| Days 5-8
Gent Jazz Festival 2008
July 17-20, 2008
The second half of the Gent Jazz Festival is traditionally devoted to peripheral jazz zones, from hip-hop groove to Cuban nostalgia, New Orleans R&B to avant-rock weirdness. All of the seats are cleared out of the performance tent, creating a floor designed for dancing. This year the opening act on Thursday allowed the crowd to sway in gently. The Belgian DJ Buscemi fronted a big band of fleshly players, providing beats and sonic peripherals, in a dialogue with drummer Mimi Vererame. The line-up included a string quartet, along with bass, piano, guitar, trumpet and an occasional singer. The concept, it appeared, was for pianist Michel Bisceglia to re-arrange Buscemi's electro output into a largely acoustic jazz flow. The results proved likable enough, but not without an overwhelming sense that these sophisticated soft-grooves were five, maybe even ten, years out of date. The pieces perambulated the acoustic space gracefully, dotted with well-behaved trumpet and guitar solos, but they didn't develop much, and were all but completely bereft of any flexing gristle. Ideal to get the audience members' heads moving agreeably, but only as an aperitif to the more substantial sounds to come.
There was a forceful contrast as soon as The Herbaliser hit the stage. This London combo has been trimmed down, with its previously expansive horn section now made up of a twosome not shy of compensating for their small numbers with their bass-throttling baritone saxophone and scimitar trumpet stylings. There was much swapping around with Andrew Ross, whose bullish flute licks contributed a crucial air of hardcore retro breeziness. Yes, it was a groove looking back to the soul, funk, jazz and blues of the 1960s and '70s, crunched through a hard hip-hop frontdrop, but this crew's sound was vitally of-the- moment rather than trapped in time. Nowadays, so many DJs don't (or can't) perform with a scratching fever, but Herbaliser founder Ollie Teeba is a master vinyl-skater, hoisted up in the mix for full hardcore effect.
Another artist who sieves old sounds from decades past through a retro-futurist gauze is Erykah Badu, who joined the ranks of performers by now co-existing as slightly (or not-so-slightly) off-kilter characters and commercially successful entities. We're talking about Sly Stone, Prince and George Clinton. Badu (aka Erica Wright) is one of hip hop/soul/funk's most individualist additions in recent years, her singularity not so much overt as implied in her movements, delivery and lyrics. As observed on this occasion, she clearly imagines herself a Nubian ritualist, casting Norma Desmond shapes with her expressive arm maneuvers, perhaps expressive of a desire to be reincarnated in feline form. There was an absolutely arresting moment when Erykha pulled out two large tuning forks, clashing them in front of her face, then proceeding to patter graceful fingers over sample pads or thrum on a talking drum. All this, and she sings too! Though heavily identified with hip hop, it was impossible not to notice that Badu has a classically soaring, soul-stirring voice, superbly embellished by her backing vocal wing.
Friday night was Cuban night, which might sound a touch one-dimensional, but it's the Buena Vista Social Club roadshow, presenting three very varied approaches to the island's music. Pianist Roberto Fonséca opened: he who was, for a time, the replacement for Ruben González. Fonséca is now completely involved in his own music and band, which operates on a much jazzier level but without diluting its strong Havana club essence. On this occasion he launched himself into soloing with a passion, adopting in an odd stance where he throws his head and torso so far back that he looks like he's going to fall off his stool. The compositions are commercially hummable but were mostly delivered with a fierce momentum, with longtime sparring partner saxophonist Javier Zalba contributing some phenomenally energized solos, at great length and with maximum engagement.
Following this audio-visual spectacle, the audience needed a rest, for which veteran singer Omara Portuondo proved the ideal choice. Her decelerated romantic numbers tended to waft past the listener's immediate notice, even though these are the real source of her fame. But it was the swifter songs, dotted about her set, that prompted a responsive, dancing motion. Portuondo still possesses the stamina to negotiate this material without flagging, always appearing genuinely immersed on an emotional level. Often when she's singing, it seems that tears are welling up in her eyes, as she thinks of times past, present, or maybe even future. The repertoire is so ingrained that each song carries a wealth of experience, Portuondo enraptured as she travels back in time.
The Buena Vista Social Club specializes in a different variant on the theme of authenticity. Their tunes are often equally ancient, but the emphasis is on punchy dancing music, and by this time the audience was filling the tent, beginning to sway and swirl. Many of the band's old guard founders have passed on in recent years, but it's still fronted by a hardcore foursome of Cachaito López (bass), Guajiro Mirabel (trumpet), Aguaje Ramos (trombone) and Manuel Galbán (guitar), although the latter disappointingly restrained himself with only a handful of reverb-plunged solos. Their set was lengthy and steadily built up to a celebratory massing on the dance floor.
