Jane Bunnett -- Photo by Thomas King

“In some countries, improvisational music is part of everyday life,” says musician Jane Bunnett. “It’s not musician and audience, it’s musician and participants. Everyone joins in and becomes part of the experience.”

Being a participant in this kind of musical experience moves it to another level, she adds. “I think it’s important for people to connect to music and to each other by creating music together.”

Bunnett will have an entire year in Guelph to help build those connections as the University’s first-ever Improviser-in-Residence, a joint initiative of the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice Research Project (ICASP) and Musagetes.

ICASP is a seven-year collaborative research project that explores musical improvisation as a model for social change. It’s headed by Ajay Heble, a professor in U of G’s School of English and Theatre Studies, and is funded principally by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council. Musagetes is a Guelph-based charitable foundation that works with artists, cultural mediators, public intellectuals and other partners to develop new approaches to building community and culture.

A Toronto-based soprano saxophonist, flutist, and bandleader, Bunnett is the winner of multiple Juno awards and has two Grammy nominations and an Urban Music Award. She is also a member of the Order of Canada and has an impressive track record in both performing music and teaching others to improvise.

What does an Improviser-in-Residence do? Well, there will be some surprises, as you might expect, says Bunnett. Throughout the year she’ll be doing both announced and unannounced public appearances. “Sometimes I will just pop up somewhere in the community and improvise.”

Bunnett will “pop up” in the Mackinnon Building at noon today for the College of Arts Thursdays at Noon concert series. She’ll perform with a U of G group called “The Vertical Squirrels” that consists of Profs. Ajay Heble and Daniel Fischlin, English and Theatre Studies; Lewis Melville, a researcher in the Department of Botany; and local musician Ted Warren, who conducts the U of G Jazz Ensemble.

During her year at U of G, Bunnett will also give public performances with groups of music-makers. Many of the projects she’s currently working on will culminate at the Guelph Jazz Festival in September, including her work with KidsAbility, a program for children with disabilities.

“We asked each child to bring in a photo that means something to him or her,” says Bunnett, “and as a group, we are creating a musical piece for each photo. Some of the kids really like loud sounds, some really like softer sounds, so we have to come to some meeting ground.”

Other pieces she’s developing with the children include “Root for Your Fruit,” where each child has a shaker designed to look like a piece of fruit, and “The Potato Chip Song,” where the kids rustle potato-chip bags, sing about chips, and end up biting down on a chip.

In these programs, Bunnett finds moments of unexpected magic. She tells about a session with the KidsAbility group where one boy asked “Can I do something?” When Bunnett said yes, the boy headed for the drums and played them as loudly as he could while singing “O Canada” at the top of his voice. “It’s wonderful to see the kids get engaged. He was really into it.”

Another project involves working with people at the Homewood Health Centre, where Bunnett says it was “exciting to see the transformation over a couple of hours of musical activity. People seemed genuinely happy afterwards, and I could see them chatting with each other about what we’d done as I left.”

She’ll also be working with patients at St. Joseph’s Health Centre. Other programs will involve high school students. “I’ll be helping them develop musical skills and improve skills, but also sharing with them my take on what it’s like to be a professional musician,” she explains. “The teachers have a curriculum to follow, but I can expand on that and bring in music from Cuba, Brazil, Africa and other parts of the world.”

Still other projects in the works involve students in an alternative high school program, the U of G’s Contemporary Music Ensemble, and other community groups.

In addition, Bunnett will squeeze in time to continue working on her own projects. She recently finished a recording of duets and is now working as artistic director of a festival in Brampton called The Art of Jazz. The festival itself will run in mid-August, but Bunnett is already busy fundraising and organizing.

She considers herself fortunate to be able to make music and share it with others as a way of making a living. “I take it for granted, music is just what I do,” she says. “I know a lot of other people don’t have the experience of music in their lives.”

As Improviser-in-Residence, she hopes to introduce people to the idea of community music-making, something that is common in other parts of the world. “The kind of musical energy you get at musical house parties in Newfoundland, for example, can lift people up, make them happy, even heal them,” Bunnett says.