Jazz Middelheim: Antwerp, Belgium, August 16-19, 2012
Almost as strange was the interlude where keyboardist Peter Vandenberghe pranced center stage for a dance display, including a rare instance of barefoot tap dancing. Leader Peter Vermeersch's between-tune announcements were doubtless suitably witty and surreal, but this non-Dutch speaking scribe wasn't able to grasp their essence. When he speaks in English, though, his observations usually provoke a smile. All of the pieces were heavy with complex momentum, but there was always room for solo details in-between the ensemble ram-rodding.
Belgian pianist Jef Neve is also a festival regular, but this time he was presenting Sons Of The New World, his latest expanded group concept. This involved a five-piece horn contingent, beyond the piano trio core. This was another instance of a set suffering due to its placement. The Flat Earth Society assault had been so dynamic, unusual and exciting that Neve's new work seemed very conventional by comparison. He opted for a very smooth, linear nature, the horns harmoniously burnished into a glowing unity. The presence of French horn alongside the more usual trumpet, trombone, saxophone and clarinet heightened this effect. Under normal circumstances this would have been sufficiently alluring but, following FES, it became an enforced breather between the surrounding intensities of that sprawling big band and the soon-coming power trio led by Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen. The subject matter of this new suite of pieces dwells on recent tragic or transforming events, and this made it doubly frustrating that the music was so neutered. The Arab Spring, the Japanese tsunami, and the Pukkelpop festival stage-collapse all deserve sounds and delivery of a more arresting and confrontational nature.
Cohen projected the feeling that he was going to cram every last ounce of musical energy into his allotted 75 minutes of playing time. He has a new trio of youngsters now, and their extrovert characteristics were equal to their leader's lofty levels. There were to be no diversions here. Pianist Omri Mor & The AndalouJazz Project immediately set about establishing his presence with a series of extended solos that were like mini-compositions, undergoing their changes as a gradual, logical progression, ebbing and flowing with the dynamics of meditation and explosion, funkiness and lyricism. A Lebanese traditional tune was grabbed tightly, with Cohen commenting that music isn't subjected to political borders, and then he shifted to a Sephardic Ladino piece. Often, he utilized his voice as a closely partnered accompaniment to the bass line melodies. Mor was embraced by the audience with visible and audible enthusiasm, set to be a fast-rising star of the scene. Even though the set looked like it was close to its conclusion after an hour, Cohen proceeded to play for a further 20 minutes. Was this an extended encore, or was he just pausing to amass energy? This was a band that was making a complete effort to deliver its best possible performance.
The festival's closing set brought everything down (or even up) to a highly concentrated plane, with august South African pianist/composer Abdullah Ibrahim favoring a sensitively controlled interpretation. He was something of a benevolent dictator when keeping his mini-orchestra in check. This created a magical potency, as almost every solo was reined in to a compact length, brevity meaning profundity as the horn cycle passed quickly but smoothly. This was a rare opportunity to catch Ibrahim's long-running Ekaya band. The quartet of Cleave Guyton (alto saxophone, flute), Keith Loftis (tenor saxophone), Andrae Murchsion (trombone), and Tony Kofi (baritone saxophone), was precisely poised, tasteful without being bland. It was a return to cool restraint that seemed almost quaintly nostalgic. It wasn't laidback as in lazy and slack; it was dreamily coasting, but with a tightly harnessed authority.