Jazz Middelheim: Antwerp, Belgium, August 16-19, 2012
Park Den Brandt
August 16-19, 2012
The Jazz Middelheim festival is a weekender that hasn't relinquished its fondness for adventure over the last four decades. Nuzzling up against stellar bookings are acts, Belgian and otherwise, who seek to jolt the expectations of many audience members. The entertaining middle way is subverted by the sideways thrust of jazz extremities. This too can often be entertaining. 2012 is the fifth year that Bertrand Flamang has been in charge of organization and programming. He's already known for over a decade's sterling work running the nearby Gent Jazz Festival, and has rapidly established a house style at Jazz Middelheim. There's a similar format, in terms of stylistic contrasts, timing structure, food vendors and Belgian beer range.
The main practical difference to the Gentfest is that the marquee stage is more integrated with the landscape of its park setting, all of the bars, stalls and food outlets ranged in a roughly circular fashion around the festival's musical heart. It's possible to sprawl on the lawn and still enjoy a (distant) view of the performers, should such a casual engagement be desired. If choosing to sit up close, an early arrival is advised, as attendance was gratifyingly swollen, even in these hard times. Unlike the previous month's Gentfest, Middelheim enjoyed a constantly sweltering heat wave, prime conditions for enjoying the park environs. The official festival liquid might well have been rivulets of sweat rather than rushing rain water, but who could complain, following months of Northern European drabness?
The day before Middelheim began, its opening night headliner suddenly pulled out. Ornette Coleman had suddenly been taken ill, and panic doubtless spread amongst the organizers. At very short notice, alto saxophonist John Zorn stepped in, continuing his ongoing relationship with this festival. His swiftly drafted cohorts were bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Milford Graves, forming an immediately tantalizing trio. Just before their set, there had already been an orgy of guitaring, headed up by Larry Coryell and Philip Catherine. The set opened with the American Coryell hosting the German acoustic guitar threesome of Helmut Kagerer, Paulo Morello and Andreas Dombert. Coryell was left alone to improvise a captivating acoustic shimmer around Ravel's "Bolero." He was then joined by the Belgian Catherine for a duo section, the latter providing a harder contrast, his amplified sound very slightly distorted, with a grittier edge. The pair wasn't sitting at extreme corners, but there was just enough difference to set up a gentle tension.
Catherine emitted a greater, fuller resonance, flooding outwards in every direction. Coryell was more contained, more focused on the miniature detail. The twosome delighted in fleet dual runs down complicated pathways, engaging in a convoluted chase. They radiated a sheer smiling ecstasy when playing together, peaking with "Nuages." Then, the Germans returned for an encore, the full quintet playing an arrangement of "Tadd's Delight" (by pianist Tadd Dameron). One encore turned into two, as each guitarist soloed in a wave, from left to right.
Zorn, Laswell and Graves have sporadically worked together as a trio. One New York date in 2008 had Laswell drop out to be replaced by Lou Reed, ultimately resulting in all four of them subsequently playing together. Guitarist Marc Ribot is another sometime member of this loose formation. As their set evolved, there was the hope that Zorn might be in the mood for invoking the presence of the absent Coleman, as with his storming Spy Vs Spy (Elektra/Musician, 1989). Gradually, Zorn's alto took on the Coleman hue, the tone, the careenings, the crying. Yes, that was "Mob Job," given the thrash-condensing treatment on Spy Vs Spy and originally heard on Song X (Geffen, 1986), Coleman's album with guitarist Pat Metheny.
Zorn and Laswell found a duo moment, which was followed by Graves demonstrating his one-man-band skills, embarking on an Afro-Latin-Caribbean journey, vocalizing and utilizing the percussive details of his drum kit. Most of the time he was in abstract, tumbling, free jazz freefall, but this sequence highlighted his Afro-storytelling side, even if the tale was non-narrative in nature. It was still a story in sound. After a spell, Zorn and Laswell joined in, the bass man effortlessly sliding into the diaspora downbeat. It was amusing to hear Zorn in spuming Cuban/Haitian/Brazilian bobbing motion, although he soon derailed the tune towards a serrated conclusion.