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Global Unity: Belgium

Tom Greenland By

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Brussels Jazz Orchestra
The Music of Michael Herr

Nicolas Thys

Fred Van Hove

Belgium is associated with many things besides jazz but three new releases show, however, that she should be lauded for producing high caliber musicians playing everything from big band jazz to free improv.

Composer/arranger/pianist Michel Herr teams up with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra on The Music of Michel Herr, a two-disc portfolio of his work, some dating back to the '70s. Herr is a fine craftsman, drawing on the traditional techniques of big band arranging but adding ideas of his own. Many of his pieces have a semi-modal character, lingering over a pedal tone or vamp as the overlying harmonies grow more adventurous. There is complex interplay between the sections, well-conceived background figures and transitional elements and climactic full-band shout sections with interwoven polyphony. The BJO is a watertight unit, phrasing in lock-step without sounding stiff, slipping easily between big and small band instrumentation and boasting a host of strong soloists, notably saxists Kurt Van Herck and Frank Vaganée and flugelhornist Pierre Drevet. Standout charts include "Multributes," "Song for Lucy," "Flagey: A New Era" and "Pentaprism."

On Virgo, bassist Nicolas Thys leads his combo through a rock-influenced set. Featuring Chris Cheek on tenor, the session sustains a mellow, restrained ambience, flowing easily between sections and songs. Thys' music borrows heavily from the rock lexicon, but he pins the harmonies down with unusual bass notes, giving these 'same old' patterns a fresh wrinkle. Many of the tunes have slow moving, docile melodies and use similar chords and cadential patterns. The solos are short, more textural and episodic elements than vehicles for exploration, though Cheek stretches out a bit on "It's Been a While" and even more so on "G Brazil."

Fred VanHove, known for his associations with an eclectic array of forward-thinking artists, is one of Belgium's most valued musical exports. Journey captures 52 minutes of free solo piano improv at the Jazz à Mulhouse festival in 2007. His style is unique, a combination of brain and body, density and lightness, muscle and grace—like a ballerina in hiking boots. The flow of ideas is incessant, piling up and spilling over, the two hands either working as one, completing each other's musical thoughts or interrupting, even arguing. Van Hove will hover around a dense cluster of notes, making small stops and turns, only to take a drastic leap into the far registers. His cascading glissandos, rolled chords and pile-driver ostinatos run the notes together until they're virtually indistinguishable, creating, paradoxically, a sustain effect akin to caroling bells.

Tracks & Personnel

The Music of Michel Herr

Tracks: Springboard; Distant Echoes; Extremes; Multributes; Bad Fever; Song for Lucy; Out of the Silence; Celebration Suite: Prelude, Bells, New Page, The Next 20 Years; Flagey, A New Era: Past Splendor, Hibernation, The Awakening, Sailing Again; Song for Micheline; Pentaprism.

Personnel: Bart Defoort: tenor sax; Nico Schepers: trumpet; Peter Hertmans: guitar; Frank Vaganée: alto sax; Jeroen Van Malderen: trumpet; Nathalie Loriers: piano; Kurt Van Herck: tenor sax; Martijn Vink: drums; Bo Van der Werf: baritone sax; Pierre Drevet: trumpet; Lode Mertens: trombone; Dieter Limbourg: alto sax; Marc Godfroid: trombone; Jos Machtel: double bass.


Tracks: Disco Monkey; 99 Ocean; Lucky Loser; It's Been a While; virgo; G Brazil.

Personnel: Chris Cheek: tenor saxophone; Jon Cowherd: piano; Ryan Scott: guitar; Nicolas Thys: bass; Dan Rieser: drums.


Tracks: Journey, Pt. 1, Journey, Pt. 2.

Personnel: Fred Van Hove: piano.


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