Gent Jazz Festival 2009: Days 1-5
New York pianist Fred Hersch's expanded trio sits apart from all the vocal business of these first two nights, and this difference acts in his favour, creating a marked musical contrast. Normally these compositions would be contemplative and becalmed, but Hersch upends the boat by inviting hornmen Tony Malaby and Ralph Alessi to expand the sonic range. These are two soloists who are known for heated escalations, and their steaming intensity nestles almost comfortably beside the trio's luminescent progressions, creating a gentle sense of tension. Hersch is unruffled.
The correct credentials are in place for Sing The Truth: The Music Of Nina Simone. The difficult departed one's longtime musical director Al Schackman leads the band and acts as Master Of Anecdotes, whilst Simone's daughter Lisa is one of the four singers parading in turn with their reinterpretations. Lisa is enigmatically known simply as Simone, flanked by Dianne Reeves, Angelique Kidjo and Lizz Wright, which is a rather impressive vocal front line for any production. Strangely, this foursome don't offer any radically varied approaches, but instead emanate different reflected facets of strong personality and deeply resonant tones. All four are pulling in the concentrated forces of authority, beaming stern gospel-aware soul to the nether regions of the marquee.
Trio featuring Bill Frisell & Gary Bartz/The Randy Weston African Rhythms Trio/Aka Moon
The songs that Simone tackled were always colonised by her forceful personality, lending a wide range of material a unified voice. Fittingly, Simone herself (the younger) is the most extroverted performer, dominating on an exaggerated scale. There's a slight element of the overly organised, as each singer rolls out in the same order, repeated in symmetrical fashion. Nevertheless, this is the only way to ensure democracy. As Schackman switches between guitar and vibraphone, then paints vivid images of his old employer in-between songs, there's a strong feeling of the revue capturing the essence of Nina Simone's life and repertoire. Even though your scribe is certainly not a Simone disciple, this production seduced the fingers into an itch for re-investigation of her oeuvre.
July 10: The McCoy Tyner
Aka Moon are one of Belgium's finest combos, and are now almost qualifying as veterans, having been together since 1992. The saxophone-bass-drums trio cram their all into a 75 minute set, negotiating tightly formed unison themes in an electrified hard funk mode that's reminiscent of Prime Time and Five Elements (Steve Coleman was an early mentor). They sound free and spontaneous, but this is within a base of complex repeating patterns, skewed, angular attacks and sinuous riffing. Alto saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol squalls, wails, rattles and rushes, leaping around the electric bass-glue emissions of Michel Hatzigeorgiou, ramming up against the detailed clatter of drummer Stephane Galland. One of the most engaging stretches arrives when Hatzigeorgiou sets up a nest of samples, extending his output into an almost symphonic layering. The teasing builds until his bandmates hurl themselves into a run of high speed collisions. It's compacted, breathless and sleek, high-precision with a ragged texture.
New York pianist Randy Weston's core band is his trio, a long-running collaboration with bassist Alex Blake and percussionist Neil Clarke. They're now at a point where their collective grasp is intuitive, where they know exactly how far to push each other, and how best to skate across the dynamics set up by Weston's classic compositions. His repertoire still revolves around a key cluster of pieces, many of them penned over fifty years ago. This doesn't feel staid, though, as each time this trio (or his quintet) performs, the tunes sound like fresh explorations, substantial frameworks for chance encounters. Weston's flourishes often stand alone, as is the case with the bass and percussion solos. The bewhiskered Blake sings whilst he thrashes his strings, hoisting his bass almost into a guitar position, and savaging his instrument with great chording strums. Blood is expected to pour! Weston's Africanisms are perfectly infused. It's not so much that his music recalls any specific folkloric style: it's more of an Afro-American combination of varied essences.