Gent Jazz Festival 2011: Days 1-4

Martin Longley By

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Days 1-4 | Days 5-8

Gent Jazz Festival
Gent, Belgium
July 7-10, 2011

There has been a radical change to the Gent Jazz Festival site since last year. The historic Bijloke zone remains historic, but it now has a new concrete 'n' iron-flavored museum and café (STAM) grafted onto the older buildings, featuring a grand entrance promenade. It's impossible to miss the festival's gateway, standing as it now does on a major street intersection. Just about the only negative comment to be made is regarding the strange pattern of slabs which greet the visitor, alternated with thin strips of grass, thereby forcing arrivals to negotiate the path in an ungainly crab-walk. Architecture in the head, when it should be down in the toes.
Upon entering the open-plan jazzfest area, a feeling of disorientation pervaded. Due to the situation of the new entrance, many of the familiar elements have been subversively twisted into fresh relationships, the main marquee tent swiveled around completely, the food and bar areas enjoying a new placement. The chief loss has been the former incorporation of trees at the stage-front and in the aisles, which used to provide a quaint natural atmosphere. Following a few hours of scent-laying, it was time to get acquainted with the new locations, and old head-maps were already beginning their gradual erasure. Such is the nature of change.

Chapter Index
  1. Day One: July 7, 2011
  2. Day Two: July 8, 2011
  3. Day Three: July 9, 2011
  4. Day Four: July 10, 2011

Day One: July 7, 2011

Every day of the festival opens with a free pair of sets by rising local talents, effectively playing in competition. Last year's winner was saxophonist Nathan Daems, and so he got to open up on the main stage on the 2011 festival's first evening. Leading a quintet that, local to Gent, was formed in 2007, Daems was joined by pianist Fulco Ottervanger, guitarist Bart Vervaeck, bassman Sebastiaan Gommeren and drummer Simon Segers. The group proceeded to deliver an assured set, with the leader favoring his main tenor horn over the soprano, soloing with a purring, fulsome tone. When choosing the soprano, Daems was more of a spiky presence. Ottervanger acted as a significant dueling partner, whether on acoustic piano or organ-keyboard, or giving his electronics knobs a visually obvious twist. His knees have a tendency to rise up alternately, heralding each fresh power-burst on the organ. At strategic points, they would all hit in tandem, underlining a forceful riff with the granite touch of a rock combo, Vervaeck's guitar neck wielded like a sledgehammer. Such movement between jazz flow, rock weight, and Middle Eastern dappling lent the quintet a notable sense of diversity.

In most lands, the French reed man Michel Portal is rarely sighted on a stage. This was a prime opportunity to witness this veteran jazz and classical player, leading a quintet that had an unpredictable freshness to its lineup. Besides the leader on saxophone and clarinet, there was that rapidly ascendant Californian trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, unruly Serbian keyboardist Bojan Z (a handy shortening of Zulfikarpasic), and omnipresent New York drummer Nasheet Waits. Only bassist Harish Ragahvan lacked supergrouper stature, but he's usually a sideman to Akinmusire.

Nearly all of the works in the set were Portal originals. At first, he appeared grouchy and preoccupied, but Portal's curt hand signals and dark glances seemed to metamorphose during the set, as he visibly immersed himself in the music and presumably loosened up, gathering confidence and letting himself float and surf on the band's dynamic waves. Bojan Z was particularly startling, as he approached the keys from a slanted angle, in relation to the jazz majority, further individualizing an already creative combo. Another key feature of this group was the highly effective contrast between Akinmusire's crystal-knife scatter shots and Portal's woodily organic throatiness.

