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Jazz Middelheim 2010

Martin Longley By

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Jazz Middelheim
Park Den Brandt
Antwerpen, Belgium
August 12-15, 2010

The Jazz Middelheim festival is a weekender that hasn't relinquished its fondness for adventure over the last four decades. Nuzzling up against 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. 2010 is the third year that Bertrand Flamang has been in charge of organisation and programming. He's already known for 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.

The long weekender opened with the Minneapolis singer (and adopted Londoner) José James and Brussels pianist Jef Neve, celebrating the release of their collaborative album For All We Know. Well, not completely, as for this set they expanded the purely duo format with bass, drums and saxophone, heading out for a John Coltrane homage. Perhaps this will be their next recorded project. The recent release is the first for James on the rather fitting Impulse! imprint, and his first Stateside release, following previous activities with the London label Brownswood. James and Neve performed on Belgian television, and spontaneously went into the studio on the following day. Little did they realise at the time, that this session would become a major album release.

Initially, James appeared to be subdued by the enormity of his concept. He was wavering around, providing a somewhat abstract colouring, twiddling with his tiny effects box, shaping subtle sonic departures. He was also introducing occasional narrative matter, interview sound-snatches from the 1960s. Neve was taking more of the lead, earning this month's honorary Hiromi-impersonates-Jerry-Lee-Lewis-standing-up award [see my 2010 Gent Jazz Festival review]. He invests a great deal of power in his disciplined bursts of activity. They reclaimed "My Favourite Things" as a pop vocal number, which seemed to be missing the entire point of Coltrane's original subversion. This didn't mean that James delivered an inferior rendition, though. The saxophonist Michael Campagna was inevitably struggling with his Coltrane role. With sparse vocal inserts diluting the Jamesian essence, this was an admirably divergent project, but one that might puzzle (or even disappoint) some of the singer's regular followers, just when his profile is continuing its global surge. In a way, James should be applauded for his daring.

Tenor man Archie Shepp has eventually evolved into a gentle perverter of tradition. His gradually ascending set included "Change Of Season" (Herbie Nichols) and "Don't Get Around Much Any More" (Duke Ellington), beginning with a faltering nature, then building up on an arc towards a completely spontaneous encore. So much so that, by this time, the band were having an involved discussion about its direction. Drummer Steve McCraven moved centre-stage for a body-percussion rendition of the traditional "Hambone," and then during said encore, percussionist Leon Parker indulged in a bout of similar self-tapping. "Trippin'" is a recent Shepp blues, but it sounded like the old blues. Shepp has a curious-looking embouchure formation, the position of his horn giving the impression of drooping slackness. His singing and tenor playing are similarly loose, with his soprano soloing sounding tighter. Once the group momentum was found, the set changed its nature dramatically. Shambling evolved into fixity and the ensemble had clearly found their true path. "Things Have Got To Change" provided a notable summit. The core trio of McCraven, bassist Daryll Hall and pianist Tom McClung were firm and workmanlike, whilst the trombonist Roswell Rudd is always reliably nimble. Besides being remarkably vigorous, and emanating a septuagenarian youthfulness, Rudd was blasting raspberries, then cutting to muted lightness. Shepp is also sharp for his age, but adopts a more laid back posture, maintaining an intense glow.

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