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.