Distillery Jazz Festival Nebula Series featuring aidan Baker , Jim Meneses/Toshi Makahari Duo and quasiMODAL at Tapestry New Opera (55 Mill, the Cannery, Studio 315), Wednesday (May 26), 8 pm. Festival runs Thursday (May 20) to May 30 at various sites within the Distillery District. One-night passport $30, advance $25; weekend afternoons free. 416-872-1212, www.distilleryjazz.com Rating: NNNNN
In a city, somewhere, in an amber-lit room, a group of dedicated musicians are playing the most dangerous way they know how - by improvising. It's not jazz or worldbeat, although the influences may be there. There's no satisfactory name for the music they're playing. It's been called outside, fringe, alternative, actuelle and experimental. None of the names is a perfect fit.
The audience they're playing for is small but doting, even if they don't know what to call the sound they love. That ambiguous place is where you'll find the future of music.
"The Distillery Jazz Festival covers a lot of musical territory - improvisation is at the core of it," explains festival director Larry Rossignol. "But to be honest, the music of the Nebula series is why I started the festival in the first place. It most expresses the combination of high- and lowbrow culture I'm looking to engage."
Rossignol has a point. Experimental music is, more and more, functioning as a bridge between the remoteness of arch musical traditions (like classical and jazz) and the populism of, well, pop.
Toronto-based cellist Cheryl O, a founder of experimental outfit quasiMODAL, spent her early years training to sit in an orchestra. After stumbling onto trance at a Planet of the Loops show, O has been exercising her improvisational muscle and wedding it with loops and other computer wizardry. For O, the music is catharsis.
"It's almost like going through a 12-step. You're really learning to like yourself," O laughs. "That's a hard thing to do. To be able to trust yourself in an improv situation you really have to have faith in your abilities.
"I don't know what I'm trying to express. But I think that's the point - the not knowing," she continues. "With classical music you know what you're trying to do. There is some room for discovery, but you set a guideline and you try to match it with your technique. Doing improv is exactly the opposite."
Electro-percussionist Jim Meneses started his career as the drummer for the Stick Men, an ethno-inflected Philadelphia punk band. He and sometime collaborator Toshi Makahari are bringing their duet percussion show to the festival.
"The rock bands I was involved with were part of a pretty experimental movement," says Meneses from his Philadelphia home. "Folks think of it as unusual, but though the way I make music may have become more formal, the intent behind it comes from that old rock rebellion."
If there's a bridge needed between O's conservatory training and Meneses's rock 'n' roll high school, local ambient guitar artist Aidan Baker might be the one to do the job. Baker began his musical career with classical flute but picked up guitar playing in high school punk bands. The guitar won in the end, but some might find it difficult to tell. Baker wields his guitar unusually, playing ambient textures and looping dialogues between himself and his equipment.
"I was playing a Dark Rave once and there were a couple of people who were really into it," Baker says. "They were standing just a few feet away, watching me. Every once in a while one of them would come up and start talking to me, and I'd have to say, 'OK, but I'm playing here.' It doesn't sound how you'd expect."
It's no surprise that artists from opposing backgrounds should find themselves coming together in the futurological playground of experimental. At its heart, experimental could be seen as the punk aesthetic acting at a higher intellectual level.