The Saturday night show began with another one of those hot Belgian discoveries. Brazzaville are newcomers on the scene, refusing to dally with anything other than a pugnacious retro groove, brashly fronted by a twin-saxophone belch-out. It's difficult to name the victor once Andrew Claes and Vincent Brijs get to battling with their bullfrogging tenor and baritone horns, although the latter might have the subterranean edge. Brijs is the main composer, so perhaps has an advantage. Once again, this is groove music re-interpreted for the modern day, generating almost too much excitement for the early 6.30pm slot.
The funk resumed almost immediately with slap-bass superhero Marcus Miller, another artist whose albums might be battling between non-compromise and commerciality, but whose live presence courts considerably more danger. The blobbing riffery can border on the ridiculous, and the rest of Miller's cohorts might as well have vacated the stage, so amplified is his low-end monstrosity in the mix. Perversely, this is no bad thang, as the leader forces the funk into the ears with his brutally physical technique. The guesting DJ Logic added a few trimmings, but his contribution also tended to become submerged in the general pumping and jumping. Widening his range, Miller also played a few numbers on the bass clarinet: this really is a musician in thrall to the lowest reaches of sonic rumble. This was the part of the set that broke up the wall of sound, fragmenting it into smaller-scale combinations and making the re-entry of Miller's bass all the more shocking, which is surely the way he likes it. Towards the end, the mood lightened, more space was introduced and, with a nod back to the leader's Miles Davis days, the bassist selected "Jean Pierre" and his own "Tutu" from the archives.
Another form of funk was next up, gumbo-ed in with blues, soul, jazz and gospel, amongst others. The Neville Brothers are a motley bunchfronted by singer Aaron Neville, who can only be described as an angelic bruiser: his voice remains sweet, high and soulful, but it's emerging out of a body that looks like it could cause some trouble if riled up wrongly. Keyboardist Art looks like a regular guy, but his brothers Charles (saxophones) and Cyril (vocals/percussion) are kind of like a black New Orleans manifestation of the Keith Richards piratical look. Okay, so their songbook covers a lot of very familiar ground, but everything's filtered through the Neville style-process and transformed into its own Crescent City creature. With lead vocal duties being swapped regularly throughout the set, Cyril provided a fitting contrast to his sweeter- tongued brother, the combination of smooth and raspy working its magic as the Nevilles made a tour of the last fifty years of New Orleans songwriting.
The final night of the festival was informally devoted to a cabal of weirdos. The Antwerpian Dez Mona are a throwback to the Gothic 1980s, triggering numerous comparisons during their set: hints of prior artists devoted to the dramatic and the diseased: Jacques Brel, Anthony Newley, The Birthday Party, Tuxedomoon, Marc Almond, Bauhaus, Tindersticks, Scott Walker, Spiritualized. Singer Gregory Frateur has a voice that could be mistaken for that of a warbling older woman, as he delivered his stagey lines with a flourish that's part striking and part ludicrous. There's a sense of rock'n'roll cabaret parody co-existing with a genuine drama. In a very European way, it's not quite clear how to take this band's stance: either sophisticated irony or kitsch posturing. Whichever way, they're very entertaining, heightening the drama by featuring a ten- piece female choir to deal with the call-and-response chorus routines.
And who is stranger than CocoRosie? The sisterly duo of Sierra and Bianca Casady are obsessed with dressing up: not only themselves, but piling on the dense Baroque imagery that floods their entire stage backdrop. Dark make-up, aprons, Mickey Mouse ears, painted pale clown tears: all seem suitable visual partners to their voices, one permanently squeaking in a naturalistic manner, the other some distant descendant of conventional operatic technique. The third vocalist is Tez, a beatboxer who reminds us that CocoRosie's songs are mostly rooted in the hip hop world, with a heavy infusion of dancehall reggae. That's not all, though. There are many vague spaces made for toy-like chiming and folksy tinkling, acoustic wonderment alternating with rave-like stomping. It's a perfect balance between avant-trickery and singalong populism. Their remarkable show (for it is such) is a completely unique experience, full of humor, extremity and apparent spontaneity.
By comparison, the Japanese Soil and "PIMP" Sessions were more linear in their thought processes. So much so that they tended to shoot off into an extended realm of hyper-bebop, not letting up until they'd attained complete abandon. Everything that this Tokyo sextet plays is reasonably conventional retro-jazz, but performed at about six times its normal speed. They thrash, but still maintain all the detailed accuracy of a much slower composition. Out front is Shacho, who simply describes himself as an agitator, garbed like a caricature of a seedy club-owner. His role is to cajole the audience, attempt some form of singing (sometimes with a megaphone) and tweak the odd electro-effects dial. The virtuoso soloing is left to trumpeter Tabu Zombie and saxophonist Motoharu, who don't let their strutting about the stage interfere with their note-counts. They even have a band-within-the-band, a piano trio with a penchant for hammered repetition. Here's another ensemble with an aspect of cartoon behavior at their core, and perhaps this was tonight's real theme. Serious intent matched by wily humor.
Days 1-4 | Days 5-8
Jos L. Knaepen