Gent Jazz Festival 2011: Days 5-8
Days 1-4 | Days 5-8
Gent Jazz Festival
July 14-17, 2011
The festival's second chunk customarily embraced music that was sympathetic to jazz, but moved into the territories of roots, rock, pop, soul, electronica, R&B and African music. All of these forms are frequent jazz bedfellows, as progenitors and descendants alike. So, after a three-day respite, the second long weekend of the Gentfest ran through another four days of strong and varied programming.
Of course, the jazz ratio rule wasn't as simple as just described. Due to the vagaries of availability, artists might cross over these set parameters. The Thursday night line-up began with a sturdy jazz presence, opening with a pair of Belgium's most famed players. Well, guitarist Philip Catherine was technically born in London, but his father was Belgian. He led a quartet which concentrated on the Cole Porter songbook, so this was decidedly one of Catherine's mellower projects. The smartly-dressed piano/bass/drums team addressed the songs in keeping with the similarly-garbed leader's fluid, golden-hued soloing style. This was a long distance away from some of the guitarist's more rock-inspired friction tactics, still heard sometimes even in recent years. Porter's songs are timeless, but this was a composer choice that seemed somewhat unimaginative when pondering the vast attention his output has garnered over the decades. Regardless, that didn't prevent Catherine's set from being an attractively shimmering mood-shaper, in a quietly introverted way.
The audience was about to be snapped out of its collective trance, as Belgian pianist Jef Neve took to the stage. His entire stance exuded an extroverted entertainer quality, while at the same time being uncompromising in his pointillist attack. The set was an extended example of articulate improvising, its micro-details forcing an exuberant spell of excitement on the crowd. Neve gave his entire being over to the music, once again bringing his own trio out following a run of appearances at this festival in other configurations. Drummer Teun Verbruggen is a longtime member, but the new-ish bassman Ruben Samama has now become closely grafted onto the existing root.
In 2009, Angélique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright brought their Sing The Truth project to this festival, paying tribute to the achievements of Nina Simone. Not that they're necessarily obsessed with death, but this fresh (re)incarnation is dedicated to songs popularized by a trio of recently departed singers. Miriam Makeba, Abbey Lincoln and Odetta make up a stylistically disparate threesome, although all of them were deeply involved with adding social observation to popular song. The spotlighted singers were sufficiently starry, but their band boasted a clutch of significant jazz players, including pianist Geri Allen, guitarist Romero Lubambo, bassman James Genus and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. Kidjo was easily the singer who emanated the highest heat levels, doubtless inflamed by that very day being her birthday, celebrated with several members of her family who live around Belgium. She was a hyperactive, nimbly dancing child, despite being just over five decades old. Wright operated on a much deeper level, projecting her lowdown voice under the feet of her listeners. Reeves was more conventionally bluesy, gospelly and soulful, but both women paled behind Kidjo's sheer enthusiasm, dynamically sweeping range and theatrical projection, particularly when she roused the entire marquee with a spirited walkabout.
Danish singer/pianist Agnes Obel was easily the most enticing artist on the Friday night. She's much bigger in Belgium than in many lands, and was indeed presented at set's end with a gold disc for sales of her recent single, "Riverside." The mixture of a 'special offer' ticket price, and Obel's opening-set presence ensured a massive stream of punters at a very early stage of the evening, so much so that the now-seatless venue was so packed that the onsite video screens almost became a necessity. Accompanied only by the cellist Anne Ostsee, Obel shaped an extremely intimate chamber music that sounded quite incongruous when consumed at such a distance. Fortunately, the audience was reasonably respectful towards songs that would be best heard in a tiny theater. Obel did well at projecting her closeness.
The Saturday and Sunday line-ups were generally far stronger than the Thursday and Friday rosters. The chief exception was Nouvelle Vague, who opened on Saturday. These French folks garnered full marks for engagement with the local crowd, and for an overall spunky delivery, but the band's philosophy of targeting pop and rock classics for their personalized, kitschy treatments became a transparent amusement after a few songs. Joy Division, New Order, Blondie and The Dead Kennedys were just a handful of their choicessome more obvious than others, others more redundant than some. Of late, they've been selecting more obscure French numbers, and imposing a more obviously centralized band style. The outfit isn't as sophisticated as it would like to think, but having passed this comment, it must be pointed out that Nouvelle Vague deliberately mixes smeared-lipstick rock 'n' roll with Parisian café poise, mussed-up and flopped-out by the end of a typical night.
Operating on an even grander entertainment scale, but slicker and more self-consciously cool, the Californian singer/guitarist Raphael Saadiq delivered a crowd-pleasing set that resonated with genuinely authentic soul. Saadiq still seems like a newcomer, although he has been around for quite a while and became orientated towards production duties during the 1990s. It helps that he possesses a youthful aura, college-boy spectacles mingling with discrete tattoos. It's hard to place where he's at in the style firmament, because there's a marked preference for old-school soul values in terms of both music and stagecraft, and he combines conservative formality with a modern looseness. He was a touch too enthusiastic with the audience participation routines, but thankfully that didn't interfere too much with the song-core.
