Gent Jazz Festival 2008
July 17-20, 2008
The second half of the Gent Jazz Festival is traditionally devoted to peripheral jazz zones, from hip-hop groove to Cuban nostalgia, New Orleans R&B to avant-rock weirdness. All of the seats are cleared out of the performance tent, creating a floor designed for dancing. This year the opening act on Thursday allowed the crowd to sway in gently. The Belgian DJ Buscemi fronted a big band of fleshly players, providing beats and sonic peripherals, in a dialogue with drummer Mimi Vererame. The line-up included a string quartet, along with bass, piano, guitar, trumpet and an occasional singer. The concept, it appeared, was for pianist Michel Bisceglia to re-arrange Buscemi's electro output into a largely acoustic jazz flow. The results proved likable enough, but not without an overwhelming sense that these sophisticated soft-grooves were five, maybe even ten, years out of date. The pieces perambulated the acoustic space gracefully, dotted with well-behaved trumpet and guitar solos, but they didn't develop much, and were all but completely bereft of any flexing gristle. Ideal to get the audience members' heads moving agreeably, but only as an aperitif to the more substantial sounds to come.
There was a forceful contrast as soon as The Herbaliser hit the stage. This London combo has been trimmed down, with its previously expansive horn section now made up of a twosome not shy of compensating for their small numbers with their bass-throttling baritone saxophone and scimitar trumpet stylings. There was much swapping around with Andrew Ross, whose bullish flute licks contributed a crucial air of hardcore retro breeziness. Yes, it was a groove looking back to the soul, funk, jazz and blues of the 1960s and '70s, crunched through a hard hip-hop frontdrop, but this crew's sound was vitally of-the- moment rather than trapped in time. Nowadays, so many DJs don't (or can't) perform with a scratching fever, but Herbaliser founder Ollie Teeba is a master vinyl-skater, hoisted up in the mix for full hardcore effect.
Another artist who sieves old sounds from decades past through a retro-futurist gauze is Erykah Badu, who joined the ranks of performers by now co-existing as slightly (or not-so-slightly) off-kilter characters and commercially successful entities. We're talking about Sly Stone, Prince and George Clinton. Badu (aka Erica Wright) is one of hip hop/soul/funk's most individualist additions in recent years, her singularity not so much overt as implied in her movements, delivery and lyrics. As observed on this occasion, she clearly imagines herself a Nubian ritualist, casting Norma Desmond shapes with her expressive arm maneuvers, perhaps expressive of a desire to be reincarnated in feline form. There was an absolutely arresting moment when Erykha pulled out two large tuning forks, clashing them in front of her face, then proceeding to patter graceful fingers over sample pads or thrum on a talking drum. All this, and she sings too! Though heavily identified with hip hop, it was impossible not to notice that Badu has a classically soaring, soul-stirring voice, superbly embellished by her backing vocal wing.
Friday night was Cuban night, which might sound a touch one-dimensional, but it's the Buena Vista Social Club roadshow, presenting three very varied approaches to the island's music. Pianist Roberto Fonséca opened: he who was, for a time, the replacement for Ruben González. Fonséca is now completely involved in his own music and band, which operates on a much jazzier level but without diluting its strong Havana club essence. On this occasion he launched himself into soloing with a passion, adopting in an odd stance where he throws his head and torso so far back that he looks like he's going to fall off his stool. The compositions are commercially hummable but were mostly delivered with a fierce momentum, with longtime sparring partner saxophonist Javier Zalba contributing some phenomenally energized solos, at great length and with maximum engagement.
Following this audio-visual spectacle, the audience needed a rest, for which veteran singer Omara Portuondo proved the ideal choice. Her decelerated romantic numbers tended to waft past the listener's immediate notice, even though these are the real source of her fame. But it was the swifter songs, dotted about her set, that prompted a responsive, dancing motion. Portuondo still possesses the stamina to negotiate this material without flagging, always appearing genuinely immersed on an emotional level. Often when she's singing, it seems that tears are welling up in her eyes, as she thinks of times past, present, or maybe even future. The repertoire is so ingrained that each song carries a wealth of experience, Portuondo enraptured as she travels back in time.
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