Live at The Artel
live in concert
June 12, 2010
Escaping the oppressive heat and humidity of my home in the Eastern Ontario summer, I left at the last minute to catch GUH, a Toronto band, in concert at The Artel in Kingston. Even though they’ve been performing live and releasing recordings since 1991 and have toured the world, I had never heard of GUH before this Kingston engagement on June 12, 2010. Having now seen GUH in action, I’m surprised that I had been unaware of the band or that they don’t have a higher profile in the Canadian and international jazz scene.
GUH got my attention almost at the beginning of the first piece they played and held my attention throughout their performance. This music defies categorization, yet it’s easy to hear what it is not. It is not American pop, is not jazz standards, is not the blues, is not perhaps any sort of music to which a label can be attached. The closest I can come to defining the music of GUH is as a sort of progressive jazz-fusion, yet that’s not really accurate either. This music is something very special.
Throughout a concert that lasted almost two hours without an intermission, the full-house audience was rapt as the music carried them into wide and varied musical realms that were both diverse and consistent. There were wonderful musical surprises at every turn as these musicians played their phrases like kites soaring and floating above and through the audience. Not just sonic, this music tends toward a tactile and visual sense that lends to its magic.
Hearing GUH for the first time, I could sense powerful and lasting roots in the progressive jazz of the Forties and Fifties and the later jazz-fusion born of that movement. Throughout this concert could be heard the influence of the most creative artists of that era. Laid over that foundation, I could hear the newer sounds of the jazz greats who came out of cities like Detroit and Montreal in the Seventies and moved forward the leading edge of jazz. Floating through this mix: influences of many genres and cultures adding colour and depth to the sound. There’s something else in this music as well, something subtle and new that cannot quite be defined.
This is not music everyone will enjoy. Its closest relatives are the leading edge of progressive jazz or perhaps the works of modern “classical” composers such as Stravinski or Glass. To some ears, it can sound harsh and strident or even not musical at all. To listeners firmly ensconsced in more standard musical forms, this music may seem quite incomprensible. I know excellent musicians with broadly eclectic tastes in music, who reserve their greatest dislike for so-called “atonal” music. Most musicians I know, no matter how brilliant, claim to have no idea how to play such music, which breaks through the formal bounds in which they’ve learned to play and listen. This is music to which you must either be naturally attuned or which you must learn to understand and love.
I suspect this music is not so new after all, but reaches back into our primitive roots. The formal nature of most music we hear performed today has been built up gradually over several centuries of our rational age, during which influential segments of society had perceived a need to civilize and control every aspect of life, including art. From the sweet melodies of Henry VIII and Versailles through European classical music to the popular musical forms of the Twentieth Century, the old music has been usurped and changed to suit the mood of the day. We are natural multitaskers, designed to receive and evaluate many messages in order to survive what had been a very dangerous world. I believe our “primitive” music reflected that world and took the listener along many diverse paths, real and fantastic. Through a half-millenium of control by one powerful establishment or another, music has been reduced to reflect only one world and is expected to follow only one path and a single beat, with only rare and brief side-excursions. Bands like Dead Can Dance or Girls against Boys in some ways reflect a return to our musical roots. GUH simply takes this trend a bit further.
In many ways consistent and uniform throughout this concert, both in sound and quality, the music also presented the audience with a broad and varied soundscape crossing both time and distance. With eight musicians playing at least ten instruments plus chanted non-verbal vocals, the range and affect of the music was powerful and all-encompassing. This acoustic band managed to fill the room with unexpected volume yet had the control to pull back the sound to suit any mood. Even the twin drum kits seemed to have volume control knobs attached. A full symphony orchestra couldn’t have affected greater emotional range.
I earlier mentioned the varied soundscape that weaves its tapestry across this palpable landscape of jazz. Whole segments were overlaid with sounds reminiscent of the psychedelia of some forty years ago, drifting mistlike through the sensibilities of the audience. At times, the rhythm came together and solidified into a clear reggae/ska backbeat picked up at times by other elements in the mix. The two drummers ranged broadly from primitive tribal rhythms to the bravura booming of drummers in big swing bands and symphony orchestras. A Middle-Eastern flavour permeated several pieces, highlighted by what sounded like some sort of Arab flute but was actually some very clever playing on the bagpipe. Occasionally, this sound shifted from authentic Middle-Eastern to the sort of adaptive musical line to be heard in pieces such as Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” and other Sixties surfing music. These are just the most obvious variations among many heard in this concert.
Around the centre of GUH’s concert, the band played a traditional Turkish song. I’ve mentioned that in some ways this band’s music harks back to music that predates the much more structured and constrained forms of Western music over the past four centuries. Here’s the beginning of proof. This traditional song from Turkey fit seamlessly into the flow of late-Twentieth Century compositions from GUH.
While the past 19 years has seen some ebb and flow in band membership, I believe most of the personnel at the Kingston concert was among the same group who had originally formed GUH in 1991. The eight players I saw were: Henry Muth on highland warpipes, wooden recorder, and plastic recorder; Brian Cram on trumpet and euphonium; Tom MacCammon on trumpet and percussion; Jason Baird on alto saxophone; Jason Clarke on Electric guitar; Blake Howard on drum kit; Andrew Henry on drum kit; and Julian Brown on electric bass. (I’ll appreciate if someone from GUH – or someone who knows – will send me any corrections to this lineup.)
I highly recommend seeing a live performance by GUH should the opportunity present itself. Experiencing the creative energy of these artists and the power of their music will be well worth your while. This current GUH tour was only Kingston, Montreal, and Toronto, but hopefully they’ll be on the road again soon and will visit your town.
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