March 22, 2013

Vertical Squirrels and Community

Here's a recent feature article on the Vertical Squirrels' pianist Ajay Heble talking about his research, music-making, and community.

Music Brings Community Together

Improvisation helps musicians find harmony

By Andrew Vowles
Friday, March 22, 2013

You might not look to musical improvisation for ways to build your corner of the world. But that’s the focus of Ajay Heble’s mingled musical and academic interests. The U of G professor thinks in the key of C, for "community.”

Last month, Heble was one of four panelists at a free public event in Kitchener, Ont., who discussed "Life in 2030” through their varied research projects. The discussion was the inaugural event in a "Research Matters” campaign taking place in several cities early this year.

Last month’s event was hosted by U of G, the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Ottawa, and introduced by Kevin Hall, U of G vice-president, research.

The campaign is intended to connect university researchers with the general community – a fitting concept for Heble’s theme of musical improvisation as a model for building communities.

Interviewed before the event, the professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies (SETS) discussed two related projects based in Guelph.

Connecting improv and social issues is the idea behind the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice (ICASP) research project directed by Heble. ICASP is now in the sixth year of a seven-year grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (

He is also artistic director and founder of the Guelph Jazz Festival, now in its 20th year. The event brings musicians from around the world for performances and discussions each fall.

In 2009, the festival featured musicians from Mali, Ethiopia, the Netherlands, Mexico, Canada and the United States. Meeting for the first time, the group members had never rehearsed before taking the stage in Guelph.

"They didn’t come and say, ‘We’re going to play in the key of C.’ It was an opportunity to meet for the first time and create wondrous music,” says Heble.

Beyond music, he says, that kind of forum offers ideas for disparate community members facing similar challenges: negotiating differences, fostering trust, meeting social obligations and exercising critical listening skills.

"There’s something going on in the moment when musicians improvise” that might translate to other venues, he says.

There’s also a lesson about co-operating in an increasingly globalized world, he adds. He points to Australian cultural theorist Ien Ang, who poses a question of her own: "How are we to live together in this century?”

There’s togetherness in difference, says Heble. That’s something that resonates with musicians adapting to each other, from an international ensemble put together on the spot to the band The Vertical Squirrels, including Heble, SETS professor Daniel Fischlin and Lewis Melville, a technician in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

"It’s amazingly exhilarating. It transports me into another world. You never know what’s going to happen.”

Through ICASP, Guelph researchers have forged partnerships with varied groups. Collaborator Pauline Oliveros, a composer and arts professor at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, has developed a software program that helps people with physical disabilities participate in improvised music-making.

The project also takes music to children and youth through workshops at high schools and with community groups. In 2011, that connection included Toronto musician Jane Bunnett. She spent a year as improviser-in-residence at Guelph through a partnership between ICASP and the Musagetes Foundation.

Other ICASP researchers documented her workshops with youngsters with physical and mental disabilities at the KidsAbility Centre for Child Development in Guelph. That project led to a performance by those children at that year’s jazz festival.

Heble says parents credit the program with instilling new behaviours in their kids. Speaking at Life in 2030, he said, "We know that the research we’re doing matters. We know that it matters because we’re touching people’s lives, we’re reaching groups who rarely get a chance to shine.”

Similar partnerships involve academics at McGill University and the University of British Columbia (UBC) with community groups in Montreal and Vancouver.

Patchen Barss, creative director of the Research Matters campaign in Toronto, says: "It’s research about the relationship between musical improvisation and community-building, and helping people who don’t have a conventional voice to find a voice of their own. I think it’s quite powerful and moving research.”

Now Heble aims to broaden the scope.

A new funding application involves Guelph, McGill and UBC as well as Memorial University of Newfoundland and the University of Regina in proposed programs intended to help spark arts and societal change, including in African countries.

Referring to ICASP, he says, "What we’re doing is unique in the world. We’ve propelled Guelph into a world centre for improvisational music as a form of social practice.”

Research Matters is supported by the Ontario Council of University Research, the Council of Ontario Universities and all of the province’s universities. Other public discussions will take place in Sudbury, Oshawa, St. Catharines and Toronto until early May.



February 3, 2013

Vertical Squirrels in Double Bill with Michael Blake's Variety Hour

3rd february 2013 guelph
macdonald stewart art centre (358 gordon st, guelph)
$15 or pwyc


NYC based Canadian saxophonist Michael Blake (Lounge Lizards, Slow Poke, Jazz Composers Collective) is back with a star-studded new Vancouver quartet. Their music covers a lot of ground, from electro-acoustic, cinematic soundscapes to straight-up postbop and soul. Let's call it jazz.

