Gent Jazz Festival 2008
Part One: Hardcore Jazz

Martin Longley travels to the cobblestone streets of Gent, Belgium for a historical tour of jazz's journey from bebop to fusion.

By Martin Longley

 Photo shows Herbie Hancock (photo: Martin Longley)
Gent Jazz might not enjoy the high profile of certain other European festivals, but its line-up can easily compete with most and surpass many. Divided into two four-day chunks, the opening assault of 'pure' jazz headliners boasted Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Diana Krall and Wayne Shorter, almost a complete list of the global circuit's biggest draws, and with one lukewarm exception, a historical tour of the music's journey from bebop to fusion. With so many deaths of history's giants in recent years, these acts have now become the venerable old guard. To complete the list further, the Gentfest's organisers have also booked Wynton Marsalis, Charles Lloyd and Pharoah Sanders for Jazz Middelheim, in Antwerp. This mid-August festival has been in action for nearly four decades, but Gent organiser Bertrand Flamang has recently taken over its programming.
There have been a few changes in approach over the last couple of years. Firstly, the jazzfest used to exactly coincide with the ten-day Gentse Feesten, this historically impressive city's mainline mega-celebration, which draws thousands of visitors from far and wide, partying in the streets, and quaffing copious amounts of glorious Belgian beer. Lately, the jazzfest has been shunted forward, so that only its last two days coincide with the Gentse Feesten, perhaps wisely ceasing to compete with each other. The other significant change is that the festival has dropped its Blue Note Records sponsorship prefix, now seeking to push its independence and emphasise its host city.
Talking to a couple of locals in a bar, I glean that the biggest complaint from folks who live in the immediate Gentse Feesten celebration zone is that beautiful cobblestone streets are sometimes awash with the urine of enthusiastic revellers, and that theoretically short walks become sluggish processions. The Gentse Feesten is also all about culture of another sort, with its excellent Polé Polé global music festival running down by the river, as well as numerous theatre, comedy, circus and music shows in a wide variety of venues. It would be possible to experience the jazzfest, then stay on for the Gentse Feesten afterwards, which would involve a lengthy bout of hedonism indeed. The local citizenry need rest both before and after the festivities.
There's no multi-stage tomfoolery here at the jazzfest. Everything happens in a single big tent on the attractive Bijloke site, with three or four acts running from six-thirty until around midnight or later. In the shortish gaps between performances, the audience can saunter around the spread of relaxed eating and drinking areas, absorbing the sounds of the fest's DJ programme. The main tent pleasingly incorporates trees and shrubbery from the site, with a large arborean nuzzling up to the left-hand speaker-stack, and a tiny sprig sprouting right in the middle-front of the stage itself. A positive psychological effect for the audience, but I'm forced to ask whether trees need earplugs. Are their branches receptive to jazz?
Yes, the fest has its big-name artists, but a subtler pleasure, particularly for the foreign visitor, is to investigate the indigenous Belgian acts inhabiting the third or fourth billing place. Several times, these provided musical highlights. In a number of cases I had negative preconceptions of the US giants, which were ultimately unfounded, for equally various reasons. More on this later...
The first day's opener was the Liège-born pianist Pascal Mohy, winner of last year's Young Talent category in Belgium's Django d'Or Awards. He's certainly a fresh-faced talent, his early classical training resulting in a lyrical, free-flowing language. His elaborate solos weave and worm, often with no clear division between theme and development, so convoluted is his developmental path. Boris Schmidt's throbby bass has an organic snap, amplified into a powerful physical presence, whilst drummer Lionel Beuvens favours brushwork, even though this can frequently possess a surprising firmness, skipping and slipping with graceful control. They lie well within the traditional piano trio zone, but navigating with quiet intensity, full of a wandering spirit that's still kept in check at crucial junctures.
This year's Django d'Or winner in the 'veteran' category was Belgian guitarist Pierre Van Dormael, though on this showing he sounded considerably slack in disposition. Battling against a serious illness, he makes a valiant showing onstage, but his band's soporific drifting is largely ignorable, with bass and drums plodding listlessly. The leader is forced to hand over most of the solo duties to his co-guitarist Herve Samb, but their styles are sonically interchangeable anyway, bordering on a new age blandness. There's little sense of a feeling of excitement or interaction between the players.
Here comes the first of my false preconceptions. The fast-ascending guitarist Lionel Loueke's mission was, by his own admission, to warm up the crowd for Herbie Hancock. His recent Karibu album suffers from some extremely bland playing, particularly when Loueke is over-using his closely-coupled voice-guitar techniques. Tonight, though, he sounds harder, a one-man show forcing him to achieve greater density and intensity. He's a player with many sides. Later, as part of Herbie's bunch, he plugs in and cranks up the volume, offering up yet another guitar texture from his range. But now, he's sampling himself on the hoof, working speedily as he repeats percussive phrases, drops them, then darts off in another direction. The vocal tongue-tripping has more of a staccato edge, emerging from his Benin birthplace, and then his years spent growing up in Ivory Coast. Suddenly, Loueke cuts the guitar altogether, singing a capella, then brings it back in with a punch. In a completely solo setting, he capitalises on his African heritage, becoming a virtual orchestra.
