Last October, a reed-thin, restlessly imaginative, master percussionist approached the Atlantic Jazz Festival's new artistic director Lulu Healy with a concept for a scintillating festival event. He proposed matching up musicians---all renowned for their musical jouissance (over-the-top enjoyment and pleasure), whiz-bang inventiveness and a no-self-doubt command of their instruments---to create music without preordained strictures. In the moment. Out on a limb, without a safety net. But then again, with fabulous musicians, who needs a net? Call it Spontaneous Combustion, a series of improvised music concerts that culminates in an orchestral performance on July 14.
For many jazz-festival artistic directors this would be the cue on which to take a sharp breath. To be scared deaf. Fortunately, it was Jerry Granelli who was engaging the sharp-minded Healy. In truth, this proposition is pretty much pro forma Granelli. Jazz writers have opined the San Francisco-born innovator and trailblazer as "one of those uncategorizable veteran percussionists who has done it all," with an "intensity fuelled by a passion for the pursuit of the spirit of spontaneity which drives the player." Shazam!
In his past, Granelli even gigged with iconoclastic musician/composer Ornette Coleman; he's no stranger, to say the least, to spontaneous combustion pyrotechnics. In 1959 Coleman recorded and released The Shape of Jazz to Come---a seminal free-jazz album. Its intention? To "kick composition and tight ensemble playing to the curb." It electrified the few "who got it" and zap-shocked many who didn't. Players sympathetic to Coleman's unfettered thinking opted for "exploratory music just freed of bourgeois expectations." In other words: sensible shoes with a slightly rakish cast.
Healy and Granelli, well aware of mainstream NIMBY resistance to purely improvised music, spent several months "working the idea," tossing ideas back and forth, as Healy says, "trying to get a sense of how it would work and who would be involved."
The standing model for jazz-festival musical collaborations, Healy explains, expects participants "to learn and arrange pre-written compositions in a very short period of time, leaving little room for interpretation, improvisation, artistic risk and vision."
What Healy and Granelli came up with was a public- and musician-friendly construct for "spontaneous composition creating material," says Healy, "instinctively which does not exclude written compositions"---bye-bye musical face-plants---"but encourages musicians to trust in their skills as improvisors, and compose music according to a specific situation"---hello, wow factor---"the players available and the skills each one can bring to the group."
Here's how Healy and Granelli divined it:
Spontaneous Combustion: guitars (Friday, July 10)The lineup: American David Tronzo, who applies slide guitar expertise to elements of bebop, modern jazz, rock and slinky soundscaping; Vancouver's relevatory oud player and guitarist, Gordon Grdina, who amazes with fresh sounds and ideas in and around mainstream jazz, improv and Arabic classical music; German dobro/oud/guitar wunderkind Christian Kogel and Halifax's own guitar shining star, Jeff Torbert.
Spontaneous Combustion: strings(Saturday, July 11) This lineup puts together J. Anthony Granelli from Brooklyn, lauded for his matchless piccolo bass playing; Calgary-based bassist Simon Fisk, who has earned wild acclaim in contemporary jazz, avant-garde, folk, art-rock, noise and electronica; unceasingly inventive Vancouver-based bassist Tommy Babi; and Norman Adams, principal cellist with Symphony Nova Scotia who, unlike most classical musicians, excels in progressive improvisation.
Spontaneous Combustion: horns and percussion(Sunday, July 12) Another exceptional grouping. Toronto-based baritone sax magus David Mott, whose chops expose the horn's astonishing capabilities and versatility; Halifax's singular bass clarinetist Jeff Reilly who, like Mott, masterfully reveals the remarkable sonic range of his instrument; Toronto/Halfax multi-sax instrumentalist-composer-arranger Chris Mitchell; Halifax's alto, tenor, sopranino-razzamatazzer Dani Oore; Vancouver's "flint-sharp-edged swing and rock drummer" Kenton Loewen; and the one, the only, Jerry Granelli.
These three sessions culminate in the Spontaneous Combustion Orchestra final concert on July 14, in which all the aforementioned musicians provide "the opportunity to witness the birth of a spontaneously composing orchestra." For those yet to experience improvised music, guitarist Torbert and bassist Simon Fisk explain how to listen for maximum enjoyment, and how improv works from the musicians' standpoint.
Audiences can expect "commitment, intent, adventure," says Fisk. "This is music full of melody, spirit, dissonance and the odd burst of noise. There has always been music in noise: mood, dynamics, expression. There is music in there even without recognizable pitch or melody or tone."
Says Torbert: "The best expectation is to be surprised, challenged and delighted. Curiosity," he adds, "is both the musicians' and listeners' greatest asset. From that perspective, anything that occurs is more fuel for the imagination, the heartstrings and the intellect."
"Let the playfulness and the spirit of the music take you," agrees Fisk. "Let the unexpected be the guide. Listen to the humour."
While performing in an improvising setting, Torbert says, "I'm basically working on staying alive. That meaning: stay present, engage joyfully and surrender to whatever's happening."
Fisk says: "I let the listening guide me. All my favourite musicians of any genre listen first." So what's the most surprising thing that audiences don't know about this musical form? "How much time we spend digging deep into the functions of music: harmony, melody and listening. There's a very serious musical commitment needed to play this music with integrity."
"The most overlooked part is the healthy inclusion of seemingly 'inside' music or familiar genres, recognizable forms and structures," says Torbert. "If the music is truly free to decide its own destiny, with us as players only facilitating the journey, then every passible setting from this world's endless musical landscape can become a source of creativity."