Gent Jazz might not enjoy the high profile of certain other European festivals, but its line-up can easily compete with most and surpass many. Divided into two four-day chunks, the opening assault of 'pure' jazz headliners boasted Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Diana Krall and Wayne Shorter, almost a complete list of the global circuit's biggest draws, and with one lukewarm exception, a historical tour of the music's journey from bebop to fusion. With so many deaths of history's giants in recent years, these acts have now become the venerable old guard. To complete the list further, the Gentfest's organisers have also booked Wynton Marsalis, Charles Lloyd and Pharoah Sanders for Jazz Middelheim, in Antwerp. This mid-August festival has been in action for nearly four decades, but Gent organiser Bertrand Flamang has recently taken over its programming.
Yes, the fest has its big-name artists, but a subtler pleasure, particularly for the foreign visitor, is to investigate the indigenous Belgian acts inhabiting the third or fourth billing place. Several times, these provided musical highlights. In a number of cases I had negative preconceptions of the US giants, which were ultimately unfounded, for equally various reasons. More on this later...
The first day's opener was the Liege-born pianist Pascal Mohy, winner of last year's Young Talent category in Belgium's Django d'Or Awards. He's certainly a fresh-faced talent, his early classical training resulting in a lyrical, free-flowing language. His elaborate solos weave and worm, often with no clear division between theme and development, so convoluted is his developmental path. Boris Schmidt's throbby bass has an organic snap, amplified into a powerful physical presence, whilst drummer Lionel Beuvens favours brushwork, even though this can frequently possess a surprising firmness, skipping and slipping with graceful control. They lie well within the traditional piano trio zone, but navigating with quiet intensity, full of a wandering spirit that's still kept in check at crucial junctures.
This year's Django d'Or winner in the "veteran" category was Belgian guitarist Pierre Van Dormael, though on this showing he sounded considerably slack in disposition. Battling against a serious illness, he makes a valiant showing onstage, but his band's soporific drifting is largely ignorable, with bass and drums plodding listlessly. The leader is forced to hand over most of the solo duties to his co-guitarist Herve Samb, but their styles are sonically interchangeable anyway, bordering on a new age blandness. There's little sense of a feeling of excitement or interaction between the players.
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