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Major Drama at the Guelph Jazz Festival


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So the Guelph Jazz Festival went very well artistically and attendance was amazing. Some of the shows heads would have liked included Do Make Say Think (with horns and strings), Kevin Breit and Sisters Euclid, Les Projectionistes, Maroon, Theo Bleckman and John Hollenback, Joelle Leandre and India Cook and many many many others. Seriously these people are some of the ultimate improvisers in their various traditions and instruments- many of them are very famous as a result. I can't help but have far far less respect for jam music but I'm sure if you get me schwilly enough I'll change my tune. Now on top of all of the madness already going on and a higher then ususal preponderance of primadonna's this took the cake. Mark Miller from the Globe and Mail really vindicated my whole role in the festival I felt as he mentioned and confirmed my impression of what took place. Here's the article and let me assure you it doesn't even begin to communicate the drama that was taking place.

Singer Wails Up A Storm

Sainkho Namtchylak,

Pieces of Time, Joëlle Léandre

and India Cooke, and others

At the Guelph Jazz Festival

on Friday and Saturday

It was a telling moment, and not one of the Guelph Jazz Festival's finest in its 11-year history of "sounds provocative," as its motto would have it.

Sainkho Namtchylak, a noted singer who improvises in Siberia's Tuvan tradition, was a half-hour into an unhappy, tuneless wail at Chalmers United Church on Friday night. She stood with arms firmly crossed, the picture of defiance, and more than once made a display of consulting her watch, as if to ask, "How much longer?" At no point did she respond to the tremendous rhythmic undertow generated by the two others on stage, New York bassist William Parker and Chicago drummer Hamid Drake. How much longer indeed.

Something clearly was amiss. Not a few of the 400 listeners left, some slipping out into the foyer just in time to witness a heated discussion among the festival's principals about exactly what should be done. To cut the performance off, argued one, would amount to censorship.

The festival would be damned if it did, and damned if it didn't. Nevertheless, it did. Or rather, it tried. The evening's emcee could be seen trying to catch Namtchylak's attention. After a moment's confusion, she stopped the performance and reluctantly stepped down to shouts of "Stay, stay, stay" from the audience. She herself could be heard to ask, "What is freedom then?"

In time, the audience prevailed. Back in place, Namtchylak aired her grievances against the festival and against life in general, then began singing again, this time a little more tunefully but still with some apparent distraction. It was Parker and Drake who gave the music what contour it had. But enough, finally. When Namtchylak paused briefly for breath at one point, the more impatient folks in the church broke collectively into spontaneous applause that cut the performance off.

Namtchylak departed to a not-entirely unanimous standing ovation augmented by the sound of angry voices rising in the audience, one in particular decrying "violence against musicians."

This, then, is the Guelph Jazz Festival: where fans defend on principle an artist's right to perform poorly. Principles are important here. In addition to five days of concerts, with pianist Ursel Schlicht's Ex Tempore Project and the Archie Shepp-Roswell Rudd Quartet from New York holding the place of honour Saturday night, the festival offered three mornings of intellectual discourse. "Live from the Cutting Edge: The Experimental Artist as a Model of Resistant Subjectivity" was one of 17 formal presentations.

How deliciously ironic, then, that an event that takes such pride in being so high-minded in matters of theory could turn so heavy-handed in the cold face of a little reality.

Much of the festival's other fare on Friday and Saturday was a happier proposition. Certainly the vibrant African rhythms of drummer Andrew Cyrille and his three fellow percussionists in Pieces of Time later on Friday resolved whatever tension was left behind from the Namtchylak episode, although the audience now almost seemed to be overcompensating in its response, trying a little too hard to convince itself all's well that could end well.

No such allowances were necessary for the sunny concert Saturday morning by the American violinist India Cooke and the French bassist Joëlle Léandre at the Guelph Youth Music Centre. Cooke's evident delight in making music was infectious, and her improvisations with Léandre were fresh and passionate.

In a similar warmth of spirit, Montrealers Jean Derome and Joane Hétu, alto saxophonists and vocalists both, made music as though it was child's play, toys and all, on Friday afternoon. This was a performance entirely free of inhibition, but inevitably given to random moments of silliness and excess.

