Martin Longley makes his annual pilgrimage to the Gent Jazz Festival in Belgium…

Gent Jazz Festival 2012
Part One: Hardcore Jazz

Day One: Paco De Lucia/The Miguel Zenón Quartet

All parts of northern Europe had already been suffering an intense rainfall throughout the month of June. There was no abating once July was in swing. The forecast was pretty much for a daily downpour, and for once the predictions came true, sadly. This was ultimately no problem when viewing each performance, as the stage was curled under a huge tented space. The main disadvantage lay with the surrounding bar, food and general hanging-out areas, where folks were frequently forced to huddle undercover. This tended to inhibit the usual summer fun festival behaviour, particularly regarding the DJ sets in-between each live act. We can always expect a few downpours in Belgium, but this was a very bad year for its weather. That aside, the music beamed out its own warming energies, and the line-up was as exciting as ever.

The alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón focused on the material presented on his most recent album Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook (Marsalis Music, 2011). He was joined by regular quartet members Luis Perdomo (piano), Hans Glawischnig (bass) and fellow Puerto Rican Henry Cole (drums).
These classic, though obscure to many, tunes were reinterpreted in an extended, improvisatory fashion, maintaining their popular melodies yet flitting off into a deeper exploration. The most well-known tune to most would be “Silencio”, by Rafael Hernández. Here playing in front of thousands, this was the kind of combo that might be found down at NYC’s Smalls club in front of mere dozens. The mushrooming from such accustomed intimacy wasn’t entirely successful. By the time Zenón’s 70 minute set had finished, he was just beginning to burn. Cole provided detailed embellishments as he stoked and stroked his entire kit, Perdomo made elaborate romantic flourishes, and the leader’s sensitively tart phrases were filled with notes curtailed, or elided into their neighbours. Okay, so they won an encore, but to these ears it was almost undeserved given the mostly cool levels of expression and excitement. The quartet was solidly built, yet rarely rose above the pedestrian.

The fervent lust to see rightfully revered Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco De Lucia up close was palpable. So palpable that it invaded the physical realms. The tent was filled to capacity, and folks were blocking up the aisles vainly searching for stray seats. Push metamorphosed into shove, and the general atmosphere was anything but conducive to the concentrated calm required to hear De Lucia’s often introspective music. As he opened what was to be a two hour set with a solo guitar piece, it was a challenge to home in on the delicate expression, as the masses were still jostling for their positions. After about 20 minutes, matters levelled off, the movement and talking subsiding. Then, we were ready for the intense journey to come. Looking faintly grizzled, with his straggly long locks trailing back over his collar, De Lucia maintains the intent gaze of a much younger man. He’s a charismatic individual, exuding the aura of artistic profundity. The stage was flanked by two large screens during the festