Unaccustomed as I am to inhabiting the trade/music business function end of things, a sojourn at the Gent Jazz Festival
and Jazz Middelheim
in Belgium inevitably led to a swiftly-following weekend at the Flemish Jazz Meeting in the scenic city of Brugge. This is the third edition of a September band showcase that's designed to spread the musical wares of Belgium's Flanders region across the entire European jazz network. Therefore, most of its delegates are drawn from the world of promoters, festival organisers, club bosses and artist managers, arriving from France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Lithuania and Holland.
Also, as a kind of rogue element, there's a small posse of observationalist scribes, here to document the behavioural patterns of this strange, instantly-formed beatnik community. The physical host organisation is De Werf, which is quite possibly the key jazz body in Belgium, in terms of being both a venue and a label of long-running repute. The whole weekend is also jointly run by Jazzlab, Jazz Brugge and the Flanders Music Centre.
Travel the globe, and thou shalt always find places of alternative jazz refuge like De Werf. This feels like home. The concept is to catch five bands on Friday and Saturday evenings, closing out with two more on Sunday morning. These have been selected by a panel of 50 Belgian writers and promoters. Each band is given 20 minutes to make their mark, although the later sets seem to have some leeway for extension. There are one or two acts that proffer lukewarm sets, and a vocalist who's got to combat this reviewer's difficulties with most song-form jazz. That leaves a large majority of the combos who manage to attain various levels of thrilling excellence.
Diverse musical backgrounds converge with the Hijaz sextet. Tunisian oud player Moufadel Adhoum shares the front line with duduk blower Vardan Hovannisian, from Armenia. Moroccan percussionist Azzedine Jazouli allies himself with the Belgian drummer Chryster Aerts, and the line-up is completed by pianist Niko Deman and bassman Chris Mentens.
The dominant sound flows up from North Africa, draped over a homogenised jazz base. They're a suitable choice for an opening act, offering a wide array of textures, without particularly rising above a friendly fusion, devoid of the tensions and frictions that would invest the music with a more compulsive energy.
The Pierre Anckaert Trio was augmented by flautist Stefan Bracaval, who provided the main point of interest when hefting the bass variant of his instrument, darkly blowing with softly percussive power.
It was only when the Free Desmyter Quartet took to the stage that the Friday evening began its ascent to full intensity. I'd caught this pianist's trio at both the Gent and Middelheim festivals in July and August of 2009, concluding that Desmyter's enquiring and spacious style was attractive, but only suited to an environment of concentrated listening.
With the quartet, reedsman John Ruocco (an American dwelling in Holland) added a volatile ingredient, ramming the piano trio formation into a more riled-up state. He switched from tenor saxophone to clarinet, wading through the spaces left by Desmyter's wandering lines.
Operating on a very sparse terrain, accordionist Tuur Florizoone was teamed with cellist Marine Horbaczewski and tuba/trombone maestro Michel Massot (also a member of the brilliant Trio Grande). The confluence of these three quite unlikely instruments immerses the ears in sheer pleasure, uniting with the occasionally absurdist work of Massot.
By way of extreme contrast, saxophonist Jeroen Van Herzeele led his quartet toward free jazz oblivion, filling his space with lengthy, involved solos as he took the music in an incremental skyward climb. The leader's steady, slow-motion explosion dominated, but his band responded with equal force, not least the French bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel.
On Saturday evening, Briskey made an unlikely opener. Given this expanded combo's cinematically wide-angled sound, they'd be more suited to a later slot, to capitalise on their thrusting, accumulating motion. Gert Keunen triggered samples and field recordings, expanding his previously lonesome state into a full band-spread. Drummer Isolde Lasoen casually flicked out tight funk accents at slow speed, keyboardist Sara Gilis played on the edge of overload, but bass saxophonist Nicolas Roseeuw would have benefited from a volume boost to facilitate the full enormity of his elephantine belch-lines. The music hovered moodily around the realms of slow jazz and atmospherica soundtracks.
The Carlo Nardozza Quintet operated within a much more traditional acoustic jazz framework. The band's trumpeting leader began with a straight-ahead post-bop blowing session, but as electric guitarist Melle Weijters sat in, the band's style gradually stepped sideways into a more modernistic patch, decorated with his embellishments. The presence of saxophonist Daniel Daemen also addded to this sense of adventure.
The subversive tilting of the mainline jazz form continued with pianist Christian Mendoza's group. This Peruvian composer has an individualist touch, filling his solos with subtle ornamentation, never playing one note when five will sound more compelling. His style sounds very natural, but it's not solely stemming from any recognisable jazz lineage. He seeks after the less obvious progressions. His compositions are also quite untethered to any obvious influences, not afraid of minimalist insistency in their themes, as piano and clarinet nag away at an addictive figure.
The Saturday night climax arrived with RadioKuka Orkest, a combo that's led by bassist Kristof Roseeuw, of the Flat Earth Society. Actually, it was reedsman Tom Wouters (also from FES) who came across as the dominant personality in this already unhinged quartet. His surprise switch from clarinet to drumkit dropped their full depth charge, prompting a complete shunt of style from fidgety chamber complexity towards a skitteringly funked momentum. Then, to top this, Wouters jacknifed back into the initial form, forcing the music into a concentrated reprise. It was as if we all had a sharp awakening from a deranged jazz nightmare. What is it with accordions and cellos this weekend? Phillippe Thuriot and Lode Vercampt also excelled.
Enjoyable though the concluding DelVita Group was, these striplings had to endure the trial of following the last pair of particularly creative groups, suffering through just not being dynamic or unusual enough in their fairly routine construction of horns (trombone/tenor saxophone) and rhythm section.
Following the Saturday night rush of excitement, Sunday morning's session was limited to just a pair of after-breakfast acts. First, the South African singer Tutu Puoane led a quartet, sounding better on the songs that spring more obviously from her homeland tradition. She was too mellow for some, even at this early hour of the day. Far more gregarious was the Bart Defoort Quartet, representing the old guard of post-bop jazz. Their whole set charged at full speed and intensity, providing a grizzled lunchtime blow-out that acted as a conclusive emission of pent-up soloing gusto.
If only more countries could set out to encapsulate their jazz scenes in a single weekend of condensed exposure...
The set-lengths were just right to sufficiently grasp each combo's ethos. The approaches varied (although none were truly extreme, in the old-fashioned experimental sense), taking in song, 'scapes, acoustic chamber intimacy, mainstream blowing and ethnic adventuring. Some of Belgium's best-known artists have already been featured in the first two years of this meeting, but there's still no shortage of new or new-ish discoveries to be made. Let's hope some of these combos get to appear on the club and festival scene around the rest of Europe in the coming year.