Gent Jazz Festival 2008: Days 1-4
Here comes the first of my false preconceptions. The fast-ascending guitarist Lionel Loueke's mission was, by his own admission, to warm up the crowd for Herbie Hancock. His recent Karibu album suffers from some extremely bland playing, particularly when Loueke is over-using his closely-coupled voice-guitar techniques. Tonight, though, he sounds harder, a one-man show forcing him to achieve greater density and intensity. He's a player with many sides. Later, as part of Herbie's bunch, he plugs in and cranks up the volume, offering up yet another guitar texture from his range. But now, he's sampling himself on the hoof, working speedily as he repeats percussive phrases, drops them, then darts off in another direction. The vocal tongue-tripping has more of a staccato edge, emerging from his Benin birthplace, and then his years spent growing up in Ivory Coast. Suddenly, Loueke cuts the guitar altogether, singing a capella, then brings it back in with a punch. In a completely solo setting, he capitalises on his African heritage, becoming a virtual orchestra.
Another false preconception was that seeing Herbie Hancock on his River Of Possibilities tour would somehow be less fulfilling than a "straight" gig. This outing is based around the Grammy-garnering River: The Joni Letters, and threatened disappointment if the Herbie fan isn't an admirer of Joni Michell's oeuvre. But, then, on walks the pianist's supergroup, ready to prove that it's certainly not going to be vocal numbers all the way, even though these are ably handled by the contrasting stylings of singers Sonya Kitchell and Amy Keys. Vinnie Colaiuta establishes a rubbery drumming foundation, formed out of the very essence of pounding polyrhythmic virtuosity. Chris Potter is taking the disc's Wayne Shorter role, intent on searing out a surfeit of tenor expression. He's bound in an unholy unity with the great Dave Holland, who is hoisting, omigod!, an electric bass. A surreal sight, but it suits him well, his precise snakings providing an integral funk slip. Then, he switches to upright acoustic, giving a totally solo spotlight interlude.
This is the acceptable face of fusion, no smoothness in sight, but rather a roiling conjunction of grooves, with this band relishing every moment. Herbie is in a particularly conversational mood, both at the keys and with a microphone in his hand. He's also dividing time between acoustic rivulets and parping electro- emissions. Almost surprisingly, there's room for some hits, with "Watermelon Man" and "Rockit," the latter featuring Herbie on shoulder-slung axe-keyboard, preserving the retro vibrations of 1983. The reception is one of adoration, and it will be hard to match during the current mega-tour.
Italy's Stefano Di Battista is an ebullient entertainer, something like a puppy that refuses to let go of your leg. The saxophonist fronts a quintet that sets him down in an unfamiliar context. Di Battista is usually more of a mainstreamer, but this combo is characterised by Baptiste Trotignon's Hammond organ, creating a 1960s groove situation. It's reminiscent of the direction that Scott Hamilton has taken on his latest Across The Tracks album. Fabrizio Bosso's jetting trumpet is a match for Di Battista's flighty alto and soprano, even though he prefers to keep his mute in place. Trotignon's bass footpedals surge with a forceful undercurrent, while he's making sharp cuts with the treble notes, their edges like crushed crystal. The crunchy detail of their sound is a reminder of this festival's mixing desk majesty.
Here's one of those Belgian highlights, and one of the festival's most striking sets. Trio Grande is buzz- lip specialist Michel Massot, on tuba and trombone, Michel Debrulle, drums and percussion, both of these being Belgians, rounded out by Laurent Dehors, an amazingly multi-instrumental reedsman, from Normandy. Just to complete the internationalism, they've roped in the English pianist Matthew Bourne, whom they've already collaborated with on a disc, released earlier this year. It's a Flemish tradition to combine serious compositional intent with a sense of the ludicrous, and this group do so with expert fine-tuning. Their pieces are nervous, fidgety, inspired by moderne classical intricacy, vaudeville hooting and rigorous honking, all receiving equal attention. It's not clear how much time Bourne has had to rehearse with Grande, but his lightning runs are hermetically sealed beside the reeds and 'bone complexities.