Gent Jazz Festival, Days 5-8: Gent, Belgium, July 11-14, 2012
One of the festival's absolute highlights was the Jamaican Legends set featuring the reggae supergroup of Sly & Robbie (Sly Dunbar on drums, Robbie Shakespeare playing the bass), Ernest Ranglin (a reggae guitar forefather) and Tyrone Downie (keyboardist member of Bob Marley & The Wailers). Sly & Robbie have straddled the styles over the decades, from classic dub through electro-dancehall and well beyond the borders of reggae, working as producers and players in rock, pop and experimental zones. Stand-out projects have included work with Grace Jones, Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan. Ranglin started out with early ska and ended up creating his own form of jazz-reggae, in a similar fashion to that chosen by pianist Monty Alexander, who was originally booked as the leader of this project.
In a way, it was fortuitous that Alexander was forced to cancel, as this meant that we could witness a rarer appearance by Downie, making this a more direct Jamaican music summation. Sly & Robbie have a very reclined motion, the drummer (sporting a red hardhat) perfectly measured in his minimalistic emphasis of crucial beats, diligently dissecting the essence of rolling motion, the bassist trundling loosely with an oozing wobble. Even when Ranglin wasn't delivering an effervescent solo, he'd stalk the rear of the stage, locking eyes with Dunbar as he chopped out a tight rhythm part. Downie was usually the audience communicator, delivering vocals on the now-predictable inclusion of Marley's "Redemption Song." For the encore, though, Shakespeare took another overplayed song, Dawn Penn's "You Don't Love Me (No, No, No)," turning it into an almost chilling version, partially a cappella in its delivery, decelerated and mournful.
Another return visit from 2009 was made by Rodrigo y Gabriela, this time with their expanded C.U.B.A. line-up in tow, following their instinct for sonic expansion to its ultimate conclusion. The Mexican duo's distinctive breed of acoustic magnification has now been augmented by a full crew of sympathetic players. They still chose to present a twosome acoustic guitar mid-section, but this made the onstage return of the band all the more impressive. There are now drums, bass, piano (Alex Wilson, an experienced Latin jazz bandleader himself) , trumpet and saxophone, retaining the old style of material but inflating it with further points of dynamic interest, enhancing the core duo drive.
Even so, this touring version of the band is about half the size of the Cuban posse that recorded the relevant Area 52 album (PIAS, 2012). Gabriela still featured ample finger-percussion enhancements, whilst Rodrigo took up his electric axe for a showcase soloing surge. Despite the sense that many of their moves might now be too entrenched due to over-frequent festival appearances, Rodrigo y Gabriela still delivered a stirring show. The set seemed longer than most, possibly due to its overabundance of crowd-baiting routines.
The closing day lunged towards The Funk. Well, the Belgian openers Stuff could partly enter that genre compartment, although their mode of syncopation was more of a jazz/funk style that was simultaneously 1970s/80s retro, as well as having those moves filtered through a modern-times mind. The presence of Andrew Claes and his ewi (electronic wind instrument) was the most problematic. He made no attempt to advance its available sounds, or offer any fresh licks that might make this horn less irritating. In the days of digital trigger-fingers, his chosen instrument was antiquated, but without the novelty, quaintness, kitchiness or sheer reverse-coolness of many other alternative old-time weapons. Their turntablist Mixmonster Menno tended to slap large chunks of preexisting audio onto the soundscape, rather than using vinyl source material as a springboard for his own sonic invention. The band's stated influences and beat-sources were completely current (Flying Lotus, Hudson Mohawke, Dorian Concept, etc.), but this wasn't apparent when listening to this performance.
The real funkin' commenced soon afterwards, and it couldn't have been more real than having the resplendent vision of bass man Larry Graham. Beginning his career with Sly & The Family Stone, Graham is the closest we can get to the music's core. Along with James Brown, Stone and his crew were the original architects of funk itself. Graham Central Station remain in peak form, delivering a festival-scale set, but without seeming forced in their entertainment routines. Despite reveling in the ultimate flamboyance, Graham and gang were completely convincing as musicians, simply and viscerally getting down with their throbbing and thrunking thang. The band appeared from the rear of the tent, emulating a New Orleans parade band, but in funky fashion.