Preview: Celebrating 20 Years of Edgefest in One Year


Edgefest celebrates 20 years at the Edge

Edgefest celebrates 20 years at the Edge.

To do anything for twenty consecutive years is an accomplishment to be lauded with high praise. When it involves the cutting edge of creative improvised jazz, it’s an even larger feather in one’s cap.

Twenty years of presentations at Edgefest will be summarized in this year’s event. Bringing back longstanding favorite ensembles, emphasizing our local contingent of progressive-thinking musicians, and adding new twists and turns other events might not dare attempt bodes well for future generations of patrons and performers to continue looking up while getting down.

Over the decades, Edgefest has received national and international acclaim for their risk-taking bookings. Substantial grants have financially buoyed their ambitious line-ups, astute listeners have reveled in the innovative music heard here and nowhere else in one setting, while many musicians look forward to their return to Ann Arbor. Even throughout the year with the regular Music At The Edge series, Michigan audiences always have the opportunity to hear this music during any given season.

What is creative improvised jazz? It takes on many forms, from pure spontaneity to open ended composed work that goes beyond notes on a page. It can be serene or jarring, pastoral or jagged, even incorporating true new music based on folk forms from other countries melded with the swing, blues, and improvisation of finely tuned American-based jazz. For sure every flavor is different, yet each somehow holds a universal appeal that even the uninitiated can appreciate if they take the time--and the equally bold step--not to pre-judge but instead to just listen deeply.

Pre-Edgefest events have already taken place. Saxophonist Dave Rempis and Gunwale played Encore Records October 14. A week later the substantive duo of drummer Gerry Hemingway and trombonist Samuel Blaser performed at Encore October 7. That afternoon the University of Michigan hosted a piano duet between Kris Davis and Craig Taborn and included a sampling of her new CD Duopoly featuring the two pianists and others with Davis in strictly composed or improvised duets.

Trumpeter Mark Kirschenmann and keyboardist Stephen Rush’s electric Miles Davis tribute band Big Fun played the University of Michigan Museum of Art October 2. Both Kirschenmann and Rush are part of Edgefest’s proper line-up.

Pianist Kris Davis

Kris Davis is at the top of the lineup. / Photo by Peter Gannushin.

What sets Edgefest apart is the inclusion and emphasis of our local area performers, including recent Ann Arbor transplants such as percussionist Matthew Daher and bassist Will McEvoy; saxophonists Marcus Elliot and Tim Haldeman; the fascinating Balkan fusion group Ornamatik; U-M professors Kirschenmann, Rush, and Ellen Rowe; U-M graduate (and student of Geri Allen) Michael Malis, who was at the A2 Jazz Fest with Andrew Bishop and has been touring and appearing in New York City in support of his recent debut CD Lifted from the No of All Nothing; Tad Weed’s Freedom Ensemble, celebrating the music of pianist Herbie Nichols; tabla drum master John Churchville; Michigan’s famed Northwoods Improvisers; multi-instrumentalist Ken Kozora; multi-woodwind player Piotr Michalowski with the potent MoTreetown Collective and their three horn front line reminiscent of the Griot Galaxy; keyboardist Kenn Thomas; and U-M students performing large ensemble works written by John Hollenbeck.

The festival has gone though its share of trials and tribulations. At times crossing international borders has been tricky for musicians. Late arrivals or last minute cancellations always present timing problems, especially during the tragic and memorable Hurricane Sandy. And the festival has lost a few mighty performers who have passed away, including European multi-instrumentalist favorite Lars Hollmer, Chicago tuba player Aaron Dodd, trumpeter Paul Smoker, bassist Dominic Duval, and Dutch master Willem Breuker.

A special set during this year’s fest will come from the group TranceFormation in tribute to pianist Connie Crothers, who recently passed on. A disciple of Lennie Tristano, Crothers was initially in Ann Arbor nearly ten years ago when the International Society for Improvised Music hosted their annual conference here, and then played at KCH. A tribute to Crothers will be staged, featuring vocalist Andrea Wolper, bassist Ken Filiano, and saxophonist Vinny Golia, celebrating his 70th birthday.

