Gent Jazz Festival 2014 - Part One: Hardcore Jazz

Gent Jazz Festival 2014 - Part One: Hardcore Jazz
Martin Longley BY

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Gent Jazz Festival
Gent, Belgium
July 10-13, 2014

The two weekends of this year's Gent Jazz Festival were characterised by their extreme differences in weather. The first half, traditionally concentrating on jazz in its naked state, was buffeted by persistent rainfall and chilly temperatures. The second weekend always opens up the borders to musics on the jazz periphery, and this part was blessed with extreme heat and overall dryness. Ultimately, the elements didn't really affect the music, as both stages were erected within covered spaces, but the weather conditions are important to the general hanging-out vibe in the bar and food areas, which were also littered with wooden chairs, suited for folks who desire a more environmental posture. Such a stance was extremely undesirable during the first weekend, with all listeners huddled indoors for a more intimate listening experience. This did have some advantages, however, closening the collective focus.

The major change over the last two years is the appearance of a second, smaller band stage, which replaces the opened-out concept of dj sets in-between the main acts. Now, there are virtually no gaps in the live music programme, no chance to re-calibrate the ears during the pauses between performers. The positive side of this is that the crowds are constantly immersed in music, with choices increased, but a negative aspect can be seen in the loss of a more relaxing, socialising interlude. In the end, folks can make their own choices, if the flow becomes too dense. After all, the majority of festivals feature constant music, often with three, four or more alternatives at any one time. Several combos had difficulties adapting to the somewhat odd policy of presenting a three-part session on the smaller stage, with the same act playing for a mere 30 or 40 minutes. Some of them were just getting heated when it was time to pause. This actually created an interesting potential for organic development over the course of an evening, as a band attained its coitus interruptus climax, achieving completion eventually.

The London-living singer Zara McFarlane had this mission on the opening night, treating it like a club gig with long breaks between short sets, and quickly adapting to this new platform. Her repertoire hadn't changed much since her visit to Antwerp's Jazz Middelheim festival in 2012, but her confidence and stage-craft have developed further into a slicker form of casual closeness. Two of the newer songs were "Move" and "Woman In The Olive Groves," both of them providing calmer points in the set-list, simmering with a contained intensity. At the beginning, McFarlane leapt into the charged zone almost immediately, engaging in a dialogue with tenor man Binker Golding, who remains a potent force within an already powerful band. He's still not so well-known, but will go even further in future years, judging by his constantly astounding solos in this setting. Tension oozed between the two of them, with McFarlane's tough scatting working its way around Golding's arresting solo on her tingling "More Than Mine." The old Junior Murvin reggae chestnut "Police And Thieves" appeared again, slowed-down and dissected into a very different kind of manifestation.

This was an evening dominated by singers, and you don't get much more dominant within the jazz pantheon than Bobby McFerrin. Your scribe is not a particular follower of his work, and only witnessed him in action for the first time in 2013. Picking up murmured responses to his Gent set, it was clear that some folks were disturbed by his reincarnation as a gospel country'n'western interpreter. For this reviewer, that orientation presented no problem, and McFerrin's bold new direction emanated a forceful sense of easy-going relaxation. The set had the feel of a late night gathering in the singer's living room, allowing the audience to experience an intimate family rapport in reclined action. McFerrin remained seated for much of the time, then coasted over to the piano for a spell, or wandered around enjoying his daughter Madison's equally assured vocal contribution. Her phrasing was both cool-headed and sprightly in its gentle bouncing. Pops McFerrin slapped his chest a lot, for percussive effect, but his lines were mostly very word-based, not nearly as abstract as expected.

Songs such as "Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" might sound like tired old selections, but not when imparted via this hillbilly spiritual language. The sound was rooted in the folksy earth of the 1970s, with father and daughter looking content and peaceful, laid back to the max. The end result was akin to an imaginary fusion of Caetano Veloso, Neil Young and The Eagles. Rarely have we seen a band who appear to be so deeply digging each other's company, languishing in the arrangements of keyboardist Gil Goldstein. Then, they did the mashed potato to "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands," followed by the unexpected inclusion of Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home." McFerrin was a shamanic figure indeed.

Even though he played in the penultimate slot, McFerrin was the obvious headliner of the day. The foursome of drummer Manu Katche, bassist Richard Bona, pianist Eric Legnini and saxophonist Stefano di Battista had a tough act to follow, not least because their instrumentally searching nature sounded too dispersed and background-ey in the wake of McFerrin's uplifting narratives. A stippling Bona solo started to liven up the fusion blandness, spinning into Battista for his own high-vaulting statement, getting into a sleazy blueserama, but sometimes bordering on smooth jazz. After a slumbering patch, the set perked up when Bona took a vocal, a funky development finding Battista honking on his alto, Katché generating friction across his skins with great finesse.

