Jazz Middelheim 2009
Park Den Brandt
The Jazz Middelheim festival is nearing its fortieth anniversary, but it's a weekender that hasn't relinquished a fondness for adventure. Nuzzling up against its stellar bookings are acts, Belgian and otherwise, who seek to jolt the expectations of many audience members. The entertaining middle way is subverted by the sideways thrust of jazz extremity. This, too, can often be entertaining. 2009 is the second year that Bertrand Flamang has been in charge of organization and programming. He's already known for nearly a decade's sterling work running the nearby Gent Jazz Festival, and has rapidly established a house style at Jazz Middelheim.
There's a similar format, in terms of stylistic contrasts, timing structure, food vendors and Belgian beer range. The main practical difference to the Gentfest is that the marquee stage is more integrated with the landscape of its park setting; all of the bars, stalls and food outlets ranged in a roughly circular fashion around the festival's musical heart. It's possible to sprawl on the lawn and still enjoy a (distant) view of the performers, should such a casual engagement be desired. If choosing to sit up close, an early arrival is advised, as attendance is gratifyingly swollen, even in these hard times.
August 13: John Zorn, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson/Flat Earth Society/Octurn
To open: a pair of Belgian big bands, both of whom operated on an upward curve of innovation. Octurn formed in 1996, and is an adaptable unit, changing its make-up to suit particular projects. This time, the horns were emphasized, but perhaps that's always the case. Saxophonists Bo Van Der Werf and Guillaume Orti pen most, if not all, of the compositions for Octurn's large forces. There was a broad range of colors on display, but ultimately the pieces needed more passion, coming across as being too tidily arranged, and neatly delivered, particularly when compared to the unfettered dynamism of the immediately following Flat Earth Society.
This was an even bigger assemblageeven heavier on the hornskept tautly on the reins held by reedman Peter Vermeersch, but given great amounts of slack each time they delivered the payload of a tune's governing theme. After this, anything could transpire, and usually did; the soloists bounding around the stage-space, crazed by their sudden release from confinement. Veermeesch reveled in tune titles that combine evocative imagery with poetic expression, none more so than his "Vole Sperm Reverie." The Flemish taste for theatrical seriousness abounded, the ludicrous breeding with the complex, the lofty academy-of-the-head crumpling into a pair of involuntarily-soiled crimplene slacks. It would be dishonest not to mention Frank Zappa, Anthony Braxton, Willem Breuker and Captain Beefheart.
Lou Reed and John Zorn played their first gig at The Stone, a New York experimental joint operated by the saxophonist. This was in January of 2008, severely stretching the capacity of a space that can just about contain 73 punters. Laurie Anderson was their special guest on that night, and here that threesome was reunited, this time performing in front of a thousands-strong throng, seemingly a one-off festival exclusive for Jazz Middelheim. Reed and Anderson are to play subsequent European dates, but without Zorn. When Reed and Zorn met again at New York's Poisson Rouge club in November 2008, the target was eardrum destruction, with the pair in a highly aggressive state that didn't waver all night. Reed churned and Zorn caterwauled, to ripping effect. The addition of Anderson might be a factor in this gig's greater lyrical content, as she's fond of crafting layered electro-violin washes, often disguising her output by making sonic processing tweaks.
For the first thirty minutes or so, the trio flailed around, attempting to locate the sometimes elusive coalescence of improvisational magic. It was Zorn who primarily took the lead, frequently turning up a new direction as he graduated from compressed squawking to open bebop grace, then reverting that same flow. Reed appeared the most unfulfilled, riffing sluggishly and failing to connect. This is the big risk of free improvisation, particularly when taken in front of a huge (and hugely expectant) festival audience. Around halfway through the set, all three suddenly intersected, catching onto a simultaneous energy. The hypno-riffing locked, built and burst, with Reed even singing primitivist fragments at one stage, before ditching his guitar and triggering grimy samples on his mixing desk/keyboard. Zorn was both technician (gloriously precise shrieks) and hysterical intuitive (gloriously throttling bell-into-inner-thigh glottalisms).