The rough, faded industrial city of Hamilton, Ontario, might seem an unlikely setting for a top-notch festival of creative music, but thanks to the efforts of Cem [pronounced Jem] Zafir, the artistic director of Something Else!, the city proved a perfect little world for the musicians and music lovers on hand for the fourth edition.
Composer, improviser, and reedist Ken Vandermark, artist in residence, opened the festival with a solo set of pieces dedicated to some of the musicians present, and later performed with free-jazz bassist Kent Kessler and percussionist Hamid Drake in the DKV Trio. Guitarist extraordinaire Joe Morris and legendary bassist William Parker otherwise formed with Drake the improvising trio Eloping With the Sun. The improvising quartet Perch Hen Brock & Rain, comprising Ab Baars, Ig Henneman, Ingrid Laubrock, and Tom Rainey, were present for the duration, as was trumpeter Nate Wooley. All the aforementioned musicians played in ad hoc ensembles put together during each afternoon session at the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre (WAHC), between their respective mainstage sets. The setup worked beautifully. With six performances on Friday evening, and ten more on each of Saturday and Sunday, there was a wide variety of music presented, and the musicians rose without fail to the challenge.
On Friday, U.S.-based Japanese percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani’s [LEFT] shimmering and intense solo set on gongs and drums, played with bows and mallets, was a highlight, as was the Montreal quintet Togetherness!, with a front line of Ellwood Epps, trumpet, Scott Thomson, trombone, and Erik Hove, alto sax, playing a spirited set of pieces by Abdullah Ibrahim, Dudu Pukwana and other African musicians.
Canadian artists were responsible for two standout performances. The surrealist-poet duo of Cobourg’s Stuart Ross and Hamilton’s Gary Barwin was playful, funny, and inventive in its Saturday afternoon set. Toronto’s CeramiX (potter Chiho Tokita, composer Germaine Liu, and percussionists Joe Sorbara, Tomasz Krakowiak, and Mark Zurawinski) played ceramic cup-shaped objects on various surfaces around the WAHC, as the audience followed the players around the building—a highly inventive (and, yes, musical) concept. Toronto trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud’s buttery round tone and melodicism caught my ear in a solo set on Saturday afternoon, and in an ad hoc improvisation with William Parker, Ellwood Epps, and Scott Thomson.
The three DKV sets—two with guests, and one as a trio to close out Sunday—were burning affairs, as those familiar with the trio might expect. Vandermark’s duo with Nate Wooley was both challenging and pleasing, the lines of Vandermark’s clarinet and Wooley’s trumpet winding in and around one another. Also worthy of note was pianist Achim Kaufmann’s trio Grünen, with bassist Robert Landfermann and drummer Christian Lillinger. Lillinger was particularly assertive in a set of challenging and bracing compositions.

Eloping With the Sun’s set on Saturday evening was thoughtful and meditative, as was its set with Ab Baars, who improvised with the group on shakuhachi in a set earlier in the day. Baars, playing tenor sax, also hooked up with Parker and Drake on Sunday, their first meeting as a trio [LEFT], and he took the opportunity to stretch out in a freewheeling improvisation that took full advantage of the solid, swinging, support. It was clear that Baars enjoyed playing with such sympathetic improvisers, and he opted to extend the set beyond its first logical end point, switching to shakuhachi for a few minutes before returning to tenor for a wild finale.

The absolute high point of the weekend was Nate Wooley’s solo trumpet set early Sunday afternoon—a take on “Body and Soul,” dedicated to his father for Father’s Day, which may have been the best twenty-five minutes of music I have ever heard in live performance. Wooley’s display of musical conception and technical ability was totally transfixing, as he took the melody way out and then brought it all the way back in, full of surprises, yet every element in place. 
Something Else! was a fabulous weekend of music and conversation. I can hardly wait until next year, but the memories of this one will sustain me for some time.

All Something Else! photos by Frank Rubolino. Top photo, left to right: Kent Kessler, Ken Vandermark and Tom Rainey.