This was the second time catching tenor man Sonny Rollins during the last year, and his energies remain undiminished. For him, it almost seems like playing a gig is an interruption to his doubtless still intensive practice regime. His latest band has been given yet more tweaks to its lineup, but remarkably, it's responsible for the overall groove structure, set up as a backdrop for what's almost a constant stream of Rollins invention. A few griping remarks from a minority handful of punters could be heard, along the lines of his tunes being of an uncomplicated nature, prompting slowly developing lines that were easier to negotiate. Well, let's get this straight! Rollins is an eighty year-old man who blows with the vigor of a thirty year-old. Big hair, flapping shirt! His solos are of mammoth duration, evolving gradually and travelling on a thrilling gradient towards sonic gratification. On a visual level, yes, he might stalk the stage like a lost crustacean, forever looking like the weight of his horn is pulling him face-wards to the ground. But he never does fall, and his lungs belong to another creature entirely, like maybe those of a whale.

Last time, Russell Malone was the new guitar inductee, but for this gig Peter Bernstein was onboard, and was responsible for just about the only other (smaller-duration) solos, rising up above the funky rhythmic flow. Speaking of which, it was instructive to keep one eye on drummer Kobe Watkins, whose dense patterns could be described as organic/robotic, as his tightly-sprung hi-hat sizzle shifted accents against a rubbery metronome. This was jazz of a minimalist nature, devoted to the pulse, the repetition.

In the beginning, there were sound problems. Rollins had at least two clip-on microphones attached to his horn, but his emissions were still cutting out, too quiet or corralled into one side of the speaker-stacks. The sound engineers were soon mobilized, though, and the mix settled down into general thrust-mode. Even so, at times, Rollins could have been louder compared to the rest of the band. He stomped off at the end, as if in a hurry to get to another gig, or maybe to continue blowing in his dressing room. It seems like the solo is one endless solo, and his festival sets represent a finite window through which the crowd cam observe a particular day's progress.

Day Two: July 8, 2011

The first two bands of the day were adequate, but neither of them strayed very far from the perfunctory, both content to play without vibrating the ether too much. The local Quartet Del Cuore were "coached" by Italian bassist Paolo Ghetti, who appeared at the beginning and the end of the set. First, he replaced the outfit's regular bass man, Lieven Van Pee, then to finish, he switched to electric, and the two low-end technicians played together.

Drummer Al Foster and bassist George Mraz led a quartet devoted to the repertoire of departed tenor man Joe Henderson, whether original works, or standards that he regularly revisited. The co-leaders were both regular sidemen to Henderson, and their sympathetic set list included "Beatrice," "Serenity," "Recorda-Me" and "Isotope." Another old Henderson cohort, Fred Hersch, joined Foster and Mraz on piano, and the tenor saxophone position was taken by the least-known member, Eli Degibri. In New York City, this transplanted Israeli is a stalwart of the Smalls jazz den.

They delivered a slick set, but emanated the aura sometimes familiar when a combo might have been travelling, sapped of any delineating energy—professional, of course, but running through without any ruffles, lacking that special vibration that's always palpable when it's present. This material in particular depends on a wired delivery to inflate its structures-of-potential, to shade its skeletal makings. Degibri might have been the least starry member, but he was responsible for most of the rousing solo fire. Hersch tended to be a touch too wandering in nature, lacking an earthy connection.

It was not a good time for Mraz. He announced midway that he'd just met his bass, but that they were not destined for a lasting relationship. This kind of announcement is very off-putting for an audience, regardless of how accurate his statement was, in terms of the instrument's quality. Apparently, a few days later, on the Euro-festival run, he suffered an accident on an even more miserable scale, breaking his arm.

Foster was a mysterious presence for a while: no amount of seat-shifting could reveal his head, masked behind three large, tilted cymbals. Soon, though, he took up the microphone, perhaps desiring a more genial line of communication with the audience than that chosen by Mraz. The quartet played proficiently, but the missing spark was only confirmed as lost, once the next two sets hurtled into action. We know it when we see it and hear it, immediately, in the hands of Dave Holland and Al Di Meola.

Does Dave Holland ever play a set that's less than excellent? The English bassist and composer supreme always ensures that his various combos perform at the highest level, and they always exude a sense of rapt engagement with material and audience alike. There's something larger-than-mortal about Holland's quintet, emboldened by its longevity, which has produced an environment of risk-taking as opposed to any sort of complacency through familiarity.

