Jazz Middelheim: Antwerp, Belgium, August 16-19, 2012
This festival's annual appearance by Belgian harmonicist Toots Thielemans has almost moved beyond mere gig-status. It's clearly a social occasion, and this feeling was exacerbated by the celebration of his 90th birthday year. A short film was shown, partly in homage, but also partly because his set wasn't expected to extend much beyond the 60-minute mark, even though Thielmans still appears relatively vigorous for his age, his articulate performing abilities unimpaired. The festival grounds were at their fullest, with the crowd sprawling over absolutely all available space, every seat inhabited. It was almost a religious gathering. Rarely will such a large mass of punters (in their thousands) be so respectfully hushed and attentive.
Thielmans was joined by his regular band, keyboardist Karel Boehlee, bassman Bard De Nolf and drummer Hans Van Oosterhout. Thielmans is an institution. Nothing went amiss in the song book; everything was perfectly sculpted to please, like calming dinner music, appealing to all. It became easy to drift out and off, but this was a form of ambient music, at least when heard from outside the marquee's heart. Thielemans was looking just a touch more fragile since last seen at 2010's Middelheim, but his spirit is still willing, and he still delivered two encores, as well as a slow sending-off parade as the band left the stage, the nonagenarian seemingly waving and smiling at every single member of the massed encampment.
MixTuur was just as the name suggests, punning on its leader's moniker, as accordionist Tuur Florizoone wove African textures into a large-scale jazz tapestry. This was a journey back to the classic days of 1970s and 1980s Afro-jazz fusion. A similar sound palette seems less popular nowadays. There's something about the particular interlacing of jazz and African parts that resonates back to that era. Not that the style was even remotely retro: there's something indefinable about the approach, this peculiar form of melding where each spread of traits remains pure and uncompromising, though effortlessly aligned. The Blue Notes, that innovative South African exile, and its subsequent combos would be the prime antecedent, although MixTuur's music was more Congolese in nature.
There was a band within a band, with the Nabindibo female vocal trio joining lead singer Tutu Puoane. One of the threesome had a particularly distinctive, high-ranged ululation, compatibly worked into the general streamlining. Balafon player Aly Keita was a spirited part of the core Afro-contingent, whilst tuba and trombone specialist Michel Massot was the most familiar member to the beyond-Belgium world. Massot worked closely with trumpeter Laurent Blondiau, making something of an odd couple horn section. Sometimes they'd both be using mutes, trumpet and trombone burbling in a symbiotic dialogue. When Massot hoisted his tuba, the effect was even more remarkable. Although there was no lack of solo spotlighting, the prevailing thrust of MixTuur was in the strength of its rousing ensemble passages, full of depth and balance. The group was extremely well-rehearsed, and it turned out that Middelheim was the peak of a very active gigging summer.
Singer Zara McFarlane is a rising vocal star on the UK scene. She's signed to Brownswood Recordings, the label that's operated by DJ Gilles Peterson. Presumably an unknown quantity in Belgium, Londoner McFarlane retained her fresh-faced inexperience, yet steadily constructed a performance that increased its effectiveness in a very measured, professional manner. Clearly more accustomed to playing in smaller clubs, she soon came to inhabit this much larger platform with some measure of assurance. She mixed the standards "Night And Day" and "On Green Dolphin Street" (with words) with a clutch of her originals, including "More Than Mine," which took a quite conventional post-breakup, wounded soul sentiment, but spliced it with a mixture of bitterness and transcendence.