Gent Jazz Festival 2008: Days 1-4
Headlining on the second night, the Pat Metheny Trio follow in Lionel Loueke's tracks by delivering a live set that has far more substance than their recent milksop album Day Trip. The guitarist's unruly thatch seems bigger with each gig, still imparting a youthful air from a player who is now close to being a grand old veteran of jazz. There's something disquieting about Metheny's methods. On the surface, his sound has always been smooth, twinkling with synthesiser dust and full of epic romance. But over the decades, he's maintained a flirtation with a secret life of noise. There was Song X, the very atypical collaboration with Ornette Coleman, The Sign Of 4, an even more extreme teaming with Derek Bailey, and his own Zero Tolerance For Silence. None of tonight's set travelled this distance into the zone of dissonance, but Metheny did slip in several subversive interludes of roughed-up abandon, including an Ornette medley. Contrarily, he used an acoustic ax here, cranked up with an abrasive edge.
By way of contrast, Metheny opened his extended two-and-a-half hour set with a solo display, before bassist Christian McBride and drummer Antonio Sanchez took to the stage. It's like a foreplay session, climaxing with the appearance of the forty-two string Pikasso guitar. This is straight from an axeman's dream (or nightmare!), an ornate three-necked baroque gargoyle with strings laid out every-which-way. In Metheny's able hands, it sounds quite harp-like, transforming him into an orchestral player. When joined by McBride and Sanchez, Metheny proceeds to work through every conceivable emotional shade, from assault to prettiness, the trio engaging in an involved conversation that possesses constantly shifting dynamics. McBride also exists on an epic scale, particularly when he's magnificently amplified, in all of his sensitive detail. This is a Rolling Stones-length set, but it's to the guitarist's credit that it never flags for its entire duration. The extended encores are won genuinely and spontaneously by a baying crowd.
One of Belgium's best bands is the Flat Earth Society, headed up by reedsman Peter Vermeersch. They reside in Gent itself, being something of a perversion of a conventional brass band, complete with full rhythm section plus accordion. Ranged across the stage, battalion-fashion, FES have the Finnish electro- funk saxophonist Jimi Tenor guesting, and maybe this is why their set sounds more linear than usual, barrelling along with a steady flow, hard-muscled and veering away from their more usual free-form tendencies. Then again, this is a band that's so varied in its conceptual make-up that it's very difficult to establish the nature of their "normal" gig.
The final day of the festival's first phase opens with Melody Gardot, from Philadelphia, whose career was inadvertently encouraged by a road accident that led her to use music as therapy in her recovery. Now, she has to wear dark glasses and walks with a cane, which has the onstage effect of adding to a film noir-ish persona, ideal for the poised jazz balladry of her songs. It's not so much that she's a unique stylist (Gardot's voice is not noticeably outside of the sultry songstress tradition), it's more in the full spread of music and presentation. Her portentously clicking fingers, her delicately tapped tambourine. The way she slinks from guitar to piano, and lets "her boys" in the band have their spotlit moments. It's just like the old, old days, but her songs are freshly minted. The only negative point is that her three standards are extremely common within the jazz universe. R&H's "My Funny Valentine," Arlen's "Over The Rainbow" and Ellington-Tizol's "Caravan" might (just about) sound unusual on the rock-pop circuit, but the combination of all three is way too predictable in a jazz context. At least the latter receives its less-heard with-lyrics treatment. Gardot is slightly too gushing with the crowd, and could maybe preserve more of a taciturn mystery to match her physical image. On the other hand, remember all those gigs where the miserable guys never speak until the very end of the show?
It's back to the mainline jazz, next, with Belgian trumpeter Bert Joris, his quintet featuring two guesting Italians, pianist Enrico Pieranunzi and saxophonist Rosario Giuliani. Initially, they paint a pleasant enough ensemble scene, but there's not much to jar the attention. About half way through the set, something happens between Pieranunzi and the drummer Hans van Oosterhout, setting off a charge that catches under Giuliani. Suddenly, the compositions have gained a volatile, percussive nature, that intangible quality that sets a performance off in a completely different direction. We know it when it happens...