Michael Blake saxophone
JP Carter trumpet treated
Chris Gestrin Fender Rhodes and Micromoog bass
Dylan van der Schyff drums

Saxophonist and composer Michael Blake was born in Montreal, Canada and raised in Vancouver, BC. He moved to New York City in 1986 where he has established an international reputation in the field of jazz. He has released 10 critically acclaimed CD’s under his own name ranging from original contemporary concept albums (Kingdom of Champa, Amor de Cosmos) to mainstream projects, such as his tribute to the under-recognized saxophonist Lucky Thompson. Michael has received study, commission and travel grants from Canada Council (1986, 2000 and 2002) and he received Chamber Music America’s Doris Duke grant for ‘New Jazz Works’. Michael is a faculty member at Europe’s oldest jazz masters program, Siena’s Fondazione di Jazz in Italy, where he has taught along side Kenny Werner, Rufus Reid, Greg Osby and Enrico Rava. Blake has performed at jazz festivals worldwide and has conducted workshops in Canada, Italy, Brazil, Denmark and Portugal. His work has been profiled in the New York Times, Downbeat, The New Yorker, The Globe and Mail, All About Jazz as well as many online, European and Canadian music journals. In 2002 he was recognized in Downbeat Magazine’s 50th Annual Critics Poll for Talent Deserving Wider Recognition categories for tenor sax, soprano sax and jazz artist of the year. Among the many artists he has recorded and performed with are The Lounge Lizards, Ben Allison, Oliver Lake, Medeski Martin and Wood, Ray Lamontagne, Lee konitz, Frank Kimbrough, Ted Nash, Enrico Rava, Stefano Bollani, The Gil Evans Orchestra, Ben E. King, Neil Sedaka, Tricky, Prince Paul, Natalie Cole, Steven Bernstein, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Hal Wilner, Sir Coxsone Dodd and Pinetop Perkins.


Like the music they play, the Vertical Squirrels came together through a mixture of chance and perseverance. Long-time collaborators in and outside the academy (in projects musical and non- musical), Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble, and Lewis Melville started officially playing together as a group in 2008. Starting partially as an informal outlet to get Heble back into playing piano after years of curating the Guelph Jazz Festival (but rarely performing himself), the Vertical Squirrels quickly morphed into a recording and gigging band focused on their distinctive brand of in-the-moment improvisation. They bring together years of diverse individual musical experiences, a sense of humor and friendship to their playing, and a deep commitment to multiple forms of sonic expression and freedom.

Daniel Fischlin guitars and devices
Ajay Heble piano and keyboards
Lewis Melville pedal steel, bass, horn, things
Ted Warren drums and percussion


January 12, 2012

Squirrel Blitz: Vertical Squirrels Shows June 3, 7, and 10, 2012

The Vertical Squirrels will be featured at a June 3rd event at Gallery 345 in Toronto. The event will be a sneak preview/launch for the 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival, with a performance by the Squirrels featuring Jane Bunnett.

Look for a new album project based on live work done by the Squirrels and Bunnett sometime soon.

Also, on June 7th look for a Guelph show by the Squirrels and featured guests, including Ben Grossman and Scott Merritt. Showtime: 7:00 p.m. / Room 107 Mackinnon at the University of Guelph.

On June 10th the Squirrels will be playing a show in Hamilton, Ontario at the Artword Artbar at 4 p.m. See the press release and poster below.

Download Press Release

 Vertical Squirrels play Guelph Jazz Festival Hamilton Launch

May 1, 2011

Stefano Bianchi Review in Blow-Up (Italy) #156, May 1, 2011

The Vertical Squirrels’ first album, Hold True (Accroche-toi!), was recently reviewed by Stefano Bianchi in Blow Up #156 (Italy, May 1, 2011). Here’s the review in both the original Italian and the English translation.
Stefano I Bianchi in Blow Up #156 (Italy), May 1, 2011

"… i Vertical Squirrels sono tra le cose più piacevoli ascoltate di recente in ambiti (avant?) rock-jazz.”

Un sincopato ritmo jazz e una chitarra che fa pensare al Ribot waitsiano; è (Put Some) Spunk in Your Funk, pezzo d’apertura dell’album dei canadesi Vertical Squirrels, Ajay Heble (piano, melodica, percussioni), Daniel Fischlin (chitarra, flauto provenzale), Lewis Melville (basso, banjo, radio frequenze) e Rob Wallace (batteria e vocalizzi). Ma è solo una delle mille indicazioni fornite da un disco che poi si dimena alla ricerca di onomatopee da veri scoiattoli verticali (Nomads, Sparrows & Machines) e veri ragni meccanici (Danse des araignées mécaniques), si sbilancia recuperando il Davis elettrico in versione notturna e flessuosa (l’ottima ¡Ah/Ha!), snocciola un talkin’ free (L’impatience des poissons), sfiora la psichedelia etnofolkie (Leaps Of Faith), si abbandona a romanticismi classicheggianti (La mnémologie / Amnesiaville) e dolcezze da rock ballad d’altri tempi (Resurrectiong The Good). Il gusto del puro suono che scorre coi freni mai troppo tirati è la via di un’interazione perfetta tra strumenti evidentemente guidati dal piano ma mai comprimari: appena un po’ barocchi, ironici, curiosi, affabili, intelligenti, abili, disincantati, rilassati ma non svagati, i Vertical Squirrels sono tra le cose più piacevoli ascoltate di recente in ambiti (avant) rock-jazz.