Two New Yorkers with toys of their own, vocalist Theo Bleckmann and drummer John Hollenbeck, also begged the audience's indulgence on Friday afternoon, but rewarded it with a deceptively controlled presentation that found Bleckmann synthesizing his voice to create an ethereal, plainsong effect while Hollenbeck skittered away furiously underneath. The unexpected combination of the serene and the frenetic was quite fetching -- "sounds provocative" in the best of the Guelph tradition.

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Okay to my role I am the Venues and Hospitality Coordinator which basically means the staging, execution, extraneous weirdness, stage management, personal concierge, other heaviness dealer, fixer, cleaner and general bitch. I should be paid good cash like really good cash to deal with the shitstorm of heinousness I had laid on me the last week. Seriously. A number of very influential bands were like literally giving me tour management offers and telling me how I should be making hard coin here or in Europe dealing with this total tripe. I mean some of the peope make more beautiful music off stage with their humanity which is saying a lot because their music is impecabbly beautiful. You have to imagine that these are like the musician's musicians the really really heavy cats and everybody wants to meet one another. Anyways the deal with this show had to be seen to be believed. I was with heavy musicians who are like 70 and have seen it all and they thought it was the most insane, unprofessional, unimaginable and brutal moment they had ever experienced- they all pitied me. And all of the board members and paid folks are woefully inept and incapable of dealing with the sh!t when it goes down. I was trying to do spin control with them early on and told them it was important to not telegraph to the audience or present anything other than a unified stance. I mean I literally took her out of the vocal mix period. I killed her. But that was to be it I just said let her do this for another 20 minutes people will leave if they want and that's their perogative. I focused on the second half of the double bill with the four drummers cause they were prickly. But the committee without better judgment got the MC to interrupt and it got real heinous. I mean real heinous. A horror show. Really. But to answer your question she literally like sang the same two notes blithely without any tone or consequence over and over for a good fourty minutes. It wasn't totally obvious to the audience right off if you didn't know what she could actually do but when I realized she was fu©ked and protesting I just tried to deal with it. I think she was unhinged and this is from spending more time with her than anyone.

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After all of the heinousness from the audience a weird thing happened. William Parker goes to this buddhist bowl and starts rubbing the rim of it with a wood stick. The softening tone gradually brought the audience back down from the edge and then Sainkho actually began singing (for real). For the last fourty minutes she actually sang a performance like she should have to begin with. Right now I am so angry and livid with hatred for all of these tools with this organization I am about to blow. They are going to get the royal kung treatment that is for sure. I am going to write some of my best most hateful sh!t about the real guts of their organization and circulate it to all of the high brow jazz folks.

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She just dropped off the face of the planet a few days before the festival and presumed someone would be at the airport to pick her up without communicating that. She waited a bit for a soundcheck and was otherwise just delusional. This was a majorly fu©ked up scene and dealing with the fallout has been markedly difficult.

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Can't wait to read that, Luke. Please send it along. I'll read it in the bath so I can be both dirty and clean.

But honestly, from an audience standpoint, this is a really interesting scenario. I liked your addendum note about the man using the buddhist bowl to recalibrate the audiences' frayed nerves. I most likely would have been sitting there, skin-crawling but it would be an experience I could never forget. She gets my respect for sabotoging her own performance to make a statement, and as far as the audience is concerned, you pays your monies and you takes yer chances.

It's like, "I'm gonna wail away on these two notes for 40 minutes and you're gonna sit there and listen. Who's gonna break first?" - awesome.

As an aside, the Guelph Jazz Festival provided me with easily one of the most magical nights of my life: Kevin Breit & Bill Frisell w/ Marilyn Crispell opening. I hope they get their organizational sh!t together because these kinds of high-minded, community-based arts festival need to be protected and supported. Luke, I do hope you write your letter but advise you not to go gang-busters in terms of threatening to eat their unborn babies or something - your contribution should be to raze a few fields, yes, but also to plant some seeds for next year.

Intersesting story, thanks again for sharing.

