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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.

The spirit of John Coltrane dominated this opening evening, as Joe Lovano guested with the regular McCoy Tyner Trio. The pianist is a magisterial presence rather than a showy dominator, or detailed attacker. He flows, he floats, dapples, and orchestrates on the hoof. The tune selections seemed to be an object of spontaneous discussion. It was Lovano and drummer Eric Gravath who provided the earthly delights. Structurally, there was much predictability, as the soloing routine was repeated. Gravath was tightly constricted and inwardly aggressive, his solos clipped and curt, short and full of detonating intensity, without relinquishing a sensitivity to timbre. Lovano could have been physically louder in the spread. I'm developing a theory that the clip-on microphone doesn't always scoop up the sound as much as an old-school device.

The festival's second day began with the Jeroen Herzeele Quartet, roughing up in a manner which was once favoured by Archie Shepp. The Belgian tenor man's high energy free jazz blowing gouted forth in urgent rushes. The French bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel has been battling with illness, but even though he now appears frail, his playing is as strong as ever, as he offered up a series of singing, resonant solos. The Italian drummer Giovanni Barcella (lately a Belgian resident) has something in his playing that recalls the style of British sticksman John Stevens. Pianist Fabian Fiorini rolled out a hard cascade of notes. The quartet's flow is very natural, expressive and arresting. The choice of Steve Lacy's "As Usual" was sublime. Coltrane's "Leo" provided a sunburst finish, as Herzeele faced off with Barcella, each pushing the other on to greater efforts. Horns were locked, then splintered fatally. The conclusions to each piece might have been frequently a touch too ragged, but this was a small carp for such a raging display.

The pianist Ahmad Jamal is another artist whose demeanour belies his age. At 80 years, he's impish, lively and dominant, exuding a forceful charisma as he pointedly directs his sidemen. This is a workin' band! Herlin Riley (drums), Manolo Badrena (percussion) and James Cammack (bass) are a stable unit, accurately barnstorming with precise attention to dynamics. Jamal is a natural, possibly even belligerent leader, sharply prompting solos from his team. It's probably a benign belligerence, as Jamal is also regularly caught chuckling as he enjoys each staccato arrangement. He loves the sudden, emphatic strike. Badrena is an extremely resourceful asset to the band, his skins sensitively tuned and exact in their melodic deployment. He ranges from congas to small hand drums, chimes and voice. Jamal combined newer compositions with pieces that stretched right back to the beginning of his recording career. He also mixes an almost classically-influenced jazz with a bullish funk sensibility. Jamal would stand, observing his players whilst they soloed, as if in judgment of their prowess. He's always wired, with his youthful energy, even when not actually playing. He put McCoy Tyner under a dim light, when comparing these particular Middelheim festival showings.

This weekender boasted a remarkable number of the surviving jazz titans. The Wayne Shorter Quartet closed out the second evening. This is even more of a working band than Jamal's. Their rapport has been heightening over a decade's worth of intensive study. A decade of intensive playfulness, too. Drummer Brian Blade was in a violent mood. The Shorter approach is to play a seamless piece of music for most of his set, turning composition into a large-scale edifice of logical sonic evolution. There was a procession of themes, sub-themes, phrases, gestures, moods and degrees of motion. Shorter himself almost adopts the methods of an advanced noodler, as he embellishes whilst the other three players involve themselves with glacial structuring. There was something in the band chemistry on this particular evening that resulted in a harsher result than the usual Shorter experience. Pianist Danilo Pérez was hammering hard, much less sensitised than is his usual way. Shorter was concentrating on the tenor saxophone, only unveiling his soprano towards the set's climax. He projects an almost childlike wonderment at the nature of his own music, as if perpetually surprised and gratified by the sounds that emanate from this quartet.

For the Saturday and Sunday of Middelheim, the festival hours were extended to expand from three to four acts. Saturday opened with a Belgian-American collaboration. Le Pragmatisme Du Barman are a cumbersomely-named quintet, so felt inclined to invite along the more succinctly-titled Peter Evans. This New York City trumpeter had been 'coaching' students at the local Artesis Hogeschool. The ensemble's labyrinthine compositional corridor would sometimes weave and wend its way interminably. Piano splinters dashed over tangled electric guitar and bass patterns, as drummer Teun Verbruggen oversaw the polyrhythmic contortions. Evans dotted bright patterns above, below and around its intricate alcoves. His trademark internal plumbing investigations succeeded in surprising the ears at several junctures, horn pressed up hyper-close to the microphone. The trumpeter came across as an extension rather than a fully inducted partner, but that presented no problem, ultimately.

The day lifted up surprisingly early, with an afternoon of sheer joyfulness from the Belgian trio Aka Moon, working with the Malian multi-instrumentalist Baba Sissoko and his Black Machine. Aka Moon are renowned for their love of challenging time-signatures and free-form soloing, but they also have the capacity to funk hard. It was this latter tendency that dominated when they came into contact with the Afro-contingent. In this case, Aka Moon were changing their tactics to embrace the world of Malian traditional music, rather than goading Sissoko into a post-Prime Time jazz complexity. So, without compromise, this composite group struck the audience with a surprise shunt into a very different musical landscape, especially considering that the festival so far had been concerned with various manifestations of 'pure' jazz. Aka Moon's saxophonist, Fabrizio Cassol, had a particularly visible empathy with the Black Machine musicians, clearly relishing the success of this interface, and physically stepping up to band members as he blew his horn directly to prompt their reactions. Drummer Stéphane Galland didn't quite operate as an Afro-percussionist, but that was part of the point, as his funky spine underpinned the free-wheeling tama talking-drum dialogues. Cassol was enthusiastically conducting the entire ensemble, scaling the heights of an intricately danceable Afro-funk.