Another curious stratagem for the smaller Garden Stage was the booking of Black Flower for all four nights of the first weekend, striking up their set at the midnight hour. Fortunately, this was an excellent choice, a local combo who specialise in Ethiopian influenced jazz, with a glutinous dollop of dub. Their songbook included around 25 numbers, which they shuffled around between each evening's performance. It was possible to catch quite different sets on two consecutive nights, but dropping in for three or four sessions led to a deepening familiarity with some of the works. The substance of this combo was such that repeated exposure was highly rewarding, as they built up their retro grooves, exotically complex, Nathan Daems swapped from scampering flute to earthy baritone saxophone, whilst keyboardist Wouter Haest toggled between miasma organ and rupturing clavinet. Drummer Simon Segers was fascinating to watch, as he maintained an almost constant cyclical funk complexity. Surely he must be an acolyte of Jaki Liebezeit, from the mighty German ethno-marauding combo Can.

Local quartet Medes opened up on the Friday afternoon, with their final number topping its predecessors, rockin' and twangin' courtesy of guitarist Artan Buleshkaj, with taut and pointed soprano saxophone from Nico Boulanger. It's a shame that it took them until the end of their set to serrate their edge. Over on the main stage, the Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan was fronting his band, moving on from his mostly solo performances of earlier years. The resulting music couldn't be further away from his sparse beginnings, operating on an obsessively dense prog-jazz level of hardened repetition and gratuitous cleverness. Complex compositions can frequently be exhilarating, if the listener can discern a pulsing organic core at their heart, but Hamasyan's hurtling pieces lacked the pliable soundscape of most minimalism, leaving little room for manoeuvre. This was doubtless a deliberate strategy, as he soon contrasted with a delicate piano solo, casting a glance back to the setting that introduced him to the jazz stage. Soon, electro-beats were mingling with the ethereal vocals of Areni Agbabian, the leader's current enthusiasm being to mix the mechanoid with the diaphanous. Then he entered into a hardcore piano trio stretch, and when the band returned, all was hardness personified, frequently sounding too worked out in its musicianly solidity. For the encore, there was another shift, as Hamasyan evacuated darkly ripped blobs of bass from his electronic rig, introducing another fresh element in an already diverse palette of sound.

Trumpeter Avishai Cohen enjoyed the Friday three-set Garden Stage stint, and shouldn't be confused with the other (bass-playing) Avishai Cohen, even though a few folks did so, particularly as the latter has been a Belgian festival regular. Cohen spearheaded his Triveni, a pliable threesome dedicated to the parrying attack of post-Ornette nimble-stipple, with bassist Yoni Zelnick and drummer Nasheet Waits forming a tight team of abstract voyagers. Doubtless accustomed to longer sets, Cohen appeared slightly unsettled by the brevity of his three appearances, but adapted on the hoof. The three-part concept is sound, but some performers need to check their festival programmes before arriving at the site.

It wasn't immediately noticeable that the unfamiliar Taxi Wars act was to feature dEUS frontman Tom Barman, the singer and guitarist of Belgium's best and most influential rock band during the last two decades. Taxi Wars is an alternative vehicle that collides jazz and beatnik rapping, creating a hybrid that's reminiscent of Tom Waits in his early years, before the mid-1980s dawning of his Captain Beefheart fixation. This is amusing, as Don Van Vliet was surely one of the principal guiding lights of the dEUS style. The other three-quarters of the band were more significant in the jazz arena, with saxophonist Robin Verheyen fronting the instrumental contingent (Barman had left his guitar at home, concentrating on verbals alone). A hectic rush of free-form clatter ensued, Barman growling into a choice of two microphones, one set to a dictaphone scramble. Another influence contender would be Lounge Lizards, not in the verbals, but in the nocturnal moon-howlings of the music. Several song-poems mentioned taxis in their couplets. What is this obsession? As overheard by your scribe, Barman alienated a few folks with his preening, narcissistic rock star body language, but these were clearly beings not privy to his dEUS history. Those of us who've followed Barman's career were more receptive, although it could be seen what was meant, when his collection of stances (including nonchalantly lighting up a drooping cigarette) bordered on self-parody. Nevertheless, Barman can carry off this image effortlessly. His vocal delivery possessed a matching intensity, syllables speedily shot out with hipster grace. Maybe the cumulative effect of the material over an hour had a growing sameness, but the style was so strong that it was valuable to hear the entire set as some kind of rap-rock, free-wheel suite, peppered with saxophonic releases to mess up the palette.