Pianist Kris Davis will be the clear star of Edgefest for this year, as part of a tour supporting her 2014 trio CD Waiting For You To Grow on the Clean Feed label with drummer Tom Rainey and bassist John Hebert.

Then again, there are favored and featured artists returning, most notably Golia and Filiano in other bands; the legendary Trio 3 with Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman, and Andrew Cyrille; acclaimed trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and bassist John Lindberg; John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet; bassist William Parker; saxophonist Tim Berne with the wild electric guitarist David Torn; violinist Jason Kao Hwang; koto expert Miya Masaoka; the top notch co-op collective Conference Call; and, especially, the participation of Edgefest co-founder David Lynch, who is consultant for 2016.

KCH’s Deanna Relyea has seen all the changes, borne the brunt of audience shifts and trends in modern music, yet continues to be motivated to set up venues, book musicians, and support the event. Like her Nash Bash, which celebrated its tenth year in 2016, these ideas endure because audiences want to hear the music.

Wadada Leo Smith

Wadada Leo Smith.

The inaugural edition in 1997 featured Tim Berne, Rova, Charlie Kohlhase, and Dave Douglas in a one-day event. Things have expanded beyond everyone’s expectations, even the originators Lynch, Relyea, Jules Ryan, and Damon Stanek.

In an interview with creative singer, founder, and artistic director Relyea, she talked about the Edgefest audience, and KCH’s objectives. “I think the Concert House is here to bring music ahead, whether it be classical music, jazz, or contemporary music in general. So it’s our mission to do new music. I don’t think there would be such an audience for this music if not for us, and people would not be as aware of it. I most certainly have grown into it. I feel like I’ve had my graduate education.” In recent years for instance, Relyea has become a part of Jason Kao Hwang’s vocal project on the Innova label Voice.

Audience development is key to the broadening of all horizons. “This is not a festival drawing thousands of people,” she added. “Even people in New York City don’t have this audience, but in Ann Arbor we started with a one day festival with Dave Douglas.” Now it’s nearly thirty bands in at least six different locales, not including schools.

Another aspect of Edgefest is that it brings back former area players like bassist John Lindberg, and especially ex-Ann Arborites like the renowned and brilliant pianist Craig Taborn, who will accompany two different groups and play a stand-alone solo piano set. “We are all proud of that. It’s really great to have them. Also our Saturday afternoon slot specifically emphasizes our area musicians, in this case the MoTreetown Collective and Northwoods Improvisers."

Then there’s at least one European, Canadian, or foreign group, in this case Sylvaine Helary’s Spring Roll, direct from Paris, France, and on tour in the U.S., who have a double CD out on Ayler Records Printemps/Spring Roll. Helary wields four different flutes and sings in a manner that has been described as a cross between Nina Hagen and Iva Bittova--sassy and minimalist-- while the band has been depicted as a hybrid between theatre, music, sound, poetry, and political manifesto. “I really look forward to that,“ Relyea said. “People love her, and in my conversations with her she seems charming.”

There will be commissioned works written by violinist/violist Jason Kao Hwang and his Burning Bridge Ensemble written and premiered specifically for this 20th Edgefest, featuring strings, brass, the Chinese erhu, and pipa. Another highlight should be the debut of trumpeter Mark Kirschenmann’s All Sanctuary trio featuring the trumpeter Jennifer Ellis on harp, and Churchville’s tabla, while Stephen Rush’s original Piano Concerto will be played prior to a scheduled Big M Records recorded document.

If jazz is indeed the music of surprise, there will be a thousand such moments in store at the upcoming Edgefest celebration.

Michael G. Nastos is known as a veteran radio broadcaster, local music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is a former music director and current super sub on 88.3 WCBN-FM Ann Arbor, founding member of the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association, Board of Directors member of the Michigan Jazz Festival, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.

Edgefest takes place October 26-29 at the Kerrytown Concert House, 415 N. Fourth Ave. for main performances, along with other locales. Workshops will be at the Community High School, Scarlett & Clague Middle Schools, and the University of Michigan School of Music.