The Gotan Project provided the evening's pinnacle, prompting amateur tango cavortings, where there was room in a still-crammed marquee tent. There was an emphasis on the popular early numbers, now ingrained on the mass consciousness due to all-pervasive airings in clubs, bars, and even restaurants. There's a quality to their music which harbors universal appeal whilst retaining depth. Their fusion is a thoughtfully-balanced commingling of preening tango nostalgia and sliding electronica motion. Drawn from France and Argentina, their membership reflects this sonic marriage. Violin, bandoneón and piano provided the acoustic foreground, with laptop and turntables to the rear. Singer Claudia Pannone was entrusted to manipulate the emotional tentacles. The Gotan crew hasn't really developed its sound towards a new manifestation, but it continues to deliver an impressive show with large-scale production values.
Another DJ session closed the evening with more than the usual amount of volume and longevity. The Squadra Bossa duo of Buscemi and Livingstone are regulars at the festival, always providing an extra edge of dynamism to their stylistically-veering sets. There were runs of dancehall, old-time reggae, gypsy knee-upping, dubstep, Brazilian frothing, and elements of virtually every booting beat formation possible. It was a delightfully shaken-up selection, as folks trotted around in the light muddiness, rain long vanished from the skies. Yes, this was certainly the festival's most danceable evening. It was, after all, Saturday, and the main 10-day Gent street festival had just begun that same morning.
Sunday afternoon started out with some hardcore jazz action, meaning avant rock stuttering, with abstract notions ramming against guitar upsurges. The strangely-named BackBack are a local trio consisting of guitarist Flip Wauters, saxophonist Marc De Maeseneer and drummer Giovanni Barcella. BackBack specialized in an angular savagery, full of scorched guitar textures, growling baritone saxophone ejaculations and scattershot time signatures from the skins. This was a compulsively throttling set, never letting up in its intensity, loaded with detailed substance. The closest musical comparison would be with the now-defunct American trio Morphine. BackBack are regulars at Gent's best bar, the Chilean-flavored El Negocito, where music, food, pisco sours and a distressed interior collude to produce the perfect atmosphere for alternative dallying. The joint's owner also runs a record label, and BackBack was, of course, one of its earliest signings.
A pair of revivified English bands took over the next two sets. Red Snapper, formed nearly two decades ago in London, was sundered for a spell but re-united in a low-key way, pausing between 2002 and 2007. The focal point is the frontally positioned upright bassist Ali Friend who drives the combo both musically and personality-wise. Jungle and its descendant drum 'n' bass have always been at the heart of their sound, but delivered via largely acoustic, musical means, with a pronounced jazz grounding. Casually confident, thrusting and sharp, they grabbed our rheumy-eyed nostalgia in a headlock, bringing their sound forcefully into the present.
Also from London, and also suffering a split-up setback, Morcheeba were next in line, In reality the band never really departed the scene, but Paul and Ross Godfrey voted to exclude singer Skye Edwards in 2003. Whatever the internal vibrations between the core threesome, losing Morcheeba's mistily emotive front line deliverer was a significant blow because her voice was a major element of their sound. The Godfrey brothers continued as an instrumental act, or with a series of guest vocalists, but the band had irrevocably lost its character. Or so we assumed. The news of a returning Edwards in 2010 was a relief for Acolytes Anonymous. To watch Morcheeba reunited, it's difficult to doubt that their new melding is anything but wondrous for all involved. Once onstage, they made a triumphant return. Edwards was a compelling focus in a schizophrenically matching little-girl party dress (which she made herself) and uppity frohawk hairstyle. Paul Godfrey was the king of casual, laid back and intoxicatedly bantering as he slouched out repeated guitar solos, by turns dreamily ascendant and nightmarishly acidic. All of the old trip hop hits were in place (a great body of songs from Morcheeba's first two late-1990s albums), and the newer ditties immediately fell into the canon of calm. Drinkin' and drawin,' perhaps they hadn't realized that Belgium was only recently converted into an indoor-smokeless zone. This was one of the most mind-altering sets of the week.
The weekend's closing performance couldn't avoid being an anticlimax. Daniel Lanois brought his Black Dub combo to the festival a year later than initially advertised because, just prior to the 2010 booking, the guitarist was involved in a motorcycle accident. So the band returned to fill exactly the same time slot, once again with singer Trixie Whitley, and featuring Brian Blade on drums. Black Dub is a misnomer, prompting images of some heavy reggae swamping, perhaps along the lines pursued by fellow production Svengali Bill Laswell. Instead, the band belted out a rather staid form of rock 'n' roll, with local girl Whitley's vocals exuding controlled power, but suffering from an accumulated soul shrillness that would have benefited from a degree of dynamic light and shade. This was particularly apparent when following Skye Edwards. Even so, Lanois made for a good-natured rambler, in the wake of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and the Rolling Stones. It was very instructive and refreshing to witness Blade in a rock environment, with his tumbling funk-riff technique to the fore, providing an almost constantly rising tension-and-release. When she wasn't singing, Whitley joined Blade to form a two-drummer engine, leading the tunes into a jamming work-out zone.
Ultimately, the Gent Jazz Festival delivered its now-expected high standard. The mainstream jazz headliners it draws are literally the biggest stars of the music. Its second line of acts allows some measure of innovative experimentation, whilst the local Belgian artists underline the country's vibrant scene, also allowing the visitor to experience hitherto unknown delights. All of this takes place in one of Europe's historically most impressive cities, culminating with the opening of the Gentse Feesten and the similarly long 10 Days Off festival of electronic dance music. Several combined reasons to spend July in Gent!
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