Edgefest in Ann Arbor, Michigan is an avant-garde jazz Brigadoon. Walking into the Kerrytown Concert House, the same folks are settling into the same seats as they were just over a year ago, and as they have been in the six years I’ve been making the trek up here. And even the leader of the band ready to take the stage was familiar. Guitarist James Emery had been here last year with the String Trio of New York. In fact, Edgehead-in-chief David Lynch likes to present musicians in different formats. This year he presented Emery leading his own quartet featuring ace reedman Marty Ehrlich with the rhythm team of bassist Drew Gress and percussionist Kevin Norton.[…]
But Thursday I’m ready to make the short six-block walk to the Firefly Club, a cozy nightspot in the heart of Ann Arbor’s downtown. Opening the two-band show was Nous Percons les Oreillles (We Pierce the Ears) featuring Jean Derome and Joane Hétu. Derome’s appearance is an example of how festival producer David Lynch likes to work. In 2002, Derome was at the festival with two different groups. In 2004, he returned with a third aggregation, a duo with his wife. Together they delivered their own brand of urban bohemian folk music. Their sounds seemed rooted in the urbane detritus of a cosmopolitan household. They both sing—she in a powerful, malleable voice and he in a rich, but unaffected voice. They both play saxophone, though on this night the saxophone playing seemed more of an emulsifier than the key ingredient.
Derome adds a toy chest full of little instruments—toys, whistles, animal calls, which the duo brought together in odd, whimsical combinations. Sometimes their singing seemed to be emanating from a church. Or on one number, Hétu produced gagging sounds as if she had something lodged in her throat. It had the audience on edge, caught in that odd place wondering whether this was to be taken seriously. I smiled, and breathed a sigh of relief when Hétu’s voice suddenly rang free. Following the piece, Derome explained the text. Sure enough, it was about having something caught in the throat. Yet this was more than the reprise of an unfortunate scene one might witness at the dinner table. Even at her most strangled gagging, the overtones in Hétu’s voice resonated.
“We’re from Montréal”, Derome said. “This is the kind of music we do.” Not everywhere, he added dryly. “So you can visit.” At one point between numbers, the bar’s ice machine clattered—an aberration, the Firefly is very solicitous of performers. “The ice is nice”, Hétu commented, thinking I suspect about how it could be integrated into the music. The duo closed its set with a game of avant-garde patty-cake, beating hands together while singing a simple four-bar, nursery-song like phrase. That little melodic nugget stayed lodged in my ear during the break between shows.[…]
So how did Edgefest 2004 stack up? The festival is always a high point of my year, and this year was no exception. As usual the variety of acts that fell under the cover of the festival’s large umbrella was impressive. I suspect the strongest images I’ll retain from this festival will be Rashied Ali’s torrential drumming, the fine balance of James Emery’s quartet, the out-lyricism of Joe McPhee, and those few fleeting moments of Jenny Scheinman’s Salagaster. Those are the kind of memories that will keep me in anticipation of next year’s festival.