Gent Jazz Festival 2010: Days 1-5
The Gent Jazz Festival
July 7-11, 2010
It's now customary to expect the biggest players in the jazz universe to alight each night at the Gent Jazzfest. This massively historic Belgian city provides a beautiful setting for the music, with its Bijloke site situated just outside the main centre, in a universe of its own making. The large marquee set-up is now an established success, oscillating between seated rows for the first week's hardcore jazz sequence, and then converting to a standing dancefloor scenario for the second week's concentration on the peripheries of jazz. This year, that meant Brazilian music, Portuguese fado, jazztronica, soul-poetics and blues-rock bombast. Each night, the area surrounding the main marquee sprawls outwards with bars and food stalls, the imbibers and grazers entertained by a series of mood-enhancing DJs. Humid heat pervaded, with a downpour descending on only one night. Better to be damp with sweat secretions than chemical rain, surely?
July 7: Norah Jones/DjanGo!/De Beren Gieren
Is Norah Jones a producer of jazz music? Well, not really. Maybe in the beginning, her output could be deemed soul-pop-jazz, but her current repertoire is more descended from American country music, as if she's modelling herself on Rosanne Cash. She's now playing more guitar than piano. The only way in which Jones broke any rules was to ditch the seating set-up on the first night of the festival. Traditionally, the first weekend is devoted to sitting-down, ear-cocking sounds. Musically, Jones absolutely does not transgress, on any level. This is a reasonable enough state-of-affairs if transgression is not a required activity. Perhaps the word is too strong, but I'm using it to underline the complete lack of jarring events during her set. Jones and her band are perfectly skilled practitioners, but everything runs much too smoothly, to the point of total inertia. It didn't help that, admittedly due to his lack of listening history with the Jones output, this reviewer was situated way back in the rear, the stage only visible as a tiny rectangle. Unless the viewer was seduced into watching the large screens flanking each of its sides. Your reviewer threw his television set out of the window long ago, and therefore seeks to watch 'reality' rather than digitised images. Nevertheless, the marquee was jammed with Jones supporters, and on a certain level this popularity cannot be challenged. For the majority, it was a fulfilling show, even though there's virtually zero audience communication from Jones.
Earlier in the evening, there was the usual opportunity to catch some indigenous Belgian jazz. With one or two headliners each day who are alighting from other countries (mostly the USA), the opening slots are customarily dedicated to local talent. De Beren Gieren are a trio comprising Fulco Ottervanger (piano), Lieven Van Pee (bass) and Simon Segers (drums). They were the winners of last year's Young Jazz Talent Competition, at this very festival. They make a carefully studied placement of notes, one moment coolly concentrated, the next flashing with angular motion. A micro-number stated its case, then the following piece gradually inhabited the space, growing from a soft padding, as periodic emphases were made, creeping up to a cluster of pointedness. There would be sudden percussive blows, then softness once more. The following tune was more direct, even climaxing with trade-offs between the piano and drums. Thelonious Monk might be mentioned as Ottervanger's greatest influence, but we suspect that he secretes many more pianistic crushes, and not only from within the jazz sphere.
The rest of the world has been celebrating the centenary of Django Reinhardt's birth, so it's no surprise that this is happening in the country of the great guitarist's birth. Called simply DjanGo!, this project involves a teeming ensemble who were also celebrating the release of their second album. Besides the three guitarists (one of whom is Fapy Lafertin), there's a three-piece horn section that contributes a flash of modernisation to the old gypsy foundation. The presence of bandleader Koen De Cauter's soprano saxophone is particularly unusual in its melding with the chugging guitar parts. The complete combination reeks of Reinhardt, but also sounds like a modern day conception, with its parade of jauntily speeding solos. De Cauter is also the head of the family, with the band rejoicing in the presence of his three sons, on clarinet, guitar and bass. Koen De Cauter and Fapy Lafertin have been playing together since 1975.
July 8: Ornette Coleman/Pierre Vaiana/The Kurt Elling Quartet/The Greg Houben Trio/Raw Kandinsky
Every afternoon, at the entrance to the festival site, there was a freebie performance by mostly local acts. Raw Kandinsky are not as bereft of etiquette as their name implies, but guitarist Johan De Pue regularly breaks out into a scuzzed soloing free-fall, his guitar sound cautiously abraded. They were all besuited, all wearing red-and-white striped plastic ties. Partially alluding to the rocking adventures of the current British youth-jazz vanguard, Raw Kandinsky can also surprise with a confident swerve into John Scofield reverb-fields. Bassman Thomas Pol relies wisely upon his light-slap thrumming style, where he employs a loosened, splayed hand with great sensitivity. There are traces of reggae, funk and light Arabic melodic figures, indicating the band's preference for genre openness.