Keeping in line with the drum as a dominant force, the World Saxophone Quartet arrived onstage next, surrounded by the massive percussion arrangement of M'Boom. This was the Afro-drumming ensemble formed by the now-departed Max Roach, reviving their old existence beside reedsmen David Murray, Oliver Lake, Hamiet Bluiett and later arrival James Carter. As can be imagined, these combined forces were about to provide another highlight of the weekend's already glowing roster. Complementing the preceding Aka Moon set, this was another meeting point between abstracted virtuosity and steaming funkiness. Murray appeared to be cueing much of the action, with densely interweaving horn riffs acting as a foundation for individual flights of rippling extremity. The acrobatics of the WSQ present these horns in the most advanced state possible in modern music. Each of their solos were almost completely untethered, but would suddenly swoop down on the riff below, picking up the structured rolling as another member took his turn in the heavens. Carter has now decidedly earned his place in the ranks of this veteran outfit, and the equality of all four members completely inhabiting the very fibre of their horns is almost too much for the listener to comprehend. Meanwhile, M'Boom were providing the same level of achievement on the drumming front, amalgamating the vocabularies of jazz, classical, African and Latin music, ultimately formulating their own group language.

Since last year's festival appearance by the magisterial harmonica player Toots Thielemans, his namesake restaurant at the close-by Crowne Plaza hotel has been shuttered, apparently never to be opened again. There are probably plans afoot for a completely non-jazz café. During his set, I was pondering that, if he so desired, upset in his twilight years, Toots could pervert the mass adoration of his subjects, turning us into a heated mob that could have razed the old restaurant, hauling its black 'n' white portraits of Thielemans aloft, as protesters rioted along the Antwerpian avenues. But no, our local hero is such a gentle soul, his music so poised with jazz sensitivity that instead, he delivered a set with a repertoire very close in feel to that of his showing at the Gent jazzfest a month earlier. This time, though, Toots was accompanied by his regular rhythm team, so more of a linear pulse was allowed to override the proceedings. Enchanting though his set was, it suffered from the preceding volume and arousal of the the World Saxophone Quartet and Aka Moon. It was a challenge to calm the senses following such celebratory feasting.

With this perpetual climaxing, the festival's final day was carrying a heavy burden. Even if a headlining set by Cassandra Wilson was unlikely to beat most of the performances encountered so far, there were still Dave Holland and Chucho Valdes lined up before the singer's closing show. Even the shining weather was about to disperse in a drowning, dogged downpour. First, though, Belgium's own Chris Joris opened up the afternoon. The percussionist was leading his Experience, which also featured the pianist Fré Desmyter. The leader switched between drum set and conga array, forcefully fronted by trumpeter Nico Schepers and saxophonist Frank Vaganée. Joris and company were successfully guiding his music from out of an Afro-Latin core, flecked with the spiritualised sound of late-period John Coltrane.

Bassman Dave Holland has long been concerned with leading his own ensembles of varying sizes, all of them with a prime directive to perform his original compositions. The three-year collaboration with the Spanish flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela marks a very unusual swerving of energy-flow. Yes, the pair's latest Hands album features a healthy quotient of Holland pieces, but our bassist also subsumes himself in the traditional flamenco forms (solea, buleria, etc.), almost becoming a sideman. It was refreshing to discover Holland in such an unfamiliar setting. It was also clear that he has fully immersed himself in flamenco, but whilst retaining the strong personality of his own playing. The festival quintet was almost an exact replication of the album's crew, with Juan Carmona joining the mysterious Bandolero on cajón and various other percussives. The band textures were in constant flux, as various permutations maintained the variety, ranging from dense group thrust to duo sparseness.

A strong aspect of Middelheim's approach is to book acts that even the committed festival attendee will probably relish for their relative rarity. Thus, Archie Shepp, Holland in flamenco state and, lastly, the Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés led the way in this category. Once a frequent European visitor, when he was fronting the mighty Irakere, Valdés has recently become a much more shadowy presence on the international scene. This made the appearance of his Afro-Cuban Messengers triply exciting. Valdés still emanates a powerful aura of firm leadership, though in a different fashion to that of Ahmad Jamal. His large horn- and percussion-heavy group were in the Irakere tradition, but more evocative of that band's hardcore Latin jazz facets. Valdés is physically (and sometimes musically) in the same zone as fellow pianist Randy Weston: tall, long-limbed, authoritative and coolly articulate. Of particular note were the surging tenor saxophone solos of Carlos Manuel Miyares Hernandez.

In a reprise of the previous evening's dynamic curve, the festival arrived at its conclusion in a relaxed, almost sombre, fashion. Cassandra Wilson was slinking around the stage in sandals, her band mastering the art of light and dark contrasts. She adopts a slightly eccentric posture that's more common in the rock world, unafraid to express a natural playfulness, yet still selecting elements of diva dignity. It's a curious, though compelling, mixture. Wilson manages to impose authority and casualness simultaneously. Brandon Ross may well be the most familiar guitarist in her band, but it was his fellow picker Marvin Sewell who took most of the remarkable solos. Gregoire Maret also contributed some beguiling harmonica textures. Lonnie Plaxico was on the bass, and Herlin Riley was still around to play the drums, following his Ahmad Jamal set. Even for those who don't appreciate jazz vocals, Wilson has such a heavy blues content in her rich, deep and rounded voice that she can court outsiders who might normally prefer rock, soul, funk or gospel stylings. There was an extreme downpour pounding on the marquee, but the Middelheim audience were being safely warmed around Wilson's boudoir fireplace.

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