As with Tigran Hamasyan, the trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf can be found in radically divergent live states. Previously, he's given completely solo performances with his modally-extended horn, but lately is more likely to be found surrounded by a forcefully amplified band of rockin' compadres. For the Gentfest, Maalouf's ensemble was even larger than usual, with a complete three-piece trumpet section, which he sometimes joined, when not spouting his own solo constructions. Extreme contrasts were also a winning tactic with this bunch, veering from delicate strokes of faint sound up to a ridiculous Arabo-rock-funk bombast. Maalouf would goad the riffing syncopations right up to the edge, then introduce a cutting solo at just the right moment to push a piece towards an even higher level. One of the trumpeters, Youenn Le Cam, also played the Breton binioù bagpipes, adding an incongruous element to some of the tunes, creating an uncertain frisson of North African bleating, in reality emanating from the deep root system of northern France.

Saturday dawned with a stretch of tranquillity. Steiger, a local piano trio offered a thoughtful ballad, opening with a bass solo from Kobe Boon, with Gilles Vandecaveye rippling over the keys, heading nowhere in particular, very slowly, until after around 10 minutes he developed a Bad Plussy drive, with staccato riff-plates, at odds with drummer Simon Raman. An amble from Garden Stage to Main Stage revealed 3/4 Peace, another trio, casting their bewitching mantle over their sparse-but-growing audience. Placid pools of restraint were brushed by the bittersweet alto saxophone tone of Ben Sluijs, each of his phrases carefully pronounced. "Constructive Criticism" allowed an improvisatory climate, with Sluijs switching to flute, then returning to alto as the piece became busier. Another number opened with completely solo flute, full of restrained sensitivity. Alongside his cohorts Brice Soniano (bass) and Christian Mendoza (piano), Sluijs extended the afternoon's introspective mood.

The rupture of this mood was imminent, as Mehliana took to the stage. This teaming of Brad Mehldau and Mark Guiliana marks a radical change of direction for the pianist, setting up a project that allows him to explore his armoury of electronic keyboards, colluding with a drummer who inhabits the intricate zone of would-be beat-machinery. Except that most of the percussive patterns are decidedly hands-on organic. Yes, Mehldau still has a piano, but it's hooked up to processing gear, and his other keys are Fender Rhodes, Prophet and Moog, all arrayed to show off his expert multiple digit deployment. The continuous dodging from keyboard to keyboard is something that's not so obvious when listening to the Mehliana album. Watching Mehldau swap and switch in real time is quite stunning. Moog bass is fed to the audience as the ultimate drug-drip, unleashed in small doses, but absolutely dominating when it starts up, driving the sustained colouring of the Prophet, splintering through its swiftly layered constructions. The melodies are strong, the grooves hard. It helped to prime the ears for these tunes via repeat airings of the album. Guiliana mostly shapes propellant patterns on his kit, but frequently turns to electro-pads. Even though these pieces might be inspired by electronic dance music, in practice, the gig was remarkably indebted to direct techniques, observable through finger-action. The organic became the mechanoid, then reversed itself, and then the duo threw in a dubstep reading of "My Favourite Things"!

De Beren Gieren were the first band to completely embrace the Garden Stage's three-set policy, moving gradually through the evening's phases as they increased the activity levels, resuming each set as though their internal clocks had hardly ceased, continuing the improvisation as if it had been mulled over in their heads during the off-times. Another piano trio, spearheaded by Dutchman Fulco Ottervanger, flanked by bassist Lieven Van Pee and drummer Simon Segers, they began with sparse meditation, but by their third set, became impatient for direct action, culminating in a manic explosion of scattershot activity. Observing this progress was notably exciting given that is was interspersed by the headline sets on the main stage. It was a compulsive serial, the crowd anticipating the next episode of the ongoing tale.

The activity curve rose sharply, as the New York big band of Darcy James Argue took to the stage. Secret Society opened with one of the strongest (and oldest) works from its leader's songbook, "Transit," which motors along with a trouncing inevitability. A newer work, "Brooklyn Babylon" was imbued with a gypsy flavour, Sharel Cassity issuing a singing alto solo, then moving into a suite-like piece that grabbed hold of Steve Reichian elements, insistently making jabbing repeats, with a series of episodic sections. It was flutes only for a spell, then a spread of muted trumpets, before the trombones entered. Melodica and bass joined together, followed by a trumpet solo, with doomy punctuations from the entire Secret Society. Clarinet and acoustic guitar solos were followed by the full weight, decorated by handclaps and horns. As the phases kept coming, Argue confirmed himself as having entered the portals of an ambitious compositional phase in his still-brief career.

