Gent Jazz Festival 2008
Part Two: Jazz Peripherals

From Cuban nostalgia to avant rock weirdness, the peripheral jazz zones of Gent Jazz Festival give Martin Longley much to reflect on in his second round-up of 2008's event.

By Martin Longley

 Photo shows Erykah Badu (photo: Martin Longley)
The second half of the Gent Jazz Festival is devoted to peripheral jazz zones, from hip hop groove to Cuban nostalgia, New Orleans R&B to avant rock weirdness. All of the seats are cleared out of its performance tent, creating a floor designed for dancing. The opening act on Thursday allows the crowd to sway in gently. The Belgian DJ Buscemi is fronting a big band of fleshly players, providing beats and sonic peripherals, in a dialogue with drummer Mimi Vererame. The line-up also includes a string quartet, along with bass, piano, guitar, trumpet and an occasional singer. The concept is for pianist Michel Bisceglia to re-arrange Buscemi's electro output into a largely acoustic jazz flow. The results are likable enough, but there's a overwhelming sense that these sophisticated soft-grooves are five, maybe even ten, years out of date. The pieces perambulate gracefully, dotted with well-behaved trumpet and guitar solos, but they don't develop much, and they're completely bereft of any flexing gristle. It's ideal to get the audience's heads swaying, as an aperitif to the more substantial sounds to come.
There's a forceful contrast as soon as The Herbaliser hit the stage. This London combo has been trimmed down, with its previously expansive horn section now made-up of a twosome who are not shy of compensating with their bass-throttling baritone saxophone and scimitar trumpet stylings. There's much swapping around with Andrew Ross, whose bullish flute licks contribute a crucial air of hardcore retro breeziness. Yes, this is a groove that looks back to the soul, funk, jazz and blues of the 1960s and '70s, crunched through a hard hip hop frontdrop, but this crew sound vitally of-the-moment rather than trapped in time. Nowadays, so many DJs don't (or can't) perform with a scratching fever, but Herbaliser founder Ollie Teeba is a master vinyl-skater, hoisted up in the mix for full hardcore effect.
Another artist that sieves old sounds from down the decades through a retro-futurist gauze is Erykah Badu, who joins the ranks of performers who co-exist as slightly (or not-so-slightly) off-kilter characters and commercially successful entities. We're talking Sly Stone, Prince and George Clinton. Badu (aka Erica Wright) is one of hip hop/soul/funk's most individualist additions in recent years. This is not so much overt, as implied in her movements, delivery and lyrics. She clearly imagines herself as some Nubian ritualist, casting Norma Desmond shapes with her expressive arm manoeuvres, clearly hoping that she will be reincarnated in feline form. There's an absolutely arresting moment where Erykha pulls out two large tuning forks, clashing them in front of her face. Then, she's pattering over sample-pads or thrumming on a talking drum. All this, and she sings too! Though heavily identified with hip hop, let's not forget that Badu has a classically soaring soul voice, superbly embellished by her backing vocal wing.

Friday night is Cuban night, which might sound a touch one-dimensional, but it's the Buena Vista Social Club roadshow, presenting three very varied approaches to the island's music. Pianist Roberto Fonseca opens: he who was, for a time, the replacement for Rubén González. Roberto is now completely involved in his own music and band, which operates on a much jazzier level, but without diluting its strong Havana club essence. Fonseca throws himself into soloing with a passion, specialising in an odd stance where he throws his head and torso so far back that he looks like he's going to fall off his stool. The compositions are commercially hummable, but they're mostly delivered with a fierce momentum, longtime sparring partner saxophonist Javier Zalba contributing some phenomenally energised solos, at great length, and with maximum engagement.

Following this, the audience needs a rest, so veteran singer Omara Portuondo is the ideal choice. Her decelerated romantic numbers tend to waft past the attention, even though these are the real source of her fame. It's the swifter songs, dotted about her set, that prompt a dancing motion. Portuondo still possesses the stamina to negotiate this material without flagging, always appearing genuinely immersed on an emotional level. Often when she's singing, it seems that tears are welling up in her eyes, as she thinks of times past, present, or maybe even future. The repertoire is so ingrained that each song carries a wealth of experience, Portuondo enraptured as she travels back in time.

The Buena Vista Social Club specialise in a different variant on the theme of authenticity. Their tunes are often equally ancient, but the emphasis is on punchy dancing music, and by this time the audience is filling the tent, beginning to sway and swirl. Many of the band's old guard founders have passed on in recent years, but it's still fronted by a hardcore foursome of Cachaito López (bass), Guajiro Mirabel (trumpet), Aguaje Ramos (trombone) and Manuel Galbán (guitar), although the latter disappointingly restrains himself with only a handful of reverb-plunged solos. Their set is lengthy and steadily builds up to a celebratory massing on the dancefloor.

