Gent Jazz Festival
July 15-18, 2015 Part 1
| Part 2
The second half of the festival began with another themed day, heavy on the European female singer front. In fact, this was just the beginning of a definite tipping towards that direction, with even a few token American vocalists slipping across the border. Londoner Andreya Triana is now fronting her own band, after introducing herself as a guest singer for Bonobo. In that setting she was very effective, whooshing onstage for a clutch of songs, then subsequently shuffled beside other vocalists. When required to dominate the proceedings for an entire set, she was wrestling with a more challenging situation. The problems lay right across the spectrum. Firstly, the material accumulated into an undistinguished succession of trip pop soulfulness that actually lacked communicative soul. Secondly, Triana failed to project much personality across a largely uninhabited early evening marquee. Thirdly, the band sounded like a bunch of session players.
Belgian singer Melanie De Biasio's personality lurks at the other end of the spectrum, although this is the darkest manifestation of a spectrum possible. She performed under even fewer lights than last year, a steadfastly enigmatic presence, but garbed in paler colours this time, avoiding all-black as a kind of compensation. After having seen this highly atmospheric act only a few weeks earlier, at the Montréal Jazz Festival, a certain weakness became apparent. This is not a set which bears repeated exposures, as De Biasio tends to proffer a very similar experience each time. The poised subtlety is very impressive at first, but by the third experience, the listener is eager for some kind of variation from the whispering stasis, vocally, and on the flute. What once was an intoxicating build-up can become somewhat one dimensional, as the songs are increasingly revealed as mood-pieces rather than distinctive compositions. The set was still masterfully controlled, with the twinned keyboardists layering up an electroacoustic ocean of sound, but even De Biasio's breath-exhalation percussion effects started to sound overused. If she's going to be on the road with this regularity, it will be essential for fresh dynamics to be injected. For first time viewers, this was probably still very emotive and arresting.
Strangely, De Biasio's musical style is closer to this reviewer's heart than the music of French singer Zaz, the Wednesday night headliner who specialises in an updated form of Parisian old school café chanson. The difference is that Zaz was a whirlwind of communicative ebullience, dashing through different paces, moods and densities, clad in a dress that sported a print of bunny rabbit mutations, consistently entertaining the crowd with her sheer communication skills and outgoing flash. Her vocal barnstorming comes courtesy of a lusty-edged, powerful set of tonsils. This was particularly evident following the somnolent introversion of De Biasio's set. As the set progressed, the band expanded and the swinging retro-jazz quotient increased, allowing an abundance of cavorting interaction potential between Zaz and the horn players, as well as rogue interference from her impressively unrestrained lead guitarist, who made several attempts to hijack the band with the blues.
Thursday afternoon opened with one of the festival's absolute highlights, tucked away at a point where much of the audience had barely arrived. Rhiannon Giddens established her reputation with the rootsy Carolina Chocolate Drops, before concentrating on her solo career. Her backing band for this set were effectively the Drops, following a further re-jigging of their membership a couple of years previously. Whether recording and touring under her own name is now the complete future, or whether there will be further Drops albums and dates, it's not really clear. Either way, the current Giddens repertoire is not dissimilar to that of the Choccies, albeit even broader in stylistic scope.
The set followed a curve that had a narrative aspect, almost as though Giddens was pulling the audience along on a musical history lesson, where skool was a decidedly fun-filled place to be locked inside. To begin, there was not country blues, but pure country, with songs by Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline, but then Sister Rosetta Tharpe provided a gospel detour, before we jumped back to the late-1800s for a bundle of Appalachian banjo tunes. Giddens juggled her fiddle and banjo, also taking a tambourine break, but she was always right out at the front singing, whatever happened during the always-in-motion instrumental switching of the band. She has an almost strident, nasal holler, broad-ranging and dynamic, thrust out with passion. Her storytelling and narrative delivery held the audience to her bosom, as the crowd steadily multiplied during the set, folks arriving for the day's long run.
Between them, Hubby Jenkins and Rowan Corbett swapped around banjos, guitars, mandolin and bones (these being clacked for percussive effect). Malcolm Parson stuck with the cello, although he took a brief break on melodica. The core Drops were expanded with an (upright) bassist and drummer. The traditional Appalachian folk song "Black Is The Colour (Of My True Love's Hair)" is presumed to be Scottish in origin, and so Giddens followed this with some genuine mouth music, in Gaelic syllable-skipping fashion. Let's talk about boldly-traversing repertoires! Then they climaxed the already stirring set with a reading of "Hit 'Em Up Style (Oops)," originally a hit for Blu Cantrell, always a high point of the old Drops repertoire, and here opening with a substantial fiddle-dominated instrumental introduction, before Giddens hit her vocal stride.
