Ron Samworth

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Vancouver guitarist, composer, improviser, and bandleader Ron Samworth is probably well-known to anyone who has made a habit of attending major Canadian jazz or creative music festivals from the mid-'90s…
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Vancouver guitarist, composer, improviser, and bandleader Ron Samworth is probably well-known to anyone who has made a habit of attending major Canadian jazz or creative music festivals from the mid-'90s onward. Yet other Vancouver creative musicians, like clarinetist François Houle and pianist Paul Plimley, probably have higher name recognition, particularly outside Canada. If one of his principal creative outlets had been named the Ron Samworth Quartet instead of Talking Pictures, perhaps the guitarist might have received greater attention, but Samworth has never seemed driven to occupy center stage, preferring the role of collaborator even in his own ensembles. Yet he has been a driving force on the Vancouver scene, and his impact shouldn't be underestimated. Samworth studied with the likes of Dave Holland, Muhal Richard Abrams, and George Russell at the Banff Centre for the Arts in the Canadian Rockies, and soon established himself in Vancouver jazz clubs and performance spaces, not only as a musician but also as an organizer. He played often at the Classical Joint, a club in Vancouver's Gastown district, and from 1987 to 1994, co-curated a weekly concert series at the grunt gallery. Samworth also played a role in organizing the Glass Slipper, a noted jazz and creative music venue that, after moving locations, was torched by an arsonist in 1997. His first recorded appearances (three discs in 1990 and 1991) are on Vinny Golia's Nine Winds label, with the Lunar Adventures quartet and with the New Orchestra Workshop (NOW), a larger musicians' collective for which he has served as artistic director. Several NOW Orchestra CDs featuring Samworth were released in the mid- to late '90s, including collaborations with British free jazz bassist Barry Guy and Montréal avant improvising guitarist René Lussier.

However, much of Samworth's most noteworthy work has been with the aforementioned Talking Pictures quartet which, in addition to Samworth, includes cellist Peggy Lee, trumpeter Bill Clark, and drummer Dylan van der Schyff. The group's two CDs on the Red Toucan label, Ciao Bella (1995) and The Mirror with a Memory (1997), feature material mainly written by Samworth or improvised collectively by the quartet, with occasional pieces by other band members and interpretations of works by Ornette Coleman and Robin Holcomb. Stylistically, there are strong parallels between the music of Talking Pictures and the avant forays of the so-called New York downtown scene: tight, angular unison passages interspersed with improvisations that emphasize textural exploration and group interplay -- indeed, even the instrumentation (sans bass) recalls groups like Dave Douglas' Tiny Bell Trio and Myra Melford's the Same River, Twice. (Creative musicians from Vancouver and Seattle, two cities in close geographic proximity, often seem to be influenced by the same muse, and many young Seattle improvisers -- like guitarist Brad Shepik, who Samworth met at Banff -- headed East to become members of a core group of New York downtowners.) A third Talking Pictures CD, Humming, was issued on the Vancouver Songlines label in 2000; this CD was a joint release of the quartet and Dutch saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra, credited with writing all the CD's compositions.

In the late '90s and as the new millennium began, Samworth could increasingly be heard on recordings as a sideman, appearing on albums by the Hard Rubber Orchestra, François Houle, and George Lewis. However, he continued involvement with Talking Pictures in a new capacity -- as artistic director of the Barking Sphinx Performance Society, which produces multi-disciplinary dance, theater, spoken word, and film projects with Talking Pictures as the core musical ensemble. (Samworth's interest in such multi-disciplinary projects is also demonstrated by his history of involvement with Vancouver's Ruby Slippers Theatre and EDAM -- Experimental Dance and Music.) In 2001, the Barking Sphinx Performance Society helped launch a purely musical venture for Samworth named, appropriately enough, the Barking Sphinx Ensemble, featuring Samworth, van der Schyff, and saxophonist Masa Anzai, a member of Vancouver's new generation of improvising musicians.