Another false preconception was that seeing Herbie Hancock on his River Of Possibilities tour would somehow be less fulfilling than a 'straight' gig. This outing is based around the Grammy-garnering River: The Joni Letters, and threatened disappointment if the Herbie fan isn't an admirer of Joni Michell's oeuvre. But, then, on walks the pianist's supergroup, ready to prove that it's certainly not going to be vocal numbers all the way, even though these are ably handled by the contrasting stylings of singers Sonya Kitchell and Amy KeysVinnie Colaiuta establishes a rubbery drumming foundation, formed out of the very essence of pounding polyrhythmic virtuosity. Chris Potter is taking the disc's Wayne Shorter role, intent on searing out a surfeit of tenor expression. He's bound in an unholy unity with the great Dave Holland, who is hoisting, omigod!, an electric bass. A surreal sight, but it suits him well, his precise snakings providing an integral funk slip. Then, he switches to upright acoustic, giving a totally solo spotlight interlude. This is the acceptable face of fusion, no smoothness in sight, but rather a roiling conjunction of grooves, with this band relishing every moment. Herbie is in a particularly conversational mood, both at the keys and with a microphone in his hand. He's also dividing time between acoustic rivulets and parping electro-emissions. Almost surprisingly, there's room for some hits, with Watermelon Man and Rockit, the latter featuring Herbie on shoulder-slung axe-keyboard, preserving the retro vibrations of 1983. The reception is one of adoration, and it will be hard to match during the current mega-tour.
Italy's Stefano Di Battista is an ebullient entertainer, something like a puppy that refuses to let go of your leg. The saxophonist fronts a quintet that sets him down in an unfamiliar context. Di Battista is usually more of a mainstreamer, but this combo is characterised by Baptiste Trotignon's Hammond organ, creating a 1960s groove situation. It's reminiscent of the direction that Scott Hamilton has taken on his latest Across The Tracks album. Fabrizio Bosso's jetting trumpet is a match for Di Battista's flighty alto and soprano, even though he prefers to keep his mute in place. Trotignon's bass footpedals surge with a forceful undercurrent, while he's making sharp cuts with the treble notes, their edges like crushed crystal. The crunchy detail of their sound is a reminder of this festival's mixing desk majesty.
Here's one of those Belgian highlights, and one of the festival's most striking sets. Trio Grande is buzz-lip specialist Michel Massot, on tuba and trombone, Michel Debrulle, drums and percussion, both of these being Belgians, rounded out by Laurent Dehors, an amazingly multi-instrumental reedsman, from Normandy. Just to complete the internationalism, they've roped in the English pianist Matthew Bourne, whom they've already collaborated with on a disc, released earlier this year. It's a Flemish tradition to combine serious compositional intent with a sense of the ludicrous, and this group do so with expert fine-tuning. Their pieces are nervous, fidgety, inspired by moderne classical intricacy, vaudeville hooting and rigorous honking, all receiving equal attention. It's not clear how much time Bourne has had to rehearse with Grande, but his lightning runs are hermetically sealed beside the reeds and 'bone complexities. This is head music, finding its way out of the body via the bowels. Dehors is clad in a wardrobe that's intact from back in 1974: crimson strides and shrunken wool vest, hitched up to expose his middle-aged midriff. Laurent kinda carries this off, at least in a stage environment. Meanwhile, Bourne's all baggy, like he's just escaped from an institution, and this is the way he plays, too, alternating slouched inactivity with whirlwind outbursts. Dehors squeaks clarinets with needle accuracy, often sticking two horns into his mouth at the same time. He also plays some kind of looped bass clarinet/midget sousaphone construction which has a wonderfully hoarse belch of a sound. Then, towards set's end, he proudly exposes his small pipes (presumably Breton), which have the appearance of a kip (or chicken). He squeezes them sharply, either out of affection, or to kill the chirpy-looking fowl.
Headlining on the second night, the Pat Metheny Trio follow in Lionel Loueke's tracks by delivering a live set that has far more substance than their recent milksop album Day Trip. The guitarist's unruly thatch seems bigger with each gig, still imparting a youthful air from a player who is now close to being a grand old veteran of jazz. There's something disquieting about Metheny's methods. On the surface, his sound has always been smooth, twinkling with synthesiser dust and full of epic romance. But over the decades, he's maintained a flirtation with a secret life of noise. There was Song X, the very atypical collaboration with Ornette Coleman, The Sign Of 4, an even more extreme teaming with Derek Bailey, and his own Zero Tolerance For Silence. None of tonight's set travelled this distance into the zone of dissonance, but Metheny did slip in several subversive interludes of roughed-up abandon, including an Ornette medley. Contrarily, he used an acoustic axe here, cranked up with an abrasive edge. By way of contrast, Metheny opened his extended two-and-a-half hour set with a solo display, before bassist Christian McBride and drummer Antonio Sanchez took to the stage. It's like a foreplay session, climaxing with the appearance of the forty-two string Pikasso guitar. This is straight from an axeman's dream (or nightmare!), an ornate three-necked baroque gargoyle with strings laid out every-which-way. In Metheny's able hands, it sounds quite harp-like, transforming him into an orchestral player. When joined by McBride and Sanchez, Metheny proceeds to work through every conceivable emotional shade, from assault to prettiness, the trio engaging in an involved conversation that possesses constantly shifting dynamics. McBride also exists on an epic scale, particularly when he's magnificently amplified, in all of his sensitive detail. This is a Rolling Stones-length set, but it's to the guitarist's credit that it never flags for its entire duration. The extended encores are won genuinely and spontaneously by a baying crowd.