If we already dig Bonnie Prince Billy, then we are destined to appreciate Ignatz & De Stervende Honden, the drawing-in blurb might have said. Ignatz was born Bram Devens, adopting this alias since 2005 (after a character in the old Krazy Kat comic strip). He was joined by bassist Tommy Denljs and drummer Erik Heestermans, all three of them showing masterful restraint in cupping their musical palms to scoop small portions from the pool of swampy, minimalist, country, folk softness. Ignatz fed in some momentarily extreme pedal effects, turning porch core materials into a subdued psychedelia, miasma-ed unto the scrubland horizon. Relaxing though this might have been, there was always a quiet intensity lurking around the perimeter. Going from solo to the trio, over three sets, this was the expected slow-build on the Garden Stage, the audience lolling around on the surrounding grassy area.
The English contingent didn't fare too well at this festival. Laura Mvula shared similar problems with Andreya Triana, soon flagging during her set, sticking with songs that she'd penned two years ago, most of which are mired in a now overly familiar style. The Mvula template is actually quite striking, with her marching, declamatory vocal delivery and penchant for minimalist patterns that refer to both Steve Reich's output and Indonesian gamelan sounds in general. Her pinnacle composition remains "Green Garden," but there's not much sign of advancement or change since that original era. Following the radical variety and sustained spunk of the Giddens posse, Mvula suffered on the attention span front.
We didn't fret, though. Another festival highlight was on the way, in the shape of Texas blues fireball Gary Clark Jr., who maintained an exaggerated heavy duty crunch for the duration of his maximum-time-allowed set. He wasn't afraid to include another guitarist in his band, King Zapata responsible for some of his own stinging solos, doubling the firepower. There was a giant-sized quality to this crew's onstage sound, amplifiers hiked up to bursting point, guitar wreckage spilling out with a refined control of raw, twisted metal. The Clark vocal power should also be noted, mixing up blues, soul and rock phrasing. His foundation is the blues, but he's writing originals that update the form with rock influences (not least Jimi Hendrix, but also sounding much more current, as if sieved through the present).
Maybe Clark should have been the evening's headliner, as Rodrigo y Gabriela came across as a slightly disappointing proposition, playing without a band, appearing lost on a large and otherwise empty stage-floor. We were spoiled by witnessing their expanded Cuban line-up, back in 2012. Ultimately, it didn't take them long to earn one of the most vigorous audience reactions of the whole festival, working hard to create a momentum out of their acoustic guitar whirlwind, incorporating flamenco, classical and metal moments. It seems that they felt lost too, as they soon invited up a healthy portion of the crowd to spread themselves across the stage, just hanging out whilst their heroes strummed and percussed with virtuoso energy. So in the end, Rodrigo and Gabriela justified their spot, but much of that might have been due to heavy support from a crowd instilled with fond memories of past gigs by this Mexican duo.
On the Friday early evening, Belgian singer and guitarist Bert Dockx opened up on the Garden Stage, playing a couple of solo sets. His approach was confrontational, loaded up with a contorted energy right from the outset. Even though some of his chordings were relatively mellow, Dockx's quietened electric guitar would sometimes rear up with a squall of sudden angular distortion, adding emphatic punctuation to his lines. An outstanding version of Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-gonna Fall" revealed its author's actual words, which are often obscured by that drawling originator dude, the lengthy work having its tension upheld throughout via Dockx's hard-bitten intensity. He certainly sang it like he really meant, knowing power through the implied threat of his restraint.
The old Cream sticksman Ginger Baker
's current band, Jazz Confusion, are an engaging crew, but your reviewer's previous experience left him with a feeling that this set would be treading over similar ground again. In a sense, it did, in terms of the actual repertoire, which remained the same, but the gripping nature of the performance emerged from unexpected circumstances. Regular saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis
was unable to make the gig, but Baker found a tasty replacement in the shape of English jazz star Andy Sheppard
, who immediately revealed an affinity with the leader's often Afrocentric facets of jazz. This seemed to drive Baker on to greater heights, and as a consequence, the Ghanaian percussionist Abass Dodoo was also spurred into a livelier rapport, the pair knitting an unstoppable drumming dialogue. Baker obviously doesn't play as fiercely as his younger self, but he has a sturdy approach to setting up complex, polyrhythmic Afro-pile-ups around his tonally broad array of skins (notably substantial on the bass front), the duo getting buried in their hypnotic grooves. Sheppard responded to this by blowing hard, modal spirals, taking the tunes higher and higher over North Africa, as bassist Alec Dankworth
rolled underneath, plucking out tensile riffs or solos.
