090701 Bill Frisell & Kevin Breit/Marilyn Crispell & Gerry Hemingway/Sun Ra Arkestra, Guelph, ON

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On September 3rd, 2001 I woke up alone in a sketchy, rundown strip motel about a hundred miles east of Reno, having just spent an eye-opening week camping in Black Rock City at the 16th running of the Burning Man festival.  I got up and got out of there early, and not at all because it was the kind of place I hope you’ve never stayed at and I hope I never stay at again.  No, the reason I got out on the road early was because I had a show to get to (of course), and that show was scheduled to take place just four days later in Guelph, Ontario, nearly four thousand kilometres away.

No worries, I’m a very enthusiastic driver and it was no hardship to spend fourteen hours on the road every day, stopping only to empty my bladder and to hit the nearest drive-thru for a bagful of bargain fast food items (“You have double cheeseburgers on for 75¢ today?  I’ll take eight of them please,” and just like that I’d have my three squares for the day).  Once darkness started to fall I’d seek out the cheapest spot possible on which to pitch my tent, as staying in sketchy, rundown strip motels all the way home was much too luxurious for my micro-budget.  Anyway, I made it across America just fine and I pulled into Guelph early on the afternoon of show day, September 7th.

And what was the concert that was worth so much manic driving?  Well, the relatively small but wonderfully niche Guelph Jazz Festival had paired my two favourite guitar players – Kevin Breit and Bill Frisell – to play together for the first (and only?) time, and in a quaint little church at that.  So like I say I got to Guelph very early, and knowing nobody in town (or so I thought…) I had nothing to do but to linger outside of the Chalmers United Church and wait for the doors to open.  

Which meant when the doors did finally open I was at the front of the line and I was able to park myself in the very front pew, dead centre.  Of course there wasn’t a stage per se, but let’s just say if I stretched out my legs (which I didn’t) I could have rested my feet on the first step of the small altar, the Holy riser from which these two six-string geniuses would be interweaving their brilliance.

First up was a joyously cerebral opening set from pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Gerry Hemingway that helped to cleanse my road-weary soul, if not my camp-stenched t-shirt.  Back then I was still teaching a course in contemporary improv at Carleton University and the duo’s atonal improvisations were right up my vocational alley.  They alternated between noisy manic explosions of creativity and quiet pockets of introspective space, throwing ideas back-and-forth like a game of musical ping-pong that would scare away all but the most discerning of wonderfully niche jazz fans.  And though I quite enjoyed it I just couldn’t wait for the main act.

And man, Bill Frisell and Kevin Breit did not disappoint, not one bit!  They came out to enthusiastic applause and sat on a pair of chairs about seven feet from my beaming face, Kevin to my left and Bill to my right.  This was my fourth time seeing Bill Frisell and all of those times he had been playing with a full band.  Same thing for Kevin Breit: I had seen him, oh I don’t know, a handful of times up to this point but always and exclusively with his band Sisters Euclid.  I had never seen either player play in such a stripped-down ensemble before nor had I ever been so close to either musician (at Sisters Euclid Monday night shows at the Orbit Room even the front table was about a dozen feet away from the band).  

And my gosh, those two guys put on a veritable clinic in guitar geekery that left me agape and breathless from start to end.  Oh, it was so good.  Kevin – usually the crazy front-seat driver of a high-octane instrumental rock band – was dialled back into a thoughtful supporting role, letting his eyes-shut musical mind steer his sinewy fingers towards sanguine bursts of spacial support behind, betwixt, and between Bill Frisell’s subdued, almost tentative leading role.  I just can’t convey to you how much I enjoyed this show.  It was perfect throughout and I melted inside.  Worth the drive?  Are you kidding?!?  It was worth it a thousand times over.  As I sit here it was probably one of the best all-guitar sets of music I can remember ever experiencing.

Though I don’t always have a very good memory.

That said, I recall like it was yesterday feeling a tap on my shoulder after the final encore was done, and turning around I found a fellow I knew named Pete grinning widely at me.  Though I would soon come to know Pete and his girlfriend Tasha very well, at the time I knew them only peripherally.  They were friends with my downstairs neighbours and I had hung out with them a few times when they had been in Ottawa for a visit. I knew they were from somewhere in Southern Ontario but up until that tap on my shoulder it had slipped my mind that they lived in Guelph.  Anyway, Pete had been aware that he was behind me the whole time but he was also aware that someone sitting nearby was stealthily taping the show so he resisted engaging me earlier out of concern that I might inadvertently mar the surreptitious recording.

When Pete found out I was just in town for the show and had nowhere to stay he invited me back to his place where I was confronted with the couple’s impressive and pervasive Star wars collection.  As soon as you entered their apartment you were met with TIE fighters and X-wings hanging from the ceiling in a dangling dogfight diorama, and it just escalated from there.  My favourites were the Stormtroopers in their white Hoth arctic gear strategically set up inside the freezer.  I chuckled every time I reached for ice for my rye and Cokes.  It never got old, no matter how many times I opened the freezer door.

The next day I stuck around long enough to catch a few minutes of Sun Ra Arkestra’s free interstellar noon-hour sidewalk jazz parade then I drove to Toronto and passed a fantastic night hanging out with great friends.  The following morning I made it home to Ottawa and then two days later terrorists commandeered four planes and aimed them at strategic targets in the American Northeast, an organized attack that irrevocably changed  the world.  

And not to belittle the dramatic effects and repercussions of that unforgettable tragic day, but one of the immediate effects of 9/11 was the complete shutdown of the Canada-US border, which I had just crossed in the nick of time.  

Phew. 

(Oh, I forgot to mention something about this night that makes me cringe to this day.  After the show Bill and Kevin were packing up their gear and I approached them and asked Bill for his autograph.  As he signed my program Kevin Breit looked up and I gave him a little “hello” nod.  I had already purchased a couple of Sisters Euclid CD’s at Orbit Room shows and had drunkily approached Kevin in the darkened bathroom corridor and asked him to sign them for me.  With that in mind, once Bill Frisell had signed my program I thanked him and left to join Pete.  What I now see as being very obvious had not occurred to me at the time: that there’s no way Kevin remembered me from those random Monday night post-show CD signings and that I clearly snubbed him by not asking him to sign my program too.  Like, what a capper to the night for him, huh?  Still basking in the glow of playing a great set and a fan comes up, gushes on the other guy and ignores him completely.  I sure hope that if I ever get the guts to ask Kevin about it he’ll tell me honestly that he has no idea what I’m talking about.  But I doubt it.)

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