Gent Jazz Festival 2011: Days 1-4
Michel Massot was the most prominent figure in the local Rêve D'Eléphant Orchestra, controlling the low end ranges with his trombone and tuba athleticism. The repertoire was penned by Massot in partnership with the flautist Pierre Bernard, but the rest of the gang were no slouches either, most notably the three-man percussion battalion ranging across the back line (Michelle Debrulle, Etienne Plumer, Stephan Pougin). Besides an improvising jazz vocabulary, this threesome utilized the rhythmic tongues of India, Brazil, Spain and the entire Middle East. They describe their music as jungle, in the old Duke Ellington sense of the word, rather than the UK drum 'n' bass progenitor.
Alain Vankhove trimmed his trumpet with laptop effects, whilst guitarist Benoist Eil was responsible for most of the more extreme serrations in the intricately formed (though often pile-driving) compositions. The music managed to be enquiring at the same time as delivering a strong rhythmic push, merging traditional jazz riffing with extreme electronic texturing, organically supported by hardcore forest-drumming. Their cooking pot was bubbling to just the right temperature, its flavors exquisitely piquant.
The remainder of the evening was handed over to starry Americans, with an attacking triple strike that began with the Terence Blanchard Quintet. The trumpeting leader was in magnanimous mood, shying away from his own normally dominant compositions, and allowing his sidemen to shine. There were tunes by tenor man Brice Winston, pianist Fabian Almazan and old bass colleague, Derrick Hodge. Most of Blanchard's bunch were long-serving regulars, reaping the benefits of an ongoing, deeply-ingrained team mentality. The leader is becoming increasingly interested in his laptop, spending about a third of the set altering his sound to include harmonized thickening or reverb/echo effects. Otherwise, his horn was fiery and cutting. Winston was always impressive, too, the pair forming an unbeatable vanguard. Here, the band had the busy look of fresh arrivals from the tour bus, but in this case that was manifested by a commando-strike purposefulness.
There was the assumption that saxophonist Bill Evans and trumpeter Randy Brecker had invited Medeski, Martin & Wood along for the Soulbop project, but from the way these players were talking onstage it became apparent that MMW were the core, with the horn men along as their guests. Whichever way, this turned out to be a moderately unlikely, but superior, teaming. The concept was to present old school bebop in a funked-up setting, but with MMW handling the grooves, this was inevitably destined for the avant-soul bunker. It was refreshing to witness Evans and Brecker herded into a less predictable corner. This pair is normally so slickly on top of the music stands that they might sometimes run the risk of complacency, as each fires off yet another perfectly formed solo. There was a crackling aura of unpredictability here, as MMW worked its malleable formations, never soloing for a proscribed length, or in a set order. The trio has been gigging together for two decades now, and it's a unique relationship: anything can still happen.
John Medeski looked like he was surprising his own band mates with the ludicrously distorted drama of his melodica solo, as he stalked to the stage-front with his blow-tube dangling out of his mouth, instrument brandished like a keytar. Mostly, he remained surrounded by his organ, synths and electric keys, briefly making a dash for the acoustic piano lurking over at the other side of the stage. Chris Wood's acoustic bass is brutally, er, woody in its thrunging sound, while his electric axe almost becomes a percussion instrument. Billy Martin's pots 'n' gongs array facilitates an amazingly broad vocabulary, from slamming breaks down to rattled pandeiro. Evans pushed the French lingo in his introductions, even though Gent is in the Dutch-speaking, Flemish region of Belgium. His cohorts were openly squirming as he laid on the thickly accented phrases, but at least Evans was making an effort to step outside American English.
Is the reunited Return To Forever really Return To Forever IV? Even Chick Corea didn't seem certain, as the band's Star Wars-style tour banner hung grandly above a stage ranged with core personnel Stanley Clarke (bass) and Lenny White (drums). It's a shame that Al DiMeola had already left town, doubtless headed for another Euro jazzfest. The roster was completed by violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and guitarist Frank Gambale. Corea might be 70 years old, but he was garbed like a teenage street-punk, his slim frame managing to carry off this look quite convincingly. The front line of a towering Clarke and a comparatively midget Ponty certainly gave an idiosyncratic look to the band.
I harbored doubts about how much I was going to enjoy this set, particularly when following 2010's triumphant acoustic Corea set at this very festival. Was this going to be Good Fusion or Bad Fusion? Ultimately, it didn't take RTF long to convince, as its insanely convoluted parts were negotiated with raunchy aplomb. There were few instances of weebly-tweebly-oobly-weeeeg activities, and even when Corea traipsed out such sounds on his Moogly-oogly, they were acceptably intertwined and contrasted with Gambale's almost savagely-toned guitar solos.
Ponty was at his best when playing a basic violin, as his more electrified, sonically-altered solos might just as well have been handled by Corea. Clarke was formidable on his percussive electric bass, and thoughtful on acoustic. The RTF enthusiasm was overwhelming. The acoustic/electric balance was well-judged, defined by whether Corea was sitting at his grand piano or standing in front of his keyboard bank. Corea was a great host, full of absurdist quips, throwaway visual humor and general good-natured attitude. The show climaxed with a lengthy "Romantic Warrior" and Clarke's concise, punchily anthemic "School Days." RTF's two-hour set never wavered in its retro-cosmic course.
Days 1-4 | Days 5-8