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Live Review

Gent Jazz 2021

Gent Jazz 2021

Courtesy Bruno Bollaert

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Gent Jazz
Bijloke, Gent
Belgium
July 12-18 2021

Last year, the Gent Jazz festival operated with a 400-person audience capacity, and presented a very successful 10-day season, albeit highlighting Belgian acts, and with no lumbering large-fee, big-ticket-sales American bands allowed. The 2021 edition still wasn't able to manifest as its customarily colossal self, but at least the maximum customer numbers were quadrupled on the previous year, and several artists arrived from geographically further beyond, even if they weren't the massive Stateside ticket-sellers of yore. Surely, in July of 2022, Gent Jazz will be able to operate in its fullest possible state.

This time, the main performing space was revived, in a new high-topped tent, open around its edges and with the stage placed along the far-side perimeter, rather than down at the narrow end. Audiences sat at tables, which were liberally scattered throughout the large surrounding space, with extra places spilling out across the lawns outside the tent. Servers brought food and drinks, and the general aura was very pleasant, although not sympathetic to dancing, as such wayward behaviour would break the anti-virus regulations. Even so, Gent Jazz was taking very large strides towards its full potential of old.

In Gent, many of the hotels are reopening, and tourists are tentatively returning. The massive Gentse Feesten street celebration that overlaps with the second weekend of Gent Jazz was not able to exist as its wildly hedonistic self, but there were still music programmes happening in smaller venues, again with limited audience sizes. There was gypsy jazz at Bar Lume, blues at Missy Sippy and alternative rock or singer-songwriter acts at De Loge. Compared to 2020, there was a sense that music was returning to this wonderfully historic city, rising on a slow but steady curve.

In 2021, Gent Jazz maintained its 10-day run, although your scribe arrived in town for the period between the 12th and the 18th. In March of 2021, the reedsman Tom Wouters made his final departure, although this passing didn't appear to receive much coverage outside of Belgium. He was most visible as a long-running member of Flat Earth Society, but Wouters also created a whole host of bands, composing multiple works, playing marimba, vibraphone and drums. Band names included Payday In March, Crap Squeezer and Flick Flack Bat. One of his outfits was Zotteg(h)em, and this very team opened Gent Jazz on Monday July 12th. It was a substantial start that remained the day's best performance.

Zotteg(h)em's line-up included Bart Maris (trumpets) and Peter Vandenberghe(keyboards), both from Flat Earth Society. Guitar, saxophones, clarinet, cello, bass and drums completed the spectrum. Only short time spans were required for transportation from dirty rock'n'roll to preening moderne classicism, inside a single composition, with guitarist Filip Wauters offering a heartfelt twangerama, Lode Vercampt using his cello like a banjo, or Maris prickling out with his muted pocket horn. It was often left up to reedsman Edward Capel to inject the most jazzy portions, whether playing clarinet, alto or baritone saxophones, while the heavy electric bass and guitar lent a rocky heft. A Moog-ey solo on a Korg manifested a totally Sun Ra spirit, then Capel picked up his soprano for a steely stitching. Zotteg(h)em insisted on variety, a sparse quartet section (cello, muted trumpet, egg-shaker and high-weeble synth) led into "Smooth Shit," with holler vocals, cutting to a turgid power trio of alto, bass and drums. Your scribe witnessed Wouters many times as a reeds-playing FES member, but this set by his old colleagues fully revealed his skills as a multi-hued composer.

Normally, the next band would have made splendid winners, but Cinema Paradiso had a tough act to follow. They did really well in keeping up the high levels. The quartet roster featured Eric Thielemans (drums), Jozef Dumoulin (keyboards), Willem Heylen (guitar) and Kurt Van Herck (tenor saxophone), with the wise and mercurial Paul Motian acting as their compositional core-provider. The set opened with a thoughtful sensitivity, Dumoulin hunched over his keys, head almost touching them, Heylen ambient, like a new age sound-painter. This mood was maintained into the second piece, slow and soft, with Thielemans using brushes, the piano taking over bass line duties. Around 20 minutes into the set, weather conditions changed, as Cinema Paradiso ventured into more volatile terrain, increasing the intensity with a determined focus. The next song appeared to be "The Windmills Of Your Mind," by Michel Legrand, which certainly made a sharp swerve to the nature of their set. Dumoulin often sat out, subsequently, contemplating his next entrance, rationing his statements. Heylen clipped out a halting solo, punctuated with rocky strikes. Dumoulin returned, activating low bass on his keyboard, then leaping across to acoustic piano, with Thielemans making dubby hits at crucial intervals.

