor at the Ottawa Citizen and the author of a terrific blog.

If you're in the area – or especially if you're in town for the festival – I hope you can join us.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Now Spinning

I'm currently pursuing a story about ECM Records, which involves a convoluted interview process with the globe-trotting Manfred Eicher, so the label is much on my mind. Considering ECM, it is always difficult to overlook the monster in its catalogue, Keith Jarrett's Köln Concert, which continues to click along in sales like Kind Of Blue. Jarrett's improvised solo recitals and – more recently – the staggering output of his so-called Standards Trio tend to overshadow the work I first loved: the American Quartet with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, which recorded for ABC in the mid-'70s. I saw them live the same month that I first saw Bruce Springsteen, and both events are seminal for me. As good as Jarrett's solo outings and trio are, I know I'm not alone in wishing that he would compose again.

I think drummer George Schuller is with me on that. A criminally under-appreciated drummer and bandleader, Schuller has just released an homage to Jarrett's quartet. Like Before, Somewhat After features a quintet (with Brad Shepik on guitar, Donny McCaslin, saxes, Dave Ambrosio, bass, and Tom Beckham, vibes, along with percussionist Jamey Haddad on a few tracks) performing five Jarrett compositions and a couple of Schuller originals inspired by the Jarrett four.

Very interesting, and I'm digging the way Schuller takes liberties – particularly on one of my favorites from Jarrett's Fort Yawuh: "De Drums." This is great music that deserves to be re-discovered. Sadly, those original recordings are hard to find. Pick them up if you find them, and hope that they get a proper resurrection sometime soon.