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Your understanding of the dynamic of this situation is impressive MarcO. It really was an amazing question of scruples. Not so much into eating their unborn babies but the thought has crossed my mind. You have to imagine that on top of all of the stress of primadonna jazzbos you have to get sh!t on by these pompous board members many of whom are my age and total putzes. I am just ready to pop. This is more of the sort of thing I am talking about:

Group Think: The Tyranny of Unstructuredness

Thesis: The Guelph Jazz Festival while artistically one of the greatest improvised festivals in the world achieves this status at too high a cost. Programmed from atop an ivory tower with solely artistic considerations at heart the grave task of actualizing this festival falls to a grossly unsuited board of directors, underpaid sound professionals, an exasperated group of coordinators and a slew of volunteers. For a festival that prides itself on artistic freedom and social equality the organizational structure resembles something more like feudalism. Board members are often little more then ‘bums in seats’ fulfilling the governance and hence funding needs of the organization. Turnover of board members and co-ordinators has been immense over the years as a result of a deep rot and a wilful blindness to the gross impositions the festival demands on the lives of those organizing it. This situation cannot and hopefully will not continue. The Guelph Jazz Festival Board, Artistic Director, Executive Director, Co-ordinators and community at large must embark on a collective renewal of the festival’s processes and procedures. This is provided that the festival has not used up all of it’s good will by disregarding and insultingly treading over anyone capable of pulling off their overinflated goals.

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So the newest development is that Carl Wilson the music writer for the Globe has written a big blog piece fleshing out Mark Miller's article. He goes on and on about how fu©king poorly the board handled the thing and I am feeling great about it. Here's the link to his blog and there's a response from me.

Guelph Fest's Fantastic Fiasco

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So the newest development is that Carl Wilson the music writer for the Globe has written a big blog piece fleshing out Mark Miller's article. He goes on and on about how fu©king poorly the board handled the thing and I am feeling great about it. Here's the link to his blog and there's a response from me.

Guelph Fest's Fantastic Fiasco

New favourite expression: passive-aggressive Canadian wimp-ass pissants

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I know I know he had me at hello. That's the scary thing is that as heinous as Sainkho's behaviour was the board members was worse. I was seriously more run down by how ignorant these people were and how little they appreciated my back breaking effort to keep more blowups from going down.

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sometimes the harder you bust your ass, the less people seem to notice or appreciate it... then other times you do a few basic things and people are all super appreciative

don't let it get to ya, probably had their heads full with something else at the time (probably crap, admittedly)... write the extras you did into your resume to attract someone who'll appreciate it one day

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Thank you MarcO you know I appreciate your sage advice. This board is actually really useful to me and kind of hopping over the last few days. We all need to stretch a little including me and try and embrace more challenging types of music beyond labels. This experience has really cemented a number of the high level skill sets I possess to deal with complex social situations. As a result of a number of artists I admire encouraging me it has finally dawned on me that I am able to do pretty much whatever I want career wise and a lot sooner than I expected. It's a very heady but more than a little scary feeling. It will be interested to see if the Downbeat editor gives me a good word count to go at it. I mean fu©k Relix this is motherfuggin' Downbeat we're talking about.

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I can always count on good old straight edge Todd can't I. Besides laziness I have really never been interested in sacrificing my first person essay style blow by blow/ perennial motif style for an editor with no imagination. I think more editors are aware of my work or presence then I realize but I just haven't been able to bother. Something like this opportunity appeals because I can do my own thing. I just got tired of giving my intellectual property away to jam websites awhile ago and preferred to keep my pieces to myself or share them here. I have been more disciplined about writing but kind of want to skip all of the earning dues and just go to full magazine spreads. My megalomania demands it!

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I just spoke to the executive director of the Jazz Fest and she was pissed I was airing their dirty laundry. I asked her if I was a paid employee of the festival. I asked her whether or not I had given her hundreds of hours of unpaid time over the years. Basically why in gods green earth would I let my professional credibility get tanked by these wimp ass passive aggressive pissants. I really have bridled the kung like anger on this one and been sh!t on again and again and they haven't even set a meeting. They are really coming off looking like sh!t and I am not helping that is for sure.

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