The Saturday night begins with another one of those hot Belgian discoveries. Brazzaville are newcomers on the scene, refusing to dally with anything other than a pugnacious retro groove, brashly fronted by a twin-saxophone belch-out. It's difficult to name the victor once Andrew Claes and Vincent Brijs get to battling with their bullfrogging tenor and baritone horns, although the latter might have the subterranean edge. Brijs is the main composer, so perhaps has an advantage. Once again, this is groove music re-interpreted for the modern day, generating almost too much excitement for the early 6.30pm slot.

The funk continues almost immediately with slap-bass superhero Marcus Miller, another artist whose albums might be battling between non-compromise and commerciality, but whose live presence courts considerably more danger. The blobbing riffery borders on the ridiculous, and the rest of Miller's cohorts might as well get lost, so far is low-end monstrosity up in the mix. Perversely, this is no bad thang, as the leader forces the funk into the ears with his brutally physical technique. The guesting DJ Logic adds a few trimmings, but his contribution tends to get lost in the general pumping and jumping. Widening his range, Miller also plays a few numbers on the bass clarinet: this really is a man in thrall to the lowest reaches of sonic rumble. This is the part of the set that breaks up the wall of sound, fragmenting into smaller-scale combinations and making the re-entry of Miller's bass all the more shocking, which is surely the way he wishes. Towards the end, the mood lightens, and more space is introduced, with a nod back to the leader's Miles Davis days, selecting Jean Pierre and his own Tutu from the archives.

Another different form of funk is next up, gumbo-ed in with blues, soul, jazz and gospel, amongst others. The Neville Brothers are a motley bunch, fronted by singer Aaron Neville, who can only be described as an angelic bruiser: his voice remains sweet, high and soulful, but it's emerging out of a body that looks like it could cause some trouble if riled up wrongly. Keyboardist Art looks like a regular guy, but his brothers Charles (saxophones) and Cyril (vocals/percussion) are kind of like a black New Orleans manifestation of the Keith Richards piratical look. Okay, so their songbook covers a lot of very familiar ground, but everything's filtered through the Neville style-process, and turned into its own Crescent City creature. With lead vocal duties being swapped regularly throughout the set, Cyril provides a fitting contrast to his sweeter-tongued brother, the combination of smooth and raspy working its magic as the Nevilles make a tour of the last fifty years of New Orleans songwriting.

The final night of the festival was informally devoted to a cabal of weirdos. The Antwerpian Dez Mona are a throwback to the Gothic 1980s, triggering numerous comparisons during their set: hints of prior artists devoted to the dramatic and the diseased: Jacques Brel, Anthony Newley, The Birthday Party, Tuxedomoon, Marc Almond, Bauhaus, Tindersticks, Scott Walker, Spiritualized. Singer Gregory Frateur has a voice that could be mistaken for that of a warbling older woman, delivering his stagey lines with a flourish that's part striking and part ludicrous. There's a sense of rock'n'roll cabaret parody co-existing with a genuine drama. In a very European way, it's not quite clear how to take this band's stance: either sophisticated irony or kitsch posturing. Whichever way, they're very entertaining, heightening the drama by featuring a ten-piece female choir to deal with the call-and-response chorus routines.

And who is stranger than CocoRosie? The sisterly duo of Sierra and Bianca Casady are obsessed with dressing up: not only themselves, but piling on the dense Baroque imagery that floods the entire stage backdrop. Dark make-up, aprons, Mickey Mouse ears, painted pale clown tears: all seem suitable visual partners to their voices, one permanently squeaking in naturalistic manner, the other some distant descendant of conventional operatic technique. The third vocalist is Tez, a beatboxer who reminds us that CocoRosie's songs are mostly rooted in the hip hop world, with a heavy infusion of dancehall reggae. That's not all, though. There are many vague spaces made for toy-like chiming and folksy tinkling, acoustic wonderment alternating with rave-like stomping. It's a perfect balance between avant-trickery and singalong populism. Their remarkable show (for it is such) is a completely unique experience, full of humour, extremity and apparent spontaneity.

By comparison, the Japanese Soil and "PIMP" Sessions are more linear in their thought processes. So much so that they shoot off into an extended realm of hyper-bebop, not letting up until they've attained complete abandon. Everything that this Tokyo sextet play is reasonably conventional retro-jazz, but performed at about six times its normal speed. They thrash, but still maintain all the detailed accuracy of a much slower composition. Out front is Shacho, who simply describes himself as an agitator, garbed like a caricature of a seedy club-owner. His role is to cajole the audience, attempt some form of singing (sometimes with a megaphone) and tweak the odd electro-effects dial. The virtuoso soloing is left to trumpeter Tabu Zombie and saxophonist Motoharu, who don't let their strutting about the stage interfere with their note-counts. They even have a band-within-the-band, a piano trio with a penchant for hammered repetition. Here's another ensemble with an aspect of cartoon behaviour at their core, and perhaps this is tonight's real theme. Serious intent matched by wily humour.
 Read part one of Martin Longley's Gent Jazz Festival 2008 coverage
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