Gent Jazz Festival 2011: Days 5-8
Day Eight: July 17, 2011
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!
Days 1-4 | Days 5-8