Just when I was doubting my receptiveness to jazz tradition, next up was this group, at once continuing the line, but through the conduit of their own ever-individualist compositions. Holland and company made music that was not quite akin to any other, despite descending from the jazz heritage realms. This set was predominantly Holland-composed ("The Eyes Have It," "Ario," "Walkin' The Walk," "Free For All," "Easy Did It"), with just a lone Robin Eubanks tune included ("Sum Of All Parts"), though customarily the other band members get to make more inroads.

Guitarist Al Di Meola is able to satisfy all possible desires. Although sticking to acoustic guitar, all he has to do is discreetly depress an effects button and his axe is transformed into an electric monster, full of fuzzed distortion. Thus, he can radically alter his set's mood, even during the course of a single composition. Lately, DiMeola has been getting more active on the live scene, having only recently delivered a residency with a different edition of his World Sinfonia at New York City's Blue Note club. For this festival date, he augmented the lineup with the Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the pair making their public debut appearance together.

This was a very alternative way to conclude the evening, taking the activity level down to a studied tranquility, consistently altering its textures with virtually all possible player permutations. Solos, duos, and various degrees of the full complement. For much of the time, Di Meola was partnered by fellow acoustic guitarist Kevin Seddiki who kept his strings in their purest state. When the full band was throbbing, accordionist Fausto Beccalossi and drummer/percussionist Gumbi Ortiz were capable of building a charging mass of busyness, particularly the latter, reined in behind a plexiglass screen. Ortiz was banished for much of the time, but this only made his return for strategically bombastic outbursts more powerful. Beccalossi recalled the Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen, particularly when he added ethereal vocalizations to the edges of his bellow-breathing. Around half of the set floated in the opposite direction, with Di Meola or Rubalcaba alone or in duo formation. The resultant variations in palette density played a significant role in the set's dynamism. Energies were exchanged, but not necessarily via a conduit of pulsing or propellant action. The audience was sometimes gripped by a softer embrace. Di Meola seemed to be in a permanently hyped-up state, visibly enthralled by the entire process.

Day Three: July 9, 2011

The festival's third night was devoted to the blues, or at least the blues as a core which also allowed doses of gospel, funk, rock and electronica. It was a shivery omen, just before the start of the evening's first set, when DJ Mark Lefever dropped Gil Scott-Heron's "Me And The Devil," from the doomed poet's final album. A chilling portent. Already, Lefever had been playing a sharp selection of bluesy cuts, topped by Little Axe. Deep into the night, he continued with a set of classic R&B platters, getting the retro dancers twisting.

Everyone quizzed regarding the veteran Belgian bluesman Roland noted that he was one of the country's most renowned old-school artists, both for his musical abilities and his generally eccentric nature. This was a multigenerational threesome, with Steven De Bruyn sucking in much of the spotlight juice. Principally a singer and harmonica-blower, he also made the odd diversion towards guitar and kazoo. Tony Gyselinck provided the foundation, although even his drumming was decorated by frequent electric tweaks and microscopic fiddling with small percussive trimmings.

The remarkable thing was that they were employing blues fundamentals, but derailing them with more than the expected degree of experimentation, particularly within a form that rarely takes the back road, even if exiting from the back door. For a start, Roland turned on his sitar effect for the first number, and the tablatronics chattered from the drum seat behind. The guitarist frequently loaded up a keyboard-type sound, keeping just the right side of the bad-taste barrier. When Roland actually scorched out a more orthodox blues frazzle, this conveyed a surge of excitement, even if this was due to suddenly-granted audience gratification on a leather 'n' denim level.

The trio managed to respect the blues lineage whilst offering up a wildly diverse set of external influences. De Bruyn revved up an omnichord, as an alternative to his harp panoply. Speaking of this latter spread, he boasted a very large bass-beast version, wheezing around the subsonic depths. He was also an adept foot worker, and it's worth noting that the director of the festival's camera crew (there were large screens dotted around the festival site) displayed an uncanny interest in pedal activity, often shining a camera on what was happening down at an artist's floor-level This was an almost pornographic concern with the close-up, augmented by similar zoom-ins on the digits of guitarists and keyboard players. All very useful, particularly during the more crowded performances. Anyway, this trio certainly knew how to work the stage, constantly moving around to throw fresh shapes.