The Greg Houben Trio have an unusual line-up, with their leader trumpeting (well actually concentrating on flügelhorn for most of the duration), joined by guitarist Quentin Liégeois and bassman Sam Gerstmans. They craft a mellow, intimate chamber sound, savouring a nimble relationship between each other. Houben also sings here and there, his selections very much influenced by his time in Brazil. The Portuguese language suits the dappled delicacy of the music.
A revelation: I'd heard recordings of Kurt Elling, and even live radio broadcasts, but this was our first meeting in a concert marquee. Such is the singer's communicative capacity. One of his shows, even in front of thousands, seems strangely like a fireside recital. Given the day's tropical conditions, the stage was probably much hotter than his fireplace. Elling was at ease in the heat. He's so old school that he actually donned his jacket before beginning the set, as it was hanging on a microphone stand next to Laurence Hobgood's piano. Elling is a formalist, but he's also cool and coasting. Whilst the other band members were taking their solos, he was wafting himself with a bona fide, real-deal, unfolding fan. Elling's technique is made clearer once he's seen in action. He uses his lips and entire mouth cavity to alter the sound of his voice, and control precisely the shaping of his phrases. It's almost like a resonant throat-singing technique. The voice is married to the action, whether it's mouth action, or the wider platform of his hand gestures, facial expressions and general body language. It's like a theatrical display, where sound and vision are equally important. The guitarist John McLean was guesting, but he didn't make much of an impression beside Elling and Hobgood's dash. The songbook was centred around the recent Dedicated To You album, which revisited the old John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman saxophone'n'singing collaboration.
Pierre Vaiana is a Belgian soprano saxophonist who is steeped in the folk music of Sicily. Who better to join him for this mission than pianist Salvatore Bonafede, who actually hails from that island. The trio was completed by another islander, the Sardinian bassist Manolo Cabras. Vaiana's playing is akin to the garrulous babbling of a small stream, although Bonafede is locked in the cloister by comparison, a much sterner, more reserved presence. He seemed more open at the end of the performance, as he relaxed his concentration. This was playfully darting, though intense, music. A refined blend.
Nowadays, Ornette Coleman makes a shuffling progress onto the stage, and tentatively perches himself on his stool. There is absolutely no problem with his lung power, though. The characteristically staccato themes of his music are navigated with fleet accuracy and unstoppable momentum, always with a joyously singing tone. Ornette's music has an involved complexity, but it's also dancing folksong, sleazy blues and heartfelt courtship twittering, often during the same number. His sound on violin is more serrated and radical, whilst his trumpeting involves a fragile dusting of silvery clouds. There seems to be a very natural intuition in place to dictate just where in a song he'll pick up each instrument to make what might be a very brief illustrative statement.
Ornette is completely in touch with the cat's cradle twin-bass set-up of Tony Falanga (acoustic) and Al MacDowell (electric). Falanga prefers to bow sonorously, whilst MacDowell picks like a bluesman, using fingers and thumb to trace cascading note-clouds. They began with "Tomorrow Is The Question" and climaxed with "Lonely Woman," with an abundance of part-acoustic Prime Time in-between. Denardo is something else entirely. He often appears to be going his own way, though he always arrives exactly at each cue-point with the other three. He works in short-time tectonic templates, jacking from spidery blurring to 4/4 rock clumping. He's a speed freak, although always highly sensitised. Like a freshly uncaged beast. The music seems untethered at the same time as being formulated into exact gushes of pattern. It's a disembodied, aerated funk. Ornette has a serious gaze, but there are frequent fleeting smiles of pleasure when the audience displays its enthusiasm. There's a genuine gratitude evident all around when the crowd gives its endlessly rapturous applause at the end. Yes, this was a response to a great performance, but it was also a recognition of a complete life achievement. This was the first gig they'd played in almost a year, and the band were already cookin,' no doubt keenly anticipating their summer tour.