The next two acts were way bigger names amid the jazzy heavens, but also represented a dramatic shift towards mainstream manoeuvres, buoyantly representing the smooth motions of the Caribbean. The Monty Alexander Trio customarily present a highly appealing mixture of jazz and soft reggae, but this time around they were too mellow, to the extent of being lightweight. Whether this was due to the contrast with the preceding pair of bands, or a general travel fatigue, is not certain. Alexander gathered very closely together with Paul Berner (bass) and Jason Brown (drums), forging an intimate rapport. A grandiose "Summertime" was typical fare, with Alexander concluding on the melodica. The reggae section began with "King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown," a fine selection, then continued with "No Woman No Cry," which was way more predictable, and existed inna lounge stylee. A jaunty original, "You Can See," followed, and then, oh no!, it was The Carpenters songbook, with that dreaded ditty "We've Only Just Begun," although admittedly in sprightly form. Run for the hills!

The night's topper was an odd choice of a subtle duo, turning to a Cuban repertoire, with pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and singer Aymée Nuviola. Solo piano opened up the set, before Nuviola perched on her stool, to the side of Rubalcaba. Another of the evening's too-obvious choices came with "Besamé Mucho," but the equally unsurprising "El Manisero" was actually the set's best song, arriving at the close, and delivered in a stripped-down salsa version. Generally, though, this collaboration acted as a calmer introduction to Cuban song.

Tuesday 13th featured an all-Belgian line-up, headlined by the pianist Jef Neve's new Mysterium project. The Tutu Puoane Quartet's set suffered from an overly didactic poetry narrative from the South African singer, which might have been worthy for a few numbers, but ultimately provided too much conceptual weight. It was the earthy and funky Fender Rhodes solos by Ewout Pierreux that lent exciting, live-wire stretches to several of the tunes. It would be beneficial to hear Puoane inhabiting her mainline position as songstress rather than narrator.

Singer/pianist Lady Linn and bassist Filip Vandenbril combined for an engaging bout of well-targeted song delivery. She usually leads her own band, and he's member of Black Flower. Linn's voice had an agile strength, imbued with natural soul, the kind of artist who would be welcome on the Tru Thoughts record label. Her tone and phrasing were individualist, but the ears didn't tire of this particular approach, as it sounded continually natural and expressive, rather than being a cerebral style-choice.

Jef Neve's Mysterium was the expected highlight of the evening, even exceeding in its substance, as the pianist mostly appears in a small group setting. Here, he was half-surrounded by a semi-circle of precision horn players, navigating a highly arranged set of visual pieces that also sounded faintly churchy. Three tenor saxophonists, trumpet, bass trombone, and with the bonus of acoustic bassist Jasper Høiby, of Phronesis fame. Nicolas Kummert pounced on a tenor feature, flying around the deep bass 'bone's spine, a ballast riffline of the highest quality. The strutting formation of "The Final Curtain Call" climaxed, but there was a surprise encore of "It's Gone," Neve flashing grandly on home territory.

Emerging from the lengthy lockdowns, Esinam is now expanding her reach, with a new album and a new band. Previously this singer and multi-instrumentalist mostly worked as a live-looping solo act, improvising details around set songs, with every performance possessing a slightly different variation on her original repertoire. Now, Esinam is free to blow extended flute solos, supported by a guitar, bass and drums trio. She still adds loops, plays synth-keys and contributes percussion, either on pads or even playing her underarm West African tama drum, with its skin-pitch-stretching powers. She even cues her own pre-arranged backing vocal harmonies, thickening the chorus range. This fresh live band setting immediately swerves her songs into an extended Afro-jazz-electro swirl, engaging with flute-guitar conversation, in a psychedelo-Brazilian language provided by Pablo Casella. Meanwhile, bass specialist Axel Gilain covers the low regions on upright acoustic, electric and keys, the latter producing some earthquake dub resonations, adding yet another subterranean layer of club density. Your scribe was sitting only a few feet away from the bass bins, so this was somewhat noticeable, to say the least. The last number bordered on disco, but of a markedly hardass nature.

Thursday 15th continued with Nordmann, a major band on the Belgian scene, balanced between jazz, electronic and rock postures, sufficiently uncompromising in all areas to engage music fans from all of those camps. Its five members are also involved with other significant combos, so many to name, but we will mention MDC III and The Milk Factory. There are synths for nearly all members, but these are mostly secondary to the primary instruments of a rock band: drums, bass, guitars, plus the prominent tenor saxophone of Mattias De Craene. Out of darkness, all garbed blackly, a swirling commenced, a horn invocation was made, and bells tolled doomily. Nordmann is like an inverse Mogwai, introverted and darkened. Around 43 minutes into its set, it emerged from the shadows, with bright synths and soprano saxophone, Norwegian tones growing towards a climax. At 54 minutes, Nordmann loaded in a heavy jazz-dance pulse, only really fully rocking out right at the end.