In the last few years, I've had the pleasure of catching Mavis Staples on a regular basis. She's always fired up to some degree, but with this absolutely crammed crowd she had a bulging church-full to rouse her to the greatest possible glories. Staples did not hesitate to engage with the audience, reacting by giving them her very soul. She was somewhat frothed-up, with thousands of potential converts crowding out the tent. The amount of focused energy that she can control is almost frightening. It's shown in the faces of her band that she can surprise even them when she's particularly roused, and it was possible to see the instant that it happened.

Staples has a completely raw, ragged emission from her vocal cords, but it's perfectly shaped to be in tune with the music, guttural yet refined. When she shouts, you'll jump out of your heathen skin. It's not necessary to believe in The Lord, but Staples is making sure that she's audible up in the heavens. She stomps around the stage like a much younger woman. All this and guitarist Rick Holmstrom too, her not-so-secret weapon, as if the band needs any more electricity. He's one of the rare instrumentalists who can match her pronouncements with a comparable degree of emotive eruption. Staples still left space for backing vocal featurettes, from her sister Yvonne and from Donny Gerard, who were each given some solo room to maneuver. On drums, Stephen Hodges was intricately booming, adding embellishments with lengths of chain, a tambourine, and maracas used as sticks.

There was only one problem, a structural imbalance that seems to be a regular feature of the Staples set. After around an hour of unexpurgated abandonment, a run of sheer excellence in song, she left the stage to allow an instrumental band showcase. There was nothing amiss there, as they upheld a different kind of ecstasy, but then when Staples returned, it was so close to the set's end that her reappearance was frustratingly brief, like a postscript. I've witnessed the same ritual on a couple of occasions, so it doesn't appear to be the result of suddenly realizing that time's up on the tight festival schedule. Also, it's a shame that she's recently dropped "Down In Mississippi," previously an absolute pinnacle of the set.

B.B. King is playing much less guitar nowadays. Even when compared to his appearance at this same festival in 2009. On the other hand, he's generally looking much stronger, and his spirits were high on this memorable night. The band warmed up for a few numbers, and then King was onstage for not much more than an hour, even though he still gave a brief goodbye walkabout (and plectrum-fling) at the front of the stage. Well, he's 85 now, and despite a shortened, guitar-light set, King's voice remains in fine shape, his humor twinkling in a relaxed manner. The show wasn't the same as it was a few years back, but the audience could still bask in the Kingly glow.

About halfway through, Mavis and Yvonne Staples came up onstage and there was a slight aura of tension as this possible old love triangle emanated peculiar vibrations.

Day Four: July 10, 2011

Michel Massot was the most prominent figure in the local Rêve D'Eléphant Orchestra, controlling the low end ranges with his trombone and tuba athleticism. The repertoire was penned by Massot in partnership with the flautist Pierre Bernard, but the rest of the gang were no slouches either, most notably the three-man percussion battalion ranging across the back line (Michel Debrulle, Etienne Plumer, Stephan Pougin). Besides an improvising jazz vocabulary, this threesome utilized the rhythmic tongues of India, Brazil, Spain and the entire Middle East. They describe their music as jungle, in the old Duke Ellington sense of the word, rather than the UK drum 'n' bass progenitor.

Alain Vankhove trimmed his trumpet with laptop effects, whilst guitarist Benoist Eil was responsible for most of the more extreme serrations in the intricately formed (though often pile-driving) compositions. The music managed to be enquiring at the same time as delivering a strong rhythmic push, merging traditional jazz riffing with extreme electronic texturing, organically supported by hardcore forest-drumming. Their cooking pot was bubbling to just the right temperature, its flavors exquisitely piquant.