And in English:

"… The Vertical Squirrels are among the most pleasant things we have recently heard in the context of (avant?)- rock jazz.”

A syncopated jazz rhythm and a guitar that makes one think of the Waitsian [Marc] Ribot: that’s, in summary, the opening piece (Put Some Spunk In Your Funk ) of the album by the Canadian group The Vertical Squirrels: Daniel Fischlin (guitar and flute provençale), Ajay Heble (piano, melodica, percussion), Lewis Melville (bass, banjo, radio frequencies), and Rob Wallace (drums and vocals). But this is only one of the many musical directions in an album that vibrates and shakes in its quest for onomatopoeic sounds that make one think of real vertical squirrels (Nomads, Sparrows & Machines) and actual mechanical spiders (Danse des araignées mécaniques). The project establishes a dynamic, new balance by recalling the electric [Miles] Davis, in a nocturnal and supple piece––the beautiful ¡Ah/Ha!––then reels off a free-talkin’ track (L’impatience des poissons), gently touches on ethno-folk psychedelia (Leaps Of Faith), before abandoning itself to a romanticism that echoes the classical canon (La mnémologie / Amnesiaville) tinged with a sweetness of those rock ballads belonging to glorious past eras (Resurrecting The Good). The taste for pure sounds flows freely [in the music] without the slightest evidence of excess and represents a perfect interplay of instruments that follow the piano’s lead but are not just there to support the piano. With just a hint of the baroque, ironic, curious, affable, intelligent, capable, disenchanted––relaxed, but never distracted––The Vertical Squirrels are among the most pleasant things we have recently listened to in the (avant?) rock-jazz context. (Stefano Bianchi)

• Thanks to Sara Vila, Marta Nandorfy, and Rod Fortheringham for help with the translation.

• And thanks to Italy for listening!

February 24, 2012

Vertical Squirrels Play Two Shows in Ottawa February 24 and 25, 2012

The Vertical Squirrels will be playing two shows in Ottawa on February 24 and 25, 2012 as part of the Sound Changes: Music and Social Justice Symposium held at Carleton University on those days.
Friday night features the Vertical Squirrels along with Friendly Rich and the Lollipop People as well as slam poetry and spoken word performances in an opening event at the Raw Sugar Café, 692 Somerset St West, Ottawa (starting at 8:00 p.m.).

On Saturday the Vertical Squirrels play a show at Carleton University (9th floor of the Loeb Building, Tower A) starting at 1:00 p.m.

Both performances see the Squirrels playing with the percussionist for the Juno-award winning Stretch Orchestra, Jesse Stewart.

Later in the day Squirrels members Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble deliver the keynote address for the conference based on their forthcoming co-written book with George Lipsitz: "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Improvisation, Rights, and the Ethics of Co-Creation.” For the CBC announcement of the event click here.

For the complete schedule of the Sound Changes symposium click below:


Sound Changes Symposium program

January 9, 2012

More Vertical Squirrels Radio Play

The Vertical Squirrels were playlisted on electroacoustic composer and radio host Chris Meloche’s Jazz and Improvisation show Wired for Sound (Number 902) out of London, Ontario.

They were also feautred on RTR FM 92.1 (out of Perth, Western Australia), the acclaimed station that in 2011 won the nationally coveted Tony Staley Award for Community Broadcasting Excellence, which recognises ‘a station that actively promotes the values of community broadcasting: democracy, diversity and independence.’

The Vertical Squirrels were featured on RTR FM’s show Difficult Listening presented by Bryce Moore. To replay the set click here.

Thanks for listening radioland!


December 8, 2011

2011 Montreal Mirror Review of Winter's Gate

Here’s the latest review (December 8, 2011) of the Vertical Squirrels’ second album, Winter’s Gate, courtesy of Lawrence Joseph at the Montreal Mirror:

Winter’s Gate
(Barcode Free)

Garden pests or welcome guests—it depends on your proclivity for improvised instrumentals. The 14 pop, funk and, well, squirrelly tracks on this sophomore CD find the band honing in on their sound, running along the fence more than meandering around the yard. Most pieces feature the highly compressed, fuzzed-out lead guitar incursions of Daniel Fischlin, backed by circling piano cells, bass and clattering drums. Think Swell Maps circa Whatever Happens Next… with Nikki Sudden replaced by Robert Fripp. 8/10 Trial Track: "Gate, No Fence” (Lawrence Joseph)


Thanks for listening Montreal!