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Live Review

Citadelic 2021

Citadelic 2021

Courtesy Bjorn Comhaire


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Gent, Belgium
August 16-18, 2021

Your scribe took a three-day slice out of the six-day Citadelic festival, which had returned to its accustomed Citadelpark following a switch of location in 2020. He arrived for the second half of this 14th edition, catching three or four acts each day. Admission was free, as usual, pulling a healthy gathering, at least within the esoteric realms of free jazz and abstract improvisation. Light rain marred some sets, and the weather conditions were chillier than usual, unluckily. Nevertheless, positive vibrations pervaded, via the music and the general public enthusiasm.

The baritone saxophonist and bass clarinetist Hanne De Backer has become a notable presence on the Belgian improvising scene, here partnered in a quartet with the Austrian pianist Elias Stemeseder, who has also been making striking marks of late. The foursome was completed by Nick Dunston (bass) and Raf Vertessen (drums). Origins are complicated, with American/Austrian Berliners, Belgian/Austrian New Yorkers, and hardly anyone residing in their native lands. Tiny specks of sound soared and enlarged, becoming faster in their trajectories, toughening as De Backer tested her high note extremes. A cavern full of trickles subsided for the lusty gutturalism of her low ranges. Dunston triggered an electro-repeat, followed by some bouncing bow-action, as Stemeseder dampened his piano interior's sounds. De Backer emitted a baritone flutter-breath, moving to bass clarinet , making a very sparse and extended thematic journey, before the audience called out for an encore. Here, the reeds condensed into a strikingly coiled form.

Rorschach is another quartet, but of an older vintage, including pianist Erik Vermeulen and drummer Eric Thielemans. Their set-up is very unusual, with the same instruments echoed by Seppe Gebruers (piano) and Marek Patrman (drums), creating a twinned scenario. Their set continued the approach of existing in differing extremes of ranges, becoming absolutely subtle, with only a faint playing presence, inventing an asymmetrical clockwork progress, with a highly detailed exterior. Of course, a few minutes later this was always likely to clamber up to an enthralling pitch of dense hyperactivity.

The Devin Gray Trio matched two NYC dwellers with a key Belgian presence. The sticksman leader was joined by another transatlantic adventurer, alto saxophonist Chris Pitsiokos. Bram De Looze sat at the piano. This made possible a truce between hard frenzy accuracy and introverted placidity, as each member was either coerced, compelled, or voluntarily relocated to a zone not customarily their own, with few seams being found out as ungainly matches. Darkness encroached, and the set had an urgency of an oncoming curfew rendezvous. A perfect environment for this collective music.

The next day's lunchtime set featured one of Belgium's already greatest fast-rising bands, meaning Dishwasher. Already caught at the Gent Jazz festival the month before, this trio adopt rock, dub and electronic moves, whilst still retaining an improvisatory jazz core. In fact, even though their pieces sound premeditated, Dishwasher's dial is permanently switched to the freedom setting, even if this means instant composition rather than unpredictable abstraction. It's just that they're committed to immersive basslines and repetitive beats, although their frontman's saxophone is the chief jazz style-provider. Werend Van Den Bossche's horn is frequently coated in electronic surface-alterers, as are the instruments of his co-latherers Louis Van Den Houvel (bass) and Arno Grootaers (drums). There are hints of Jon Hassell in the processed alto swirl, and of Brian Eno in the sinuous basslines (via Percy Jones), oiled with Bill Laswell and Jah Wobble. Van Den Houvel is a dub devotee, whether from the reggae roots, or their electronic warping, post-1970s. Van Den Bossche washed up melodic saxophone streams, often punctuated by honking outbreaks. It's not always clear whether the effects are trimming the horn output, or being actively shaped by knob manipulations, as he kneels on the stage-floor, alternating between blowing reed and then squalling out of his tiny box of tricks. Dishwasher end up with a skeletal form of micro-dance music, and will hopefully tour outside of Belgium in 2022.

The evening part of the programme eased in gently via Belgian-Dutch trombone togetherness with Nabou Claerhout and Jeroen Verberne, both of them adding various effects, vocalisations and muting attachments. Unison parts developed for a while, but inevitably diverged, as each player eventually found alternative routes. Claerhout used a footpedal to control her volume and effects ratios, ladling up the layers, as Verberne made deep percussive clops, turning to a conch shell as a wider part of his vocabulary. Claerhout quickly emitted a sympathetic drone, and the shell-sound kept growing, deeper and larger in the welcoming outdoors.

