Ann Arbor’s AMG Edgefest may showcase some of the most bent sounds around, but you’d better get one thing straight: This is more than a jazz festival.
Sure, jazz highlights abound. Matthew Shipp’s expressive piano runs set creative standards for the contemporary New York jazz community. And Chicago’s 8 Bold Souls mix the swing of Ellington, the pan-musical worldview of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and a remarkable communal discipline, all with an inventive modern-jazz bounce.
But at Edgefest, there’s always room for music from all sorts of other fringes. This year features wild cards like Les Projectionnistes, representatives of Montreal’s “musique actuelle” community. Their “Naïve Music and Other Paradoxes” exists at a unique junction between jazz, prog rock and imaginary film scores, all with an avant-garde twist. Konk Pack, an extraordinarily powerful European trio, joins analog synth-noise improv, free-form percussion and the multi-instrumentalist imagination of Henry Cow’s Tim Hodgkinson. And vibraphonist Gregg Bendian brings his Interzone to the festival to perform music from Requiem for Jack Kirby, incendiary jazz compositions in memory of the cosmic comic-book inkslinger.
Ever since its first, daylong festival in November 1997, the Edgefest has recruited talent from around the world and around the corner. Though the festival’s scale has grown along with its audience, the stylistic scope has been adventurous since day one. As festival founder and director Dave Lynch explains, “It’s never been just a free-jazz festival, or an avant-jazz festival. I tend to like music that’s on the fringes of a variety of different genres.” Now in its fifth year, the Edgefest has been consistently providing the setting for some of the most intensely concentrated evenings of creative music around.
“It draws from jazz, rock, creative improvising and even stuff like Eastern European folk music traditions, as in groups like Matt Darriau’s Paradox Trio,” Lynch says of the music he selects for the festival. “All of this is on the edge of popular music forms. It’s noncommercial music. It has a certain artistic standpoint where the musicians are following paths that they decide, independent of commercial considerations. I’m sure that they’d like to make some money. What musician wouldn’t? But they have an artistic integrity that suggests that they’re going to do what they want to do regardless of what the popular trends might be. That places them on the edge.”
Luckily for local avant-garde music listeners, that noncommercial edge hasn’t been too lonely. Last year saw most Edgefest events reaching capacity, and with this year’s lineup expect more of the same. (Hint: Make your reservations now or, better yet, grab an Edgepass which gets you admission to all the shows and a savings of $35.)
“David’s been so enthusiastic about it, and he’s gotten us excited too,” comments 8 Bold Souls leader Ed Wilkerson Jr.
For the past decade and a half, the Souls have received acclaim for their rigorous yet playful execution of Wilkerson’s jazz compositions. The music of this brass-heavy combo percolates with rhythms that link Dixieland to free jazz and funk to Henry Threadgill, led by Wilkerson’s inventive reedwork. Part of the foundation of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the group has found its ever-expanding audience growing even more as of late. For instance, their most recent recording, the brilliant Last Option, was released on Thrill Jockey, a label renowned for independent rock and electronica, as well as such genre-ignorers as Tortoise and Rob Mazurek.
Though it’s hard work for this rather large group to tour, through Lynch’s encouragement the Souls are excited about heading east from Chicago. “Let me tell you: I get e-mails from David everyday, and these e-mails are pages and pages long. You can feel his excitement in these e-mails. He’s wanted to do this, and he’s really made it happen. It does not go unnoticed,” Wilkerson says.
Wilkerson, who has a firm background in musical composition, had his ideas about music changed when he took a composition course with AACM pioneer Muhal Richard Abrams in the early ’70s. “His idea of composition was really to generate sound, and to be able to generate different types of harmonies without regard to style or any sort of era. He was really into a universal approach to music. I’ve never met anybody who approaches music with such vast, open arms, where he just embraces every sound that you hear.”
Those lessons of universal sound appreciation carry on to this day through Wilkerson’s work with 8 Bold Souls, and it’s only fitting that such a tightly focused, yet open-minded group gets the consistently crowd-pleasing slot of the Saturday night Workbench Furniture gig. For the third straight year, Kerrytown’s modern furniture emporium will be transformed into an ad hoc avant-garde jazz emporium at the Edgefest.
Last year, the mammoth All Media Guide signed up as the primary corporate sponsor. Though they have boosted the Edgefest’s budget, Lynch still makes do, sprinting with tattered shoestrings compared to such other, bigger-budgeted avant-garde festivals like those in Guelph, Ontario and Victoriaville, Quebec.
Nevertheless, Edgefest provides an in-tune audience for artists who want to try something new, like this Friday’s debut of the Andrea Parkins-Hamid Drake duo. New Yorker Parkins has gained a reputation for being a versatile improviser on accordion and sampler. Chicagoan Drake regularly amazes audiences with his incorporation of propulsive grooves into the normally arhythmic realm of free-jazz drumming. They’ve never played together. As Parkins explains, “The Edgefest asked me to play, and they were really open to any project I might want to bring. At first, I was planning on doing a solo set, but then I thought that this is a really nice opportunity, why not do something with Hamid if he’s available?”
Edgefest still relies on touring groups to fill in its schedule, but now groups are beginning to base their tours around Edgefest. Lynch relates, “Matt Darriau put together a tour after we talked to him. He blocked out his calendar to come here, and got some other dates along the way. We’ve brought all of these Balkan and klezmer-influenced groups, like the Tiny Bell Trio, Pachora, and Brad Shepik and the Commuters. Matt Darriau is a leader of that whole scene. I’ve been talking to him for years about coming to town with this particular group. It’s finally worked out.”
From long before the first Edgefest, Lynch has received inspiration from other musical festivals that he has attended, including the aforementioned Guelph and Victoriaville. Through the Edgefest, Lynch has channeled some of that musical energy into our own back yard. As he concludes, “I’ve been able to go and bring some of that experience back to here, so that more people can experience what it’s like to go to a really exciting, world-class creative music festival. They don’t even have to leave the comfort of their hometown. They can even go back and sleep in their own bed at night.”Greg Baise explores the outer reaches of sound for Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com