Gent Jazz Festival 2009: Days 1-5
July 8: B.B. King/China Moses & Raphael Lemonnier
Maybe this year's festival, running July 8-19, is going to peak too soon. In 2006, B.B. King (or his management) decided that he wasn't going to tour again outside of North America, thereby filling seats up on a "farewell" European arena datesheet. Now, Mister King has changed his mind (or his management has...), and he's back on the road across the Atlantic, visiting a run of the big summer jazzfests. Tickets are hotly sold once again, and the huge tent at Gent's Bijloke site is at its strainingly fullest capacity, surely pulling in a crowd that can't possibly be matched over the course of the festival's next eight days of music.
Understandably, B.B.'s opening act is overwhelmed by the sense of occasion. Singer China Moses is the daughter of Dee Dee Bridgewater, and is teamed with the band of pianist Raphael Lemonnier, their mission being to reflect the contents of This One's For Dinah, a recent Blue Note album that's paying homage to the work of Dinah Washington. Over its first two nights the Gentfest features two themed treatments of songs associated with a pair of major female singers. Add "ladies man" King to the concoction and this makes up a considerable opening dedication to the vocal form. Moses hits a nerve with the crowd, through a mixture of directly soulful power-control and an appealingly informal, open and robust manner of communication. She delivers in hardcore R&B mode, but also spins around to leave her band jazzing into their solos, lending each number an instrumental weight that sits by the side of punchy song-form brevity. Drummer Jean Pierre Derouard and guesting trumpeter Francois Biensan are particularly extroverted, each dashing out gripping statements, either channeled through a crisp mute or the thunderous resonance of the sound system, emphasising rumbled bass drum weight.
Moses (pictured right) has an eminent set-list to swing through: "Is You Or Is You Ain't My Baby?" "Cry Me A River" (she considers this one a challenge, which she rises to admirably), the early Lionel Hampton hit "Evil Gal Blues," "What A Diff'rence A Day Made," the comic swagger of "Fine Fat Daddy," and her own "Dinah's Blues," co- penned with Lemonnier, who makes a modest kind of bandleader, firmly directing, but avoiding his own potential for extravagance. Moses makes little dancing jogs across the stage, the most open of performers in her nakedly exposed enthusiasm. She shows a genuine astonishment (and gratitude) at the extremely enthusiastic crowd reaction. Moses is a frothy storyteller, providing rich background to the songs, which she interprets with the combined qualities of warm, inviting, forceful and dramatic, yet always relaxed and natural. She's a flamboyant singer, but there's no danger of histrionics, just lowdown R&B, suffused with her sometimes almost uncomfortably personal confessions.
So, here's B.B. King, back in Europe again. He appears way more sprightly than on his last tour, even though he remains a seated being. On the joking front, he's particularly lively, keeping up a run of self-deprecating quips about his age and his condition. Mister King jokes that his knees, back and head are in a bad shape, that he's living with the big inconvenience of diabetes. All he has to do is sing and play the guitar (though traditionally never at the same time), and he also proves the vitality of his artistic expression. Your reviewer has witnessed The King on several occasions over nearly the last two decades, and this Gentian gig is his best showing of them all, smoking with a potency that's cuttingly supported by his band, and in particular the hard-hitting heftiness of the horn section.
King's sheer lust for entertaining is what drives him, his love of his fans and the accompanying bright lights. There is no frailty in his singing or playing, the old guitar sound is full-bodied, and almost ripping when he launches into the first heartfelt solo of the night. King's robust voice is deepened by humour and strength. When guitarist Dennis Charles and bassman Reginald Richards flank their leader, sitting down, it's an excuse for an extended sequence of almost-surreal banter, as if the band are indulging in a low-key club session. Later, old Belgian comrade Boogie Boy (otherwise known as Paul Ambach) springs onstage for a guest spot, sticking around on the jackhammer keys for a couple of numbers. Many of the expected classics are here, and "When Love Comes To Town" is gratifyingly shorn of its U2 pomp, delivered as a swift roller. At the other end of the scale is Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" (B.B. even jokes about his own mortality), taken into a dispersed zone of near-abstraction. Not surprisingly, he ends this near-two-hour show with "The Thrill Is Gone."