Once again, on Saturday 17th, the opening band was the day's best act, as well as being new on the scene, and a discovery surely even for regular Belgian gig-goers. Dishwasher is another outfit that collides jazz freedom with rock earth-movement. It's just like that spinning, foaming kitchen interior, with a hard concrete base below. Residing in Gent, it's a trio of Werend Van Den Bossche (alto saxophone), Louise Van Den Heuvel (electric bass) and Arno Grootaers (drums). Dishwasher's rock drive includes chorus effects on the horn, navigating terse, no messin' tunes, powering with little need for elaborate solos, as their gears are always collectively shifting. Dub walking emerged, as Bossche meddled with fx on his alto, jackknifing into a purely biting saxophonic sound for a rare solo, each number becoming ever more rhythmically varied. Heuvel cloaked her bass in a high-range effect, essaying a calmer meditation, adopting a driven Tina Weymouth stance. Most other tunes had her heavy dublines as a dominant force. The saxophone took on tuba qualities, piling swift layers, before the other pair kicked in, bass and drums supremely heavy, under this fibrillating alto. Indeed, with Heuvel, it's as if Weymouth and Jaco Pastorius grew up as siblings, listening to dubstep in their infancy. Bossche has a tendency to squat, kneel or crouch, in order to winkle out his deepest strands of melody, Heuvel alive with a constantly pneumatic, fixated intensity. Dishwasher's music is triply amazing, as it seems that each gig revolves around a fully unhinged improvisation.

This was another day where each following act would suffer by comparison to the opening set. Bandler Ching has drums, bass, keyboards and alto saxophone in its armoury, emanating a dance aura, with horn solos over beats, chorus fx on said blower. Altoman Ambroos De Schepper is this Brussels team's leader. It sounded more conventional following Dishwasher, but its components tended to be similar. Either floating or grooving by, but without any dramatic changes, Bandler Ching does possess a certain strength, holding the audience in its hypnotic wave. A bass solo sounded like a lead guitar, and then a guest singer, Maya Mertens, leapt up onstage just for one number, absolutely transforming the entire scenario, with a quirky delivery in both vocal style and phrasing, as well as a formidable personal projecting presence. She bounded onto a bass speaker, jumped up from the side, a ball of energy with an unpredictable approach to dynamics. Mertens came and went like a firestorm. Bandler Ching should induct her for further songs.

Stuff headlined, and is now one of Belgium's most popular bands, but witnessing its set made it apparent that it require some element of disruption. Stuff now seems too familiar with each other's playing, like they're rehearsing just a touch too much. Even though festivals have been scarce in recent months, the band now sounds like they're configured for the bombastic big-stage experience. The playing is hyper-musicianly, but this inevitably leads to a feeling of automatic piloting. As the bands moved through Dishwasher to Bandler Ching, this factor became exaggerated in the perceptions. It must be pointed out that large portions of the audience remained vociferously enthralled, though...

The festival's final day presented some of its most starry international artists, although the local Compro Oro appeared just prior to that point, a quintet of multi-instrumentalists exploring the realms of retro 1970s exotica. It employed speed-bongos and Moog babble, vibraphone, keyboards, guitar, bass, drums and percussion, all in the name of movie soundtracking mimicry. A guitar surge rose up from a vibes systems pattern, congas introducing hard drumming from a mainline kit. Afro-funk pumped, as the entire combo got heavier, an Ethiopian sensibility revealed, complete with Brazilian cuica croaking.

Amongst the first wave of American acts hitting Europe for short tours, post-vaccination, is Ceramic Dog, the rockin' trio led by guitarist Marc Ribot. Drummer Ches Smith is also in fully rocked mode, his middle cymbal hanging high above his head, in grunge fashion. Bassist and synthesiser low-toner Shahzad Ismaily was, as Ribot always is, seated, but they were both making sounds of a stand-up disposition. "We Crashed In Norway" is their disco number, with Ribot spewing freak-out solos, doing razoring damage. Incredibly cumulative, the Dog spilled a headbanging Eastern psychedelia, into an ultra-extended Terry Riley miasma zone, Smith's whipcrack beats sending drum echo to edges of the site. In recent times, Ribot seems to be growing an enthusiasm for the lead vocalist role, which is turning into an increasing chore for the listener, especially during his altered reading of "Satisfaction," mutant reggae style. It was a narrative mess. Ribot's guitar work remains some of the finest around, and the Ceramic Dog music concept stands firm. It's the actual songwriting where weaknesses lie, and Ribot's insistence on delivering his verbal message.

The Tigran Hamasyan Trio closed the festival, calming the collective mood down towards a sensitive meditation. Although the pianist's new material spends much time in the electronic beat-zone, it is still imbued with an introspective soul. A quietened beginning soon jumped into a full-tilt bout of joint virtuosity, with an energetic trio interaction. Hamasyan has perfected a co-existence of quietude and escalation, remarkable in his ability to blend the inward with the outward. Bassman Marc Karepetion was presumably responsible for the sometimes fuzzed surface, the leader mixing organ with his own vocal whistling, adding the acoustic piano. Spacious thought met tough, percussive stretches, but "The Apple Orchard" adopted a gentler nature, with soft vocals and Arthur Hnatek's skipping drums.

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