Gent Jazz Festival 2011: Days 1-4
Day Two: July 8, 2011
The first two bands of the day were adequate, but neither of them strayed very far from the perfunctory, both content to play without vibrating the ether too much. The local Quartet Del Cuore were "coached" by Italian bassist Paolo Ghetti, who appeared at the beginning and the end of the set. First, he replaced the outfit's regular bass man, Lieven Van Pee, then to finish, he switched to electric, and the two low-end technicians played together.
Drummer Al Foster and bassist George Mraz led a quartet devoted to the repertoire of departed tenor man Joe Henderson, whether original works, or standards that he regularly revisited. The co-leaders were both regular sidemen to Henderson, and their sympathetic set list included "Beatrice," "Serenity," "Recorda-Me" and "Isotope." Another old Henderson cohort, Fred Hersch, joined Foster and Mraz on piano, and the tenor saxophone position was taken by the least-known member, Eli Degibri. In New York City, this transplanted Israeli is a stalwart of the Smalls jazz den.
They delivered a slick set, but emanated the aura sometimes familiar when a combo might have been travelling, sapped of any delineating energyprofessional, of course, but running through without any ruffles, lacking that special vibration that's always palpable when it's present. This material in particular depends on a wired delivery to inflate its structures-of-potential, to shade its skeletal makings. Degibri might have been the least starry member, but he was responsible for most of the rousing solo fire. Hersch tended to be a touch too wandering in nature, lacking an earthy connection.
It was not a good time for Mraz. He announced midway that he'd just met his bass, but that they were not destined for a lasting relationship. This kind of announcement is very off-putting for an audience, regardless of how accurate his statement was, in terms of the instrument's quality. Apparently, a few days later, on the Euro-festival run, he suffered an accident on an even more miserable scale, breaking his arm.
Foster was a mysterious presence for a while: no amount of seat-shifting could reveal his head, masked behind three large, tilted cymbals. Soon, though, he took up the microphone, perhaps desiring a more genial line of communication with the audience than that chosen by Mraz. The quartet played proficiently, but the missing spark was only confirmed as lost, once the next two sets hurtled into action. We know it when we see it and hear it, immediately, in the hands of Dave Holland and Al Di Meola.
Does Dave Holland ever play a set that's less than excellent? The English bassist and composer supreme always ensures that his various combos perform at the highest level, and they always exude a sense of rapt engagement with material and audience alike. There's something larger-than-mortal about Holland's quintet, emboldened by its longevity, which has produced an environment of risk-taking as opposed to any sort of complacency through familiarity.
Just when I was doubting my receptiveness to jazz tradition, next up was this group, at once continuing the line, but through the conduit of their own ever-individualist compositions. Holland and company made music that was not quite akin to any other, despite descending from the jazz heritage realms. This set was predominantly Holland-composed ("The Eyes Have It," "Ario," "Walkin' The Walk," "Free For All," "Easy Did It"), with just a lone Robin Eubanks tune included ("Sum Of All Parts"), though customarily the other band members get to make more inroads.
Guitarist Al Di Meola is able to satisfy all possible desires. Although sticking to acoustic guitar, all he has to do is discreetly depress an effects button and his axe is transformed into an electric monster, full of fuzzed distortion. Thus, he can radically alter his set's mood, even during the course of a single composition. Lately, DiMeola has been getting more active on the live scene, having only recently delivered a residency with a different edition of his World Sinfonia at New York City's Blue Note club. For this festival date, he augmented the lineup with the Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the pair making their public debut appearance together.
This was a very alternative way to conclude the evening, taking the activity level down to a studied tranquility, consistently altering its textures with virtually all possible player permutations. Solos, duos, and various degrees of the full complement. For much of the time, Di Meola was partnered by fellow acoustic guitarist Kevin Seddiki who kept his strings in their purest state. When the full band was throbbing, accordionist Fausto Beccalossi and drummer/percussionist Gumbi Ortiz were capable of building a charging mass of busyness, particularly the latter, reined in behind a plexiglass screen. Ortiz was banished for much of the time, but this only made his return for strategically bombastic outbursts more powerful. Beccalossi recalled the Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen, particularly when he added ethereal vocalizations to the edges of his bellow-breathing. Around half of the set floated in the opposite direction, with Di Meola or Rubalcaba alone or in duo formation. The resultant variations in palette density played a significant role in the set's dynamism. Energies were exchanged, but not necessarily via a conduit of pulsing or propellant action. The audience was sometimes gripped by a softer embrace. Di Meola seemed to be in a permanently hyped-up state, visibly enthralled by the entire process.