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.