Gent Jazz Festival 2014 - Part Two: Jazz Peripherals

Gent Jazz Festival 2014 - Part Two: Jazz Peripherals
Martin Longley By

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Gent Jazz Festival
De Bijloke
Gent, Belgium
July 17-19, 2014

The second weekend of this festival is traditionally devoted to musics that lurk outside of the jazz sphere, but resonating in sympathy with the core. Of course, there were a few stray acts from the mainline, just as the first weekend saw invaders such as Ibrahim Maalouf and Taxi Wars, whose stances weren't strictly jazzy. Hence the appearance of Bogus, a quartet that featured the guesting Belgian trumpeter Bart Maris on several tunes. They moved from jagged unison figures to a strutting folksiness, with some fine soprano saxophone work from Ambroos De Schepper, and some flamenco-flavored acoustic guitar work from Florian De Schepper (yes, these founding members are brothers).

The Swiss piano trio Plaistow crafted a journeying motion that reminded the listener of The Necks, using an ongoing key-pulse, with slowly measured bass and drums, then converting to a dub reggae vocabulary. They might even have been listening to newer generation New York trio Dawn Of Midi, for a different sense of repetition. The important difference is that Plaistow have shorter pieces that sound less improvisatory, enabling them to explore a wide range of styles. Next came a work with an Arabic feel, becoming sparse in the extreme, with Johann Bourquenez delving into the piano interior, coaxing out qanun (zither) sounds. In the end, the trio didn't have sufficient core-burning energy to sustain the quiet tension of some stretches, but they solved this lack by breaking up the contrasting moods into more digestible nuggets.

Julia Holter grew on us. This Los Angeles singer and keyboardist embarked on her three Garden Stage sets with a detached, poised bearing, appearing much too self-conscious. It took a pair of manically cavorting kiddies, down at the stage-front during one of her particularly sensitive prog-ballad, free-form epics, to reduce (or elevate) Holter to a fit of uncontrollable giggles. This spread to her band members, and was a rare and wonderful instance of a performance that oscillated rapidly between cool, arty dignity and complete mirth override. Holter's style is original, singing with a breezily eccentric weightlessness, her music often entering an improvisatory free-blowing realm, led by her lusty saxophonist Daniel Meyer. The songs traversed borders between faint transparency and roughed-up belligerence, the saxophone and keyboards contrasting with violin and cello voices. Holter travelled well over the course of her three sets, and even reprised that earlier giggle-toon, determined to deliver a straight-faced version as her final number.

It might not have been established at first, but for the main mass of the evening, an atmosphere developed that enveloped the festival with a filmic soundtracking essence, a run of artists who were concerned with mood, meditation, aural environments and dim lighting. Even Plaistow and Holter had played their part in developing this landscape. Ólafur Arnalds, from Iceland, imposed a minimalist calm on the early evening, his music belying the heatwave conditions outside the main stage tent. Inside, all was cool and collected, as Arnalds probed the spaces with his delicate piano formations. His string section were waiting patiently, seamlessly introducing their slow bleeds, feeding in trace elements gradually, swelling the panorama in paced stages. Eventually, this extreme subtlety of the strings was startlingly scarred by an extreme hard-bass rupture of electronics, used very sparingly, but striking in impact. Acoustic traceries were mostly left undisturbed, but the electro-bruises were made at strategic moments, beautifully sullying the icy purity. Towards the end, singer Arnór Dan Arnarson broke the mood with a pair of songs, delivered in the Sigur Rós old choirboy manner.

Melanie De Biasio elected to perform in near darkness, clad in black, like an elfin beatnik poetess, illumined by a scattering of suspended yellow-glimmering light bulbs. This Belgian singer was freshly arrived from her personal body expression workshop, supporting every line of her songs with elaborate gesticulations, making significantly eloquent shapes with her hands, like a shadow puppeteer, and making mantis-crouches or birdlike swoops across the stage. The audience patience had already been flexed like an underused muscle, and now we were fully receptive to De Biasio's hour-long set, which sounded more or less like a single extended song, even if it was in fact several, sewn together into the ultimate mood-suite. She embraced chestnuts like "All Of Me" and "Afro Blue," but they emerged from the deeply cruising flow, before being subsumed and merged into one of her original works. Multiplying the ambiance, De Biasio also had her flute on hand to intersperse with the song-form, another element to add to the narrative. In an unusual move, there was a request for press photographers to refrain from taking shots until the last three songs, rather than snapping during the usual opening three. At the beginning of her set, the music was so hushed and the atmosphere so concentrated that the lensmen would have made quite a disturbance. Her vocal range mostly stayed down low, but this suited the aura. As the set progressed, De Biasio's four-piece band moved into a pulsing zone that was reminiscent of French jazz-houser Saint Germain (aka Ludovic Navarre), accumulating a repetitively organic groove. This was without compromising the mood, but just intensifying the density, emulating slinky jazztronica, but with organic tools. Some folks might have deemed this set too one-dimensional, but De Biasio succeeded in her mission to lay out an inevitably evolving sequence of deeply pulsing ritual song. It was very much in keeping with the emerging mood of the evening.

The Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi also preferred to ration electricity on the lighting rigs, continuing the introverted orientation. He brought along a large ensemble that emphasized the strings, but also included doubling on guitar and percussion, with a dose of electronics to maintain the evening's electroacoustic slant. There was a reflection of the Arnalds approach, as lone piano contemplation was contrasted with full string lushness, allowing a range of emotions from calm up to heated, exploring a great dynamic range. When his pieces were riding at full gallop, the sound was pretty meaty, bolstered by a massive bass drum and tingling tambourine in the Italian folk tradition. At one point, three of the players revealed their xylophones, and another minimalist pulse was unleashed. Earlier, there were some decorative mbira (thumb piano) shadings. Overall, the works were linear in aspect, Einaudi preferring to develop along a straight path, simple in intent, but actually layered with massive amounts of developing detail. All states were covered, from faint faltering to full-on romping.

Friday's three-set Garden Stage residents were Dans Dans, a trio whose name doesn't really connect with their music. Rooted in Gothic rock, surf music, post rock and free jazz alike, their guitar/bass/drums instrumentals juddered between all of these styles, often within the space of a single composition. Guitarist Bert Dockx also had a collection of cassettes laid out at his feet, often played close into his string pick-ups, providing another facet to the pieces, a crackling, lo-fi graininess. The listener could hear what was desired, as influences. A jazzhead might discern Sonny Sharrock, a garage band fan could gather up the wreckage of Link Wray. A dark rocker would doubtless hear Gallon Drunk. This was an imaginative booking choice, not fitting in conceptually with the day's surrounding fare, but rather offering a hidden respite, a dangling down into the chasm of doomy twang, scratchy riffs and effects pedal overload. As the three sets progressed, Dans Dans got harder, deeper and more distorted.

Friday's fare was a varied spread, lacking the specific focus of the preceding day's acts. The main stage was assaulted by the highly energetic Badbadnotgood, a Canadian act who spring from the piano trio concept, but arriving more from the multi-keyboard direction of Medeski Martin & Wood, stripling descendants who are equally attuned to current electronica, jazz fusion and general funking groove sounds. Keyboardist Matthew Tavares jolted between Korg and Prophet, the extended tunes always delivered in virtuoso fashion, benefiting from an innate rapport between players who are clearly meshing every day, gigging all the time. All grown during a mere three years of existence together. Their standards are more recent than most, as they re-configured works by Flying Lotus and TNGHT, stretching them into prog-jazz workouts. Impressive though all this action was, they really blew it due to drummer Alexander Sowinski's terminally tedious crowd-hectoring. He just could not cease bullying us to jump around, scream and otherwise transcend the sweltering heat conditions in the tent. Repeatedly, in between every number. Generally, it's always desirable if a combo simply prompts audience movement via the skills of their beat-making propulsiveness, not by the insistence of their nagging.

It seemed perverse that the extremely quiet Danish singer and pianist Agnes Obel should follow BadBadNotGood, at the headlining point of the evening. Her music demands close listening, calmness and concentration, which might have been challenging so soon after all that jumping around. Fortunately, and surprisingly, the crowd were very attentive and largely hushed, even though it was an all-standing situation, and late into the beery night. Greater numbers had arrived, so perhaps many folks had purposely come to catch Obel, bringing themselves freshly to a concert listening state. Obel has expanded her crew since she last played here at the festival, adding a second cellist, alongside the usual violin. This was almost a throwback to the mood of the previous evening, and this quartet would have been very much at home with its soundtracking ambient nature. Obel's songs are not massively distinctive, but she has a real talent for atmosphere-shaping. It was wise to absorb this set in a similar fashion to that of De Biasio, taken almost like a long suite of complementary compositions.

Saturday was the final day of the festival, now trimmed of its old closing Sunday program. Brooklyn singer (and occasional guitarist) José James tilted towards his modernistic jazz-hop, soul side, following previous Gentlest appearances made in a classic jazz guise. In some ways, this funkier style is where his reputation springs from, if caught live in other cities, but Gent and its sister festival Jazz Middelheim, in Antwerpen, have favored booking the singer's older school projects. His set was slick, seductive and softly soulful, but after a while, the performance didn't offer sufficient diversity to grab close attention, so a more environmental walkabout was called for, checking out the surrounding scene, spilling out around the crowded main tent. A return undercover was demanded by veteran Florida-rooted soul singer Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires, who pulled everyone into the crush, projecting his post-James Brown line of vintage revivalism, complete with cutting horns and humming organ.

Bradley provided a mass climax for the weekend, but the real peak of the night was about to be reached on the Garden Stage, with a straggling audience who refused to go home. Fittingly, the final three-set marathon (well, actually, four sets in this instance) was given by GoDeville Remembered, a collective combo who were dedicating themselves to a celebration of the prematurely departed DJ Godeville, otherwise known as René Dewever, a pioneer on the alternative Gent club scene. Given that the Garden Stage has replaced the old between-set DJ sessions, it was a good place for Godeville's old accompanists to play in his memory. These are players who used to improvise alongside Godeville's spinning grooves, and it was DJ Slammy who inhabited the turntable role, joined by old cohorts that included trumpeter Bart Maris and drummer Giovanni Barcella. There might have been imperfections in their sprawling jams, stretches where the momentum disappeared, but it was this very insistence on chance-taking that ultimately made way for some of this closing night's greatest music. The group particularly took off during the last of the four sets, which ended up being twice as long as the others. Slammy discovered some varied grooves, prompting several different dancing styles over several different numbers, breaking into splintered free improv, then developing an ongoing deep pulsation. Gradually, the small audience started to grow, and few could resist the pull of the makeshift dance floor, which turned out to be the entire tent-space. A transcendent way to end the second weekend of the festival!

Photo Credit
Bruno Bollaert

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