A quintet of unfamiliar Liège players followed, Bloom performing compositions by their guitarist Quentin Stokart, who's lately living in Brussels. They celebrated the release of their latest album on El Negocito, the innovative record label run by Citadelic's guiding figure Rogé Verstraete. Stokart's guitar frequently broke out around the organised structures of the other four players, as if the composer was deliberately setting out to subvert his own work, giving himself the freedom to disrupt. His sharp, metallic otherness careened across the anthemic intricacy with an individualist breakdown, followed by a wiry alto saxophone solo from Clement Dechambre, gutting with fire-tendrils.

The climactic combo was a trio with Tuur Florizoone (accordion), Marine Horbaczewski (cello) and Michel Massot (sousaphone, euphonium, trombone), sounding on the sensitive cusp between French and Italian characteristics, presenting an almost filmic, evocative sensation.

The lunchtime set on the festival's final day brought together the veteran Gent bluesman Roland Van Campenhout and his regular cohort Steven De Bruyn (harmonicas/electronics), along with drummer and vocalist Karen Willems, who arrived with more of an alternative rock sensibility. Roland opened by flicking on his psychedelic sitar switch, squinting through an Indian classical haze, De Bruyn using his harp like a gulping-drone didgeridoo. Roland sent out a fuzz-horizon from his small electric axe, with Willems singing along in a clipped, punksome fashion. Then she used a megaphone to create a 1920s vocal effect. Roland moaned with his slide runs, painting a Ry Cooder expanse of acidic stinging resonator guitar. His spiked sound was not too far distant from that of Barry Melton, guitarist with Country Joe & The Fish.

The concluding evening run began with the reeds/accordion/bass trio of Kreis, amassing drone textures during their first pair of pieces, relishing a minimalist atmosphere. The third number highlighted a skating bass-bowing action from Kobe Boon, with a patiently plodding bass clarinet part, courtesy of Benjamin Hermans. The composer and accordionist Stan Maris is the son of trumpeter Bart Maris, a key improviser on the Belgian scene and beyond. His slow-breathing lines held a darker mood, as he led a marching unison convergence, with Hermans switching to baritone saxophone.

A new performance concept made its debut with Black Sea Songs, a trio and a repertoire, combining the voice, strings and reeds of Sanem Kalfa, George Dumitriu and Joachim Badenhorst. The latter artist is well-known in Belgium and on the New York scene, but the other two are less familiar, and living in Amsterdam. They too have a record released by El Negocito. The roots of the songs lie in the Ottoman tradition, although electronics and improvisation have a heavily modifying influence. Dumitriu's guitar is the most undisguised instrument, while clarinet and vocals are surrounded by carefully controlled effects halos. Badenhorst conveyed the mood of the recently deceased Armenian duduk player Djivan Gasparyan, as he switched to bass clarinet, but as Kalfa explained, the geographies of the songs spread across Turkey, Greece, Georgia, and Romania. She made broad vocal strokes, sweeping up to the heights, with Badenhorst stippling and Dumitriu increasing his activity, picking up his violin. The trio spun out floating figures, hanging aloft, although some songs possessed a more apparent rhythmic structure, bordering on a klezmer-type pulse.

Citadelic concluded with Tito's Binoculars, another unfamiliar combo, in a freshly-concocted improvisatory meeting, although the chief herder is saxophonist Viktor Perdieus, seen in action with the mighty Don Kapot. His cohorts were guitarist Fredrik Leroux (another Belgian) and a matching pair of Norwegians, Henrik Nørstebø (trombone) and Eyvind Skarbø (drums). Noise is almighty, but there was also time for smooth tenor, small skin scuttles and some lightly rasping 'bone, signalling something aligned with jazz, though often appearing as an extreme ghost of a tune. There were insectoid flutters, soft breath sounds and light-tread drum-padding. The Binoculars operated on extreme parameters between loudness and softness, attuned in all quarters.

Even though the festival highlights had arrived during the preceding two days, or earlier on this closing day, its standards remained very high throughout, transcending the sometimes adverse weather conditions, and upholding the celebratory free music vibrations, magnetising quite a substantial audience considering the obstacles of these besmirched times.

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