Gent Jazz Festival 2011: Days 1-4
Gent Jazz Festival
July 7-10, 2011
There has been a radical change to the Gent Jazz Festival site since last year. The historic Bijloke zone remains historic, but it now has a new concrete 'n' iron-flavored museum and café (STAM) grafted onto the older buildings, featuring a grand entrance promenade. It's impossible to miss the festival's gateway, standing as it now does on a major street intersection. Just about the only negative comment to be made is regarding the strange pattern of slabs which greet the visitor, alternated with thin strips of grass, thereby forcing arrivals to negotiate the path in an ungainly crab-walk. Architecture in the head, when it should be down in the toes.
Upon entering the open-plan jazzfest area, a feeling of disorientation pervaded. Due to the situation of the new entrance, many of the familiar elements have been subversively twisted into fresh relationships, the main marquee tent swiveled around completely, the food and bar areas enjoying a new placement. The chief loss has been the former incorporation of trees at the stage-front and in the aisles, which used to provide a quaint natural atmosphere. Following a few hours of scent-laying, it was time to get acquainted with the new locations, and old head-maps were already beginning their gradual erasure. Such is the nature of change.
Day One: July 7, 2011
Every day of the festival opens with a free pair of sets by rising local talents, effectively playing in competition. Last year's winner was saxophonist Nathan Daems, and so he got to open up on the main stage on the 2011 festival's first evening. Leading a quintet that, local to Gent, was formed in 2007, Daems was joined by pianist Fulco Ottervanger, guitarist Bart Vervaeck, bassman Sebastiaan Gommeren and drummer Simon Segers. The group proceeded to deliver an assured set, with the leader favoring his main tenor horn over the soprano, soloing with a purring, fulsome tone. When choosing the soprano, Daems was more of a spiky presence. Ottervanger acted as a significant dueling partner, whether on acoustic piano or organ-keyboard, or giving his electronics knobs a visually obvious twist. His knees have a tendency to rise up alternately, heralding each fresh power-burst on the organ. At strategic points, they would all hit in tandem, underlining a forceful riff with the granite touch of a rock combo, Vervaeck's guitar neck wielded like a sledgehammer. Such movement between jazz flow, rock weight, and Middle Eastern dappling lent the quintet a notable sense of diversity.
In most lands, the French reed man Michel Portal is rarely sighted on a stage. This was a prime opportunity to witness this veteran jazz and classical player, leading a quintet that had an unpredictable freshness to its lineup. Besides the leader on saxophone and clarinet, there was that rapidly ascendant Californian trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, unruly Serbian keyboardist Bojan Z (a handy shortening of Zulfikarpasic), and omnipresent New York drummer Nasheet Waits. Only bassist Harish Ragahvan lacked supergrouper stature, but he's usually a sideman to Akinmusire.
Nearly all of the works in the set were Portal originals. At first, he appeared grouchy and preoccupied, but Portal's curt hand signals and dark glances seemed to metamorphose during the set, as he visibly immersed himself in the music and presumably loosened up, gathering confidence and letting himself float and surf on the band's dynamic waves. Bojan Z was particularly startling, as he approached the keys from a slanted angle, in relation to the jazz majority, further individualizing an already creative combo. Another key feature of this group was the highly effective contrast between Akinmusire's crystal-knife scatter shots and Portal's woodily organic throatiness.
This was the second time catching tenor man Sonny Rollins during the last year, and his energies remain undiminished. For him, it almost seems like playing a gig is an interruption to his doubtless still intensive practice regime. His latest band has been given yet more tweaks to its lineup, but remarkably, it's responsible for the overall groove structure, set up as a backdrop for what's almost a constant stream of Rollins invention. A few griping remarks from a minority handful of punters could be heard, along the lines of his tunes being of an uncomplicated nature, prompting slowly developing lines that were easier to negotiate. Well, let's get this straight! Rollins is an eighty year-old man who blows with the vigor of a thirty year-old. Big hair, flapping shirt! His solos are of mammoth duration, evolving gradually and travelling on a thrilling gradient towards sonic gratification. On a visual level, yes, he might stalk the stage like a lost crustacean, forever looking like the weight of his horn is pulling him face-wards to the ground. But he never does fall, and his lungs belong to another creature entirely, like maybe those of a whale.
Last time, Russell Malone was the new guitar inductee, but for this gig Peter Bernstein was onboard, and was responsible for just about the only other (smaller-duration) solos, rising up above the funky rhythmic flow. Speaking of which, it was instructive to keep one eye on drummer Kobe Watkins, whose dense patterns could be described as organic/robotic, as his tightly-sprung hi-hat sizzle shifted accents against a rubbery metronome. This was jazz of a minimalist nature, devoted to the pulse, the repetition.
In the beginning, there were sound problems. Rollins had at least two clip-on microphones attached to his horn, but his emissions were still cutting out, too quiet or corralled into one side of the speaker-stacks. The sound engineers were soon mobilized, though, and the mix settled down into general thrust-mode. Even so, at times, Rollins could have been louder compared to the rest of the band. He stomped off at the end, as if in a hurry to get to another gig, or maybe to continue blowing in his dressing room. It seems like the solo is one endless solo, and his festival sets represent a finite window through which the crowd cam observe a particular day's progress.