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"Rest and unrest derive from illusion," guitarist David Torn intones repeatedly against a droning background on his latest recording, Prezens (ECM). Then he moves to a second line to repeat, what sounds like: "Definitions have vanished." It's an almost too-obvious footnote to the collage of sounds that start the record off: something like four musicians tentatively suggesting and teasing out musical ideas, more and more heatedly, never going with the boogie implied, or the spooky organ number, or settling for the sonic textures. Saxophone squiggles, stuttering drums, screaming guitar and a lightning storm of electronics ... it all seems to become more agitated until it coalesces into a sort of stumbling lurch forward. And that's just Torn and his collaborators getting warmed up. What follows on the remainder of the record swings from moments of delicacy to caterwauling mayhem. Here's out-jazz you can bang your head to.
The talk about "rest and unrest" may pertain specifically Torn's thing, but "definitions have vanished" helps define Edgefest, now in its 12th go-round, in which Torn and his band of heavies perform this week. The festival presented by (and mostly at) Ann Arbor's Kerrytown Concert House is itself a sort of sonic-musical-cultural collage of edgy jazz, not-quite-jazz and "who you calling jazz?" musicians. The participants range from locals to international guests. There are legends and up-and-comers, and representatives of any of the successive generations and schools in the big tent of craziness.
Among the most established names, there's Hamiet Bluiett, a gale-force baritone saxophonist who emerged from the 1970s Black Arts Group in St. Louis before working with Charles Mingus and the World Saxophone Quartet. Bluiett was also part of New York's "loft jazz" scene, in which former Royal Oak native John Lindberg and guitarist James Emery formed the String Trio of New York (the third member is currently violinist Rob Thomas). Trio X has even deeper roots in the avant-garde: Its saxophonist-trumpeter, Joe McPhee, was blazing away in the Big Apple in the era of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler.
The more recent arrivals include the team of violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier (their traditional classical technique and contemporary classical influences are among their calling cards), the accordion player Guy Klucevsek's Bantam Orchestra Project (he's known for the kind of humor that goes with the name) and violinist Jason Kao Hwang's Edge Quartet (which whips together influences from Asian music to the blues with a whip-lashing sense of dynamics).
Torn's group, called Prezens (like the disc), is of particular note. Torn himself has collaborated with artists from Jan Gabarek (as a sideman) to Jeff Beck (remixing), but mainly garnered a cult for his own work; "textures that make Pink Floyd's 'space music' sound like third-grade sandbox doodles," gushed a San Francisco Bay Guardian scribe. The saxophonist Tim Berne has long been a leader in his own right (with a special connection to the music of Bluiett's late colleague Julius Hemphill). Craig Taborn is a former Detroit-Ann Arbor cat, who's extending his jazz roots into startling areas of abstraction with electronics. And although Tom Rainey is admirable on the Prezens disc, the current lineup has former Detroiter Gerald Cleaver (now a much in-demand New Yorker) on drums.
The wild card of the festival, however, may be a one-time-only group of 25 to 30 string players (from various festival groups and the Ann Arbor area) that Hwang will lead in compositions and improvisations. If you're not sure this is your thing, this one is free — in terms of admission as well as aesthetics. –W. Kim Heron
Edgefest, which includes a symposium, a parade and 18 performances, is Thursday, Oct. 16, to Saturday, Oct. 18, mainly at the Kerrytown Concert House, 415 N. Fourth Ave., Ann Arbor; 734-769-2999. Jason Hwang's string-players extravaganza is Saturday at 4 p.m. in the nearby Kerrytown Markets and Shops (free admission). Festival passes are $125 and up. Information on all concerts at kerrytownconcerthouse.com.