Jazz Middelheim 2010
Since last year's festival appearance by the magisterial harmonica player Toots Thielemans, his namesake restaurant at the close-by Crowne Plaza hotel has been shuttered, apparently never to be opened again. There are probably plans afoot for a completely non-jazz café. During his set, I was pondering that, if he so desired, upset in his twilight years, Toots could pervert the mass adoration of his subjects, turning us into a heated mob that could have razed the old restaurant, hauling its black 'n' white portraits of Thielemans aloft, as protesters rioted along the Antwerpian avenues. But no, our local hero is such a gentle soul, his music so poised with jazz sensitivity that instead, he delivered a set with a repertoire very close in feel to that of his showing at the Gent jazzfest a month earlier. This time, though, Toots was accompanied by his regular rhythm team, so more of a linear pulse was allowed to override the proceedings. Enchanting though his set was, it suffered from the preceding volume and arousal of the the World Saxophone Quartet and Aka Moon. It was a challenge to calm the senses following such celebratory feasting.
With this perpetual climaxing, the festival's final day was carrying a heavy burden. Even if a headlining set by Cassandra Wilson was unlikely to beat most of the performances encountered so far, there were still Dave Holland and Chucho Valdés lined up before the singer's closing show. Even the shining weather was about to disperse in a drowning, dogged downpour. First, though, Belgium's own Chris Joris opened up the afternoon. The percussionist was leading his Experience, which also featured the pianist Fré Desmyter. The leader switched between drum set and conga array, forcefully fronted by trumpeter Nico Schepers and saxophonist Frank Vaganée. Joris and company were successfully guiding his music from out of an Afro-Latin core, flecked with the spiritualised sound of late-period John Coltrane.
Bassman Dave Holland has long been concerned with leading his own ensembles of varying sizes, all of them with a prime directive to perform his original compositions. The three-year collaboration with the Spanish flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela marks a very unusual swerving of energy-flow. Yes, the pair's latest Hands album features a healthy quotient of Holland pieces, but our bassist also subsumes himself in the traditional flamenco forms (solea, buleria, etc.), almost becoming a sideman. It was refreshing to discover Holland in such an unfamiliar setting. It was also clear that he has fully immersed himself in flamenco, but whilst retaining the strong personality of his own playing. The festival quintet was almost an exact replication of the album's crew, with Juan Carmona joining the mysterious Bandolero on cajón and various other percussives. The band textures were in constant flux, as various permutations maintained the variety, ranging from dense group thrust to duo sparseness.
A strong aspect of Middelheim's approach is to book acts that even the committed festival attendee will probably relish for their relative rarity. Thus, Archie Shepp, Holland in flamenco state and, lastly, the Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés led the way in this category. Once a frequent European visitor, when he was fronting the mighty Irakere, Valdés has recently become a much more shadowy presence on the international scene. This made the appearance of his Afro-Cuban Messengers triply exciting. Valdés still emanates a powerful aura of firm leadership, though in a different fashion to that of Ahmad Jamal. His large horn- and percussion-heavy group were in the Irakere tradition, but more evocative of that band's hardcore Latin jazz facets. Valdés is physically (and sometimes musically) in the same zone as fellow pianist Randy Weston: tall, long-limbed, authoritative and coolly articulate. Of particular note were the surging tenor saxophone solos of Carlos Manuel Miyares Hernandez.