One of Belgium's best bands is the Flat Earth Society, headed up by reedsman Peter Vermeersch. They reside in Gent itself, being something of a perversion of a conventional brass band, complete with full rhythm section plus accordion. Ranged across the stage, battalion-fashion, FES have the Finnish electro-funk saxophonist Jimi Tenor guesting, and maybe this is why their set sounds more linear than usual, barrelling along with a steady flow, hard-muscled and veering away from their more usual free-form tendencies. Then again, this is a band that's so varied in its conceptual make-up that it's very difficult to establish the nature of their 'normal' gig.
The final day of the festival's first phase opens with Melody Gardot, from Philadelphia, whose career was inadvertently encouraged by a road accident that led her to use music as therapy in her recovery. Now, she has to wear dark glasses and walks with a cane, which has the onstage effect of adding to a film noir-ish persona, ideal for the poised jazz balladry of her songs. It's not so much that she's a unique stylist (Gardot's voice is not noticeably outside of the sultry songstress tradition), it's more in the full spread of music and presentation. Her portentously clicking fingers, her delicately tapped tambourine. The way she slinks from guitar to piano, and lets 'her boys' in the band have their spotlit moments. It's just like the old, old days, but her songs are freshly minted. The only negative point is that her three standards are extremely common within the jazz universe. My Funny Valentine, Over The Rainbow and Caravan might (just about) sound unusual on the rock-pop circuit, but the combination of all three is way too predictable in a jazz context. At least the latter receives its less-heard with-lyrics treatment. Gardot is slightly too gushing with the crowd, and could maybe preserve more of a taciturn mystery to match her physical image. On the other hand, remember all those gigs where the miserable guys never speak until the very end of the show?
It's back to the mainline jazz, next, with Belgian trumpeter Bert Joris, his quintet featuring two guesting Italians, pianist Enrico Pieranunzi and saxophonist Rosario Giuliani. Initially, they paint a pleasant enough ensemble scene, but there's not much to jar the attention. About half way through the set, something happens between Pieranunzi and the drummer Hans van Oosterhout, setting off a charge that catches under Giuliani. Suddenly, the compositions have gained a volatile, percussive nature, that intangible quality that sets a performance off in a completely different direction. We know it when it happens...
The final stretch is devoted to some of the globe's finest saxophonists. First, Saxophone Summit unites a front-line of Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman and Ravi Coltrane, the latter having the difficult job of replacing a departed Michael Brecker. Some folks might assume that this aggregation is a summer festival dollar-spinner, and I suppose that, realistically, there is some cash involved. Listening to the hornmen's rapport will confirm that this is also a convincing artistic endeavour, particularly with Liebman at the conceptual helm (it's he who appears to be the dominant onstage strategist). This band goes well beyond the saxophone: its tonal spread is widened by various permutations of flutes and bass clarinet, so that the palette is ever-shifting in its emphasis. The soloists are battling with each other, but in the themed sections harmony is paramount. The solos are extended, but filled with development. In the end, all three are nearly equal, but Liebman is off in the heavens, always striving for fleeter and more spiralled lines.
Wayne Shorter is more of an introvert, dedicated to the intuitive closeness of his regular quartet. This doesn't mean that he's any less involved. Shorter's tenor journey is the focus here, with less soprano flight than usual, but he's constantly working, interlacing betwixt his bandmates, with soloing roles never so fixed. Shorter has the blowing stamina of a much younger man, and indeed appears much younger than his seventy-four years. Pianist Danilo Pérez is a strong foil, playing with a rabidly humorous hyperactivity. The foursome can wander interminably, never catching on to a groove of abstraction. Their methods sound completely unlike those of any other band. Theirs is a form of improvisation that sounds like it's growing out of a song form, but it also has a quality of an extended suite of complete spontaneity. Shorter, Pérez, bassman John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade avoid the particular clichés of the improvising art. They've evolved a completely naturalistic language. It's structured, but its modules are independently shifting, based around percussive repeats and a slowly unwinding momentum, as if each member is dedicated to the whole, without having to relinquish their personality. This was surely one of the quartet's more triumphant gigs. Yes, the festival's headliners have mostly been found at the top of their form.
 Read part two of Martin Longley's Gent Festival 2008 coverage
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