July 9: The Chick Corea Freedom Band/The Vijay Iyer Trio/The Christian Mendoza Group/The Timescape Project
The most immediately noticeable factor in the driving nature of the Timescape Project was their drummer Xavier Rogé, who was constantly maintaining a lightly propulsive touch, polyrhythms abounding as he danced around the drumheads. The remaining line-up involved guitar, bass (both electric) and saxophone.
Also living in Gent (though born in Peru) is pianist Christian Mendoza. His pieces are compositionally sturdy, but contain a frisson of freedom. The horns strive towards periodic chaos, but also observe a painterly restraint. Alto saxophonist Ben Sluijs was joined by reedsman (mainly clarinet) Joachim Badenhorst, the latter spending most of his time in New York City of late. The globe is obviously shrinking.
A naturally cautious resistance mechanism springs into gear following the almost too universal acclaim (and resultant awards) for the Vijay Iyer Trio. The world is already over-populated by the piano/bass/drums set-up. This means that artists working in this format have to strive harder. At least as far as this listener is concerned. The set was understandably still focused on the recent Historicity album, so the bitter medicine of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson covers was sweetened by the inclusion of Julius Hemphill's "Dogon AD." This is certainly a deliberate stance on the part of Iyer, a levelling of the standards plain. The pianist might market himself as a hardcore improviser, but this doesn't mean that he follows the path of instant abstraction. Iyer is concerned with melodic development as his core activity, so there is always a logical pathway created, even if it winds towards getting lost. The trio will always find their home in the end. Drummer Marcus Gilmore's predilection for various puffball drumsticks added an evocative sustained rumble to much of the exploratory soundscaping. Like Kurt Elling, Iyer is an old-fashioned formalist, but he's an even younger example of such subversive rebellion. Indeed, he's almost like the new Dave Brubeck on the block...
The line-up for Chick Corea's Freedom Band acts as an inspired multi-generational all-star power-summit. Drummer Roy Haynes springs still sprightly from the bebop source, whilst bassman Christian McBride and alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett are equally fluent in the languages of jazz, fusion, funk and soul. Meanwhile, Corea has always split his mind between the electric and the acoustic, though in this combo he leaves his synths at home.
Corea will frequently gush out extended lines of mercurial abandon, but he also knows about the art of dramatic spacing, asymmetrical phrasing, pausing for micro-silences, then weighing in with a sudden gabble of notes. The length of his statements are constantly varying. The band looked very relaxed, like they'd had ample time to inhabit the city and gird their loins for the gig. They quickly territorialised the stage, and indeed the whole festival, in a completely confident manner which is rarely witnessed.
Corea and Haynes were soon locking tight in a rapid exchange of rhythmic strikes, egging each other on, until McBride would deliver one of his largely unaccompanied solos. The speed and precision of his fingering was staggering to behold, and this is at the service of the music itself. Yes, he's showing off, but he's also telling a melodic tale. Garrett was so overcome by the energy that his solos would often climax with a barking, honking eruption, as if he couldn't find any other way to reach his peak. The octogenarian Haynes can join Paul Motian in the ranks of sticksmen who appear to be half of their real age. His stamina and strength remain remarkable. His accents include great heart-jumping explosions and some of the most delicate cymbal strokes possible.
The band's 90 minute set was compelling enough, but when it looked for a while as though they wouldn't be playing an encore, suddenly Haynes started rapping, then shifted to the drums and a gradual momentum took over for what turned into a completely spontaneous James Brown jam, for the next 30 minutes. It began with "Get On The Good Foot" and was then overtaken by "Sex Machine." Due to the massive amount of resourcefulness to draw from, this managed to sustain its quite remarkable vigour for a multi-phased rolling funkathon, which saw some unheard-of permutations as Garrett, McBride and Haynes passed the MC relay baton. Corea took a drum solo. Vijay Iyer took up a boogie woogie position at the other end of the piano and at one stage he, Corea and Hiromi were all sharing the same keyboard. She was the extra guest-member of Stanley Clarke's band, due to appear the following day, but it became clear at their gig the next night that the other players jumping up on stage were the drummer Ronald Bruner Jr and keyboardist Ruslan Sirota. By this time, the other members of Iyer's trio were also involved, with Marcus Gilmore taking up the funk-step, whilst bassist Stephan Crump soloed and vocalised simultaneously. The audience swiftly became crazed, urged into mass handclapping and singing, with Corea guiding the syncopations with his own off-beat palm-strikes.
