Gent Jazz Festival
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.