Dave Holland's Prism delivered the evening's final slam, but their fusion involved no clumsy volume-hike or histrionic flash, but instead played with a controlled dynamism, gaining potency through implied inner power rather than ungainly, obvious muscle-flexing. The quartet is made up from an unlikely membership, bringing together avant champion Craig Taborn (piano) and Jay Leno band veteran Kevin Eubanks (guitar), with old Holland partner Eric Harland on the drums. Their opening number simply revolved around the sturdy escalation of a single-minded groove, for around 30 minutes, with Eubanks gradually fading in flecks of solo material: he isn't a screamer, but instead opts to make subtle statements, even if his phrases are still articulate and involved. This was followed by Holland's "A New Day" and "Evolution," penned by Eubanks, with Taborn engaging in a refracted Fender Rhodes solo, before Holland dedicated "The Empty Chair" to fellow bassman, the just-departed Charlie Haden. Taborn's "Spirals" featured some extreme repetition between the piano and drums, with one of this combo's greatest assets being the ability to imbue sustained groove patterns with compulsive detailing. Eubanks got the chance to burn on "The Watcher," coming the closest he wanted to conventional guitar heroics.

The closing Sunday of this festival's first weekend operated within an earlier time-phase, concluding around 9pm, and 8pm on the main stage. It was assumed that this was due to global sporting shenanigans, but apparently it was as a result of pressure from local residents, regarding decibel levels on a Sunday night. So, midday became the new start-time. As if fighting the afternoon's persistent downpour, saxophonist Joshua Redman played "Summertime," an extraordinarily conventional tune-choice, but appearing in dashing bebop mode. With "Lush Life" following, matters were not looking hopeful on the innovation front. Reuben Rogers gave an eloquent high end bass solo during "She Knows," bending notes with finger-steel dexterity. It took the quartet a long time to gather their storm forces, rising above the expected qualities of the well-performed set, the minimum we'd expect from Redman. It was the climactic "Disco Years" that created a tension of creative rushing between the players, with Redman sparring alongside Gregory Hutchinson's explosive drum solo. Even here, there was the feeling that Redman could turn this heat on with a minimal effort, so great were his lurking resources.

The notion of a piano trio offering the likelihood of introspective probings is slung out of the running when it comes to Hiromi's group. This Japanese keystress just can't resist the temptation to unleash her energy potential at a constant rate of flow, being permanently in a state of ultimate action stations. This is the way we prefer her, and there's surely no reason to tone down the proceedings. Her enthusiasm is overwhelming. She played a solo piece, "Place To Be," them rammed right back into the full spewing and crumpling excess, the rapport having grown amongst her regular partners of bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Philips, although the latter's gargantuan rock-style kit frequently tempted him into a thundering tumble that even threatened to overpower the ebullient Hiromi's thrilling abundance of notes.

It seemed as though the duo of pianist Chick Corea and bassist Stanley Clarke would impose a sense of sonic winding down to this early-to-bed evening. Perhaps this was the case, with their intimate sensitivities and general quietness, but in terms of a satisfying conclusion, these star personalities towered over all else on that day. It seemed like they'd only just whisked into town, Corea hanging his denim jacket on a microphone stand and sitting down at his keys, straight from the tourbus. The set was in acoustic form, with both players neglecting to plug in any electric keys or axes. Not surprisingly (aside from its all-acoustic nature), the old Return To Forever repertoire was highlighted, including "After The Cosmic Rain," which was chased by "Armando's Rhumba" and "Waltz For Debby," by Bill Evans. Corea and Clarke diverged with solo readings of "La Canción De Sofia" (for Stanley's wife) and "The Yellow Nimbus" (which Chick dedicated to the departed Paco de Lucia). Then, in a slight return to Corea's legendarily epic jam session at the 2010 Gentfest, he invited Hiromi back onstage, with the pair of them sitting at the same piano, negotiating ballet steps as they circled around each other, taking turns at the high and low ends of the keyboard, dappling around hints of Miles'n'Rodrigo. Corea and Hiromi's mixture of hardcore virtuosity and general fun lovin' made for a most desirable cocktail of creativity.

For its second weekend, the Gentfest got into the jazz peripherals, with a cookin' selection of filmic meditationals, quiet pop, roiling funk and old school soul. Part two of this review is a'comin' soon!

Photo Credit: Bruno Bollaert

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