It was very much like a jazz dream, but this was a waking reality. An absolutely incredible set turned into a massive marquee party. We might be accustomed to experiencing this kind of loosened-up session in a bar or club setting, with less stellar musicians involved, but this was the ultimate jazz superjam, on a mega-scale.
July 10: Toots Thielemans/The Stanley Clarke Band/The Julian Lage Group
Perhaps because of some confusion with his fellow guitarist Lage Lund, I'd filed Julian Lage away in my mind as a mellow-inclined painter of washes, having only heard a few of his tunes on the radio. Witnessing the (Julian) Lage band onstage turned out to be something of a revelation. It's always invigorating to see a band who are still slightly in awe of the large-crowd festival experience. There was a palpable sense that the Gent audience were discovering the stripling Lage too, both sides extending their tentacles and liking what they smelt/felt. This made the band work harder, genuinely communicating with music that was exceptionally entertaining, without losing its bite. The leader was joined by saxophonist Daniel Blake, celloman Aristides Rivas, bassist Jorge Roeder and percussionist Tupac Mantilla.
Mantilla had his percussion arranged in kit fashion, with an abundance of small Afro-Latin drums and North African/Middle Eastern frame drums. He was also using two cajons, one in bass drum position, with a foot-pedal, the other slapped in the traditional manner. Mantilla was so enthusiastic that he couldn't contain himself any longer, rushing over to use Roeder's upright bass as an extension of his kit. Lage would keep up the dynamism by prompting several in-band permutations, setting up fleeting duos or trios.
Lage employs a very metallic snap to his strings, playing with a percussive attack. There's almost no reverb, and his axe approaches the sound of a dobro. Indeed, there is a strong country aroma, with shades of Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and Willie Nelson to the sharp-picked runs. Lage embraces a multitude of American roots influences, even travelling across the ocean to the land of flamenco. He and his band emanated an unbridled enthusiasm, their mostly original compositions burning up the marquee.
Another revelation: this was the first time I've caught Stanley Clarke, despite several available opportunities. Perhaps this was due to a lack of enthusiasm for a certain imagined brand of fusion. We'd already had the chance to see all of the band except Clarke himself, at the Chick Corea mega-jam the evening before, even if we didn't realise it at the time. Then, only the Japanese pianist Hiromi (Uehara) was immediately recognisable. The rest of Clarke's combo is Ruslan Sirota (keyboards) and Ronald Bruner Jr (drums). All of them were certainly warming up the night before. Clarke himself started out and finished up on the electric bass, but for much of the set he selected his acoustic upright.
When playing electric, Clarke throws his head right back in a deep-toned ecstatic abandon. When turning to the acoustic he naturally assumes a more traditional, introverted posture. The pieces were rife with structural unpredictability. Soft interludes would break up the aggressive sparring between Hiromi and Bruner. The pianist was almost in debt to Jerry Lee Lewis, standing up, as if she couldn't be contained by the strictures of a mere piano stool. She was shaking her mane, playing with an immense physicality she hammered and riffed at high velocity, complexity unfettered.
Clarke's band formation is unusual, even inspired. He promotes the twin keyboard frontline as a contrasting vanguard, Hiromi's acoustic engaged in an athletic exchange with Sirota's electric keys. Indeed, there could have been even more capitalising on such contrast if Sirota had utilised a greater variety of exaggerated electric distortions. As it was, he kept too close to the sound of a mild Fender Rhodes for most of the set, making a greater mark when he deployed a surging organ sound on "3 Wrong Notes." Bruner had already proven himself as an arch funkateer during the Freedom Band jam, but he went on to expand on a vocabulary of slashing snare hits and cutting cymbal time-keeping. They also charged headlong through "Paradigm Shift," from the same 2009 Jazz In The Garden album.
Clarke is an extroverted groover on electric, but when playing acoustic he's borderline subtle, mulling over thrum and texture, at times the most reserved member of his own combo. Given the thrilling theatrics of the others, this was perhaps a sensibly sensitive stance. The gregarious warmth also extended to Clarke's good-humoured between-tune announcements.
Toots Thielemans is an artist with international stature, but in his native Belgium this near-nonagenarian is not surprisingly revered. He took the headline position above Clarke, and was welcomed by an enraptured audience. The only problem was that Lage and Clarke before him had delivered euphoric blow-outs that forced a rapid re-adjustment to Thieleman's softly ballad-based trio setting. Thielemans provided a reflective end to this Saturday night.
