Jazz Middelheim 2010
The spirit of John Coltrane dominated this opening evening, as Joe Lovano guested with the regular McCoy Tyner Trio. The pianist is a magisterial presence rather than a showy dominator, or detailed attacker. He flows, he floats, dapples, and orchestrates on the hoof. The tune selections seemed to be an object of spontaneous discussion. It was Lovano and drummer Eric Gravath who provided the earthly delights. Structurally, there was much predictability, as the soloing routine was repeated. Gravath was tightly constricted and inwardly aggressive, his solos clipped and curt, short and full of detonating intensity, without relinquishing a sensitivity to timbre. Lovano could have been physically louder in the spread. I'm developing a theory that the clip-on microphone doesn't always scoop up the sound as much as an old-school device.
The festival's second day began with the Jeroen Herzeele Quartet, roughing up in a manner which was once favoured by Archie Shepp. The Belgian tenor man's high energy free jazz blowing gouted forth in urgent rushes. The French bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel has been battling with illness, but even though he now appears frail, his playing is as strong as ever, as he offered up a series of singing, resonant solos. The Italian drummer Giovanni Barcella (lately a Belgian resident) has something in his playing that recalls the style of British sticksman John Stevens. Pianist Fabian Fiorini rolled out a hard cascade of notes. The quartet's flow is very natural, expressive and arresting. The choice of Steve Lacy's "As Usual" was sublime. Coltrane's "Leo" provided a sunburst finish, as Herzeele faced off with Barcella, each pushing the other on to greater efforts. Horns were locked, then splintered fatally. The conclusions to each piece might have been frequently a touch too ragged, but this was a small carp for such a raging display.
The pianist Ahmad Jamal is another artist whose demeanour belies his age. At 80 years, he's impish, lively and dominant, exuding a forceful charisma as he pointedly directs his sidemen. This is a workin' band! Herlin Riley (drums), Manolo Badrena (percussion) and James Cammack (bass) are a stable unit, accurately barnstorming with precise attention to dynamics. Jamal is a natural, possibly even belligerent leader, sharply prompting solos from his team. It's probably a benign belligerence, as Jamal is also regularly caught chuckling as he enjoys each staccato arrangement. He loves the sudden, emphatic strike. Badrena is an extremely resourceful asset to the band, his skins sensitively tuned and exact in their melodic deployment. He ranges from congas to small hand drums, chimes and voice. Jamal combined newer compositions with pieces that stretched right back to the beginning of his recording career. He also mixes an almost classically-influenced jazz with a bullish funk sensibility. Jamal would stand, observing his players whilst they soloed, as if in judgment of their prowess. He's always wired, with his youthful energy, even when not actually playing. He put McCoy Tyner under a dim light, when comparing these particular Middelheim festival showings.
This weekender boasted a remarkable number of the surviving jazz titans. The Wayne Shorter Quartet closed out the second evening. This is even more of a working band than Jamal's. Their rapport has been heightening over a decade's worth of intensive study. A decade of intensive playfulness, too. Drummer Brian Blade was in a violent mood. The Shorter approach is to play a seamless piece of music for most of his set, turning composition into a large-scale edifice of logical sonic evolution. There was a procession of themes, sub-themes, phrases, gestures, moods and degrees of motion. Shorter himself almost adopts the methods of an advanced noodler, as he embellishes whilst the other three players involve themselves with glacial structuring. There was something in the band chemistry on this particular evening that resulted in a harsher result than the usual Shorter experience. Pianist Danilo Pérez was hammering hard, much less sensitised than is his usual way. Shorter was concentrating on the tenor saxophone, only unveiling his soprano towards the set's climax. He projects an almost childlike wonderment at the nature of his own music, as if perpetually surprised and gratified by the sounds that emanate from this quartet.