The remainder of the evening was handed over to starry Americans, with an attacking triple strike that began with the Terence Blanchard Quintet. The trumpeting leader was in magnanimous mood, shying away from his own normally dominant compositions, and allowing his sidemen to shine. There were tunes by tenor man Brice Winston, pianist Fabian Almazan and old bass colleague, Derrick Hodge. Most of Blanchard's bunch were long-serving regulars, reaping the benefits of an ongoing, deeply-ingrained team mentality. The leader is becoming increasingly interested in his laptop, spending about a third of the set altering his sound to include harmonized thickening or reverb/echo effects. Otherwise, his horn was fiery and cutting. Winston was always impressive, too, the pair forming an unbeatable vanguard. Here, the band had the busy look of fresh arrivals from the tour bus, but in this case that was manifested by a commando-strike purposefulness.

There was the assumption that saxophonist Bill Evans and trumpeter Randy Brecker had invited Medeski Martin & Wood along for the Soulbop project, but from the way these players were talking onstage it became apparent that MMW were the core, with the horn men along as their guests. Whichever way, this turned out to be a moderately unlikely, but superior, teaming. The concept was to present old school bebop in a funked-up setting, but with MMW handling the grooves, this was inevitably destined for the avant-soul bunker. It was refreshing to witness Evans and Brecker herded into a less predictable corner. This pair is normally so slickly on top of the music stands that they might sometimes run the risk of complacency, as each fires off yet another perfectly formed solo. There was a crackling aura of unpredictability here, as MMW worked its malleable formations, never soloing for a proscribed length, or in a set order. The trio has been gigging together for two decades now, and it's a unique relationship: anything can still happen.

John Medeski looked like he was surprising his own band mates with the ludicrously distorted drama of his melodica solo, as he stalked to the stage-front with his blow-tube dangling out of his mouth, instrument brandished like a keytar. Mostly, he remained surrounded by his organ, synths and electric keys, briefly making a dash for the acoustic piano lurking over at the other side of the stage. Chris Wood's acoustic bass is brutally, er, woody in its thrunging sound, while his electric axe almost becomes a percussion instrument. Billy Martin's pots 'n' gongs array facilitates an amazingly broad vocabulary, from slamming breaks down to rattled pandeiro. Evans pushed the French lingo in his introductions, even though Gent is in the Dutch-speaking, Flemish region of Belgium. His cohorts were openly squirming as he laid on the thickly accented phrases, but at least Evans was making an effort to step outside American English.

Is the reunited Return To Forever really Return To Forever IV? Even Chick Corea didn't seem certain, as the band's Star Wars-style tour banner hung grandly above a stage ranged with core personnel Stanley Clarke (bass) and Lenny White (drums). It's a shame that Al DiMeola had already left town, doubtless headed for another Euro jazzfest. The roster was completed by violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and guitarist Frank Gambale. Corea might be 70 years old, but he was garbed like a teenage street-punk, his slim frame managing to carry off this look quite convincingly. The front line of a towering Clarke and a comparatively midget Ponty certainly gave an idiosyncratic look to the band.

I harbored doubts about how much I was going to enjoy this set, particularly when following 2010's triumphant acoustic Corea set at this very festival. Was this going to be Good Fusion or Bad Fusion? Ultimately, it didn't take RTF long to convince, as its insanely convoluted parts were negotiated with raunchy aplomb. There were few instances of weebly-tweebly- oobly-weeeeg activities, and even when Corea traipsed out such sounds on his Moogly-oogly, they were acceptably intertwined and contrasted with Gambale's almost savagely-toned guitar solos.

Ponty was at his best when playing a basic violin, as his more electrified, sonically-altered solos might just as well have been handled by Corea. Clarke was formidable on his percussive electric bass, and thoughtful on acoustic. The RTF enthusiasm was overwhelming. The acoustic/electric balance was well-judged, defined by whether Corea was sitting at his grand piano or standing in front of his keyboard bank. Corea was a great host, full of absurdist quips, throwaway visual humor and general good-natured attitude. The show climaxed with a lengthy "Romantic Warrior" and Clarke's concise, punchily anthemic "School Days." RTF's two-hour set never wavered in its retro-cosmic course.

Days 1-4 | Days 5-8

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