Gent Jazz Festival 2008: Days 1-4
“ It's a Flemish tradition to combine serious compositional intent with a sense of the ludicrous, and [Trio Grande] do so with expert fine-tuning. ”
Days 1-4 | Days 5-8
The Gent Jazz Festival 2008
July 10-13, 2008
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.
There have been a few changes in approach over the last couple of years. Firstly, the jazzfest used to coincide exactly with the ten-day Gentse Feesten, this historically impressive city's mainline mega- celebration, which draws thousands of visitors from far and wide, partying in the streets, and quaffing copious amounts of glorious Belgian beer. Lately, the jazzfest has been shunted forward, so that only its last two days coincide with the Gentse Feesten, perhaps wisely ceasing to compete with each other. The other significant change is that the festival has dropped its Blue Note Records sponsorship prefix, now seeking to push its independence and emphasise its host city.
Talking to a couple of locals in a bar, I glean that the biggest complaint from folks who live in the immediate Gentse Feesten celebration zone is that beautiful cobblestone streets are sometimes awash with the urine of enthusiastic revellers, and that theoretically short walks become sluggish processions. The Gentse Feesten is also all about culture of another sort, with its excellent Pole Pole global music festival running down by the river, as well as numerous theatre, comedy, circus and music shows in a wide variety of venues. It would be possible to experience the jazzfest, then stay on for the Gentse Feesten afterwards, which would involve a lengthy bout of hedonism indeed. The local citizenry need rest both before and after the festivities.
There's no multi-stage tomfoolery here at the jazzfest. Everything happens in a single big tent on the attractive Bijloke site, with three or four acts running from six-thirty until around midnight or later. In the shortish gaps between performances, the audience can saunter around the spread of relaxed eating and drinking areas, absorbing the sounds of the fest's DJ programme. The main tent pleasingly incorporates trees and shrubbery from the site, with a large arborean nuzzling up to the left-hand speaker-stack, and a tiny sprig sprouting right in the middle-front of the stage itself. A positive psychological effect for the audience, but I'm forced to ask whether trees need earplugs. Are their branches receptive to jazz?
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.