The final day opened in the late afternoon with GoGo Penguin
, an uncompromising trio from Manchester, England. The arriving audience was cast into the deep end, as this outfit specialise in convoluted stop-start, multi-section pieces that sound like they're inscribed by composition, but still possess the fire of improvisation. They also have melodies on hand, doggedly repeated, minimalism and chamber moves thrown in for bad measure. Chris Illingworth (piano), Nick Blacka (bass) and Rob Turner (drums) benefited from an exceptional sound mix, making their complicated chase all the more arresting. They will soon be one of the most adventurous acts on the Blue Note label, unless their vocabulary gets diluted. Although hearing a clutch of their fresh tunes, this seems unlikely, right now.
Much momentum has been built up by Snarky Puppy
, a brash groove collective from Brooklyn, lately becoming the ever-present darlings of the touring circuit. Your reviewer was making his first acquaintance, and was expecting a neat follow-on from GoGo Penguin, perhaps an outfit with a similarly challenging engagement with beats and off-kilter anthems. Surprisingly, they turned out to be a single-mindedly retro fusion act, locked into the 1970s and maybe the early 1980s, performing quite straight-ahead compositions. This they did with gusto, but much of their set was formulaic stuff, but improving towards the end with a hot trumpet solo and a thundering percussion battle.
Over at the Garden Stage, the Antwerpian combo Brzzvll demonstrated how funk-fusion should really be tackled, once again casting a heavy stare at vintage styles, but aggressively re-interpreting these traits via their own individualist musical identity. Tricky time signatures still enticed the nodding cranium, as the crew boiled up towards an ideal mashing of bonce down to tootsies, although they weren't as smoking once guest vocalist Anthony Jospeh joined for the second set. This Londoner from Port Of Spain sounded convincingly American when spouting rap poetry, but despite the skills of his delivery, he had the effect of arresting the momentum that was built up by the band during their potent instrumental set. Also, it might be a good idea if Andrew Claes spent less time playing his electronic wind instrument and more time blowing tenor saxophone, given that Jan Willems already excels in the keyboard department.
Another disappointing Englishwoman was Neneh Cherry, normally reliably flighty. Well, technically, she's Swedish, but Cherry is an international child, mostly identified with London. Following her extreme collaboration with The Thing
, she's now connected with Rocketnumbernine, otherwise known as Ben Page (electronics) and Tom Page (drums). That might sound like a minimalist arrangement, but the keyboarding Page is in command of a widescreen sonic stage, and sticksman Page can himself boast a thundering drum sound. Together, onstage at Gent, the threesome didn't combine satisfyingly, lacking a certain intangible chemistry. Your reviewer caught the Pages as a twosome at the Moers Festival in May, and their stripped, jagged house bounding was significantly more effective, dark and pointed. Cherry's contribution often consisted of repeated simple phrases sung, rapped or intoned over their music, rather than any kind of substantial song-form. When she harked back to the oldie "Manchild," there was a shocking difference, with the most nostalgic part of the set ironically being the most satisfying. This one involved singing and hooklines. Elsewhere, the energy failed to gather into a storm, with Cherry adopting an almost unfriendly non-rapport with the crowd, too intent on appearing cool. The Page electronics weren't unusual enough in texture to provide their own salvation of interest, and the semi-songs began to get repetitive. Your reviewer always enjoys an unhealthy dose of monomania, but here, the content wasn't sufficiently compelling.
In the end, the extremely ambitious concept of having a glut of female singers was only partially successful, but there was such a broad range of styles that most folks were doubtless pleased for most of the time. This year's festival featured a great degree of risk-taking, paradoxically involving a good number of commercially-orientated performers. During the first weekend, there was a strong presence representing the unconventional in all its glory. This chance-taking didn't seem to have an adverse effect on ticket sales, except for perhaps the opening night.
As ever, the indigenous contingent was well represented on the Garden Stage, and sometimes even the main stage. This could be viewed as a gearing-up for the soon-coming Belgian Jazz Meeting, where many of our favourite local acts from previous Gent fests will be showcasing their wares, not least the mighty Black Flower and De Beren Gieren
. This performance-packed bi-annual weekender takes place in Bruges this time around, on September 4th-6th...
Photo Credit: Bruno Bollaert