The trio was completed by pianist Kenny Werner and guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, making intimate music with a balanced, considered tread. The potentially hyperactive Werner was at his most gentle, even if his flow was typically swift. With a synthesiser mounted atop the piano, he shook out a silken blanket of string section sounds to near-cheesy effect. The presence of Rio's Castro-Neves encouraged a Brazilian sub-section, with songs by Chico Buarque and Antonio Carlos Jobim, the guitarist taking vocals on the latter's "Waters Of March." They also played Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" and George Gershwin's "Summertime," followed by a complete history of Frank Sinatra, swished through in less than five minutes, as Werner's 'strings' splashed their sugary droplets.
July 11: The Pat Metheny Group/Odean Pope/Jungle Boldie/Radiokukaorkest/The Frederik Leroux Trio
The most adventurous of the indigenous afternoon freebie sets came from the Frederik Leroux Trio. His soloing full of angular tension and pointy geometry, the guitarist leader's record collection doubtless includes discs by David Torn, Wayne Krantz and Marcs Ribot or Ducret.
Radio Kukaorkest concern themselves with chamber jazz colourations, featuring a line-up of clarinet, cello, accordion and bass. Half of the ensemble are members of the wildly creative Flat Earth Society, who are probably Belgium's most striking jazz export. When I saw Radiokukaorkest in Brugge (2009), clarinettist Tom Wouters spent more time at the drumkit, providing a dynamic contrast in the band's music. For this set, he remained mostly on the clarinet, resulting in a more introspective, texture-based group sound. The brief burst of percussing injected some vitality into a performance that was a touch too inward-looking.
One of the most direct combos of the entire festival were Jungle Boldie from the Netherlands. If we can call a love of classic 1970s free music 'direct.' It wasn't quite as simple as that, once the trio bounded into their rendition of "St. James Infirmary Blues." Forceful blowing from reedsman Maarten Orstein didn't lessen the opportunities for solo action from bassist Tony Overwater and drummer Wim Kegel. This was an energising throwback. Extremity as near-nostalgia from a threesome that's been playing together for over two decades.
Very much unlike the primed-for-action Freedom Band, saxophonist Odean Pope's group gave the appearance of being harried when making their stage entrance, as if they'd arrived at the airport two hours earlier and hadn't quite collected themselves for coordinated action. That might not have been the case, but Pope initially looked like he was struggling to marshal his forces. Solos were tentative and themes uncertainly engaged. Fortunately, it didn't take the all-star assemblage long to settle themselves. With Jeff 'Tain' Watts (drums) driving a front-line that included the hot trumpet spearhead of Eddie Henderson and David Weiss, this was almost inevitable. Pope was soloing far more frequently and powerfully than is the case when he's directing his Saxophone Choir. A particular high point arrived with "To The Roach," which pays tribute to Pope's old bandleader, sticksman Max Roach.
The hardcore jazz part of the festival came to a close with the Pat Metheny Group. When the guitarist played in Gent two years ago, he delivered an impressive set, but this showing with his regular combo lost control and descended into the bad-fusion morass. Unlike good-fusion, this is a form of the music where the listener is bludgeoned by distinctly non-organic pyrotechnics that refuse to connect in any emotional, visceral or sonically interesting way. It's obviously a personal thing, as the hordes of Metheny acolytes in the crowd were applauding their favourite greatest hits within seconds of these leviathan tunes striking up their synth-loaded fanfares.
Rarely do I witness such tedious blandness. I admire Metheny's attitude, and believe that he's genuinely questing for new relationships and musical experiences. He sounds like a very articulate interviewee, whose intentions are to be applauded. But, his guitar sound, in this setting, was cranked up to a meaningless stadium-scale howl that drowned out the efforts of longtime keyboardist Lyle Mays, bassman Steve Rodby and drummer Antonio Sanchez. These cohorts were relatively sensitive, and it was almost a relief when Metheny's baying complexity ceased for a small stretch. It's just a shower of virtuosity. It didn't mean anything. It's out of touch with the earth. The best part of the set was when Metheny brought out his elaborate multi-headed, many-stringed harp-guitar, to play an unaccompanied solo. This was the point where the ears pricked up and the sonic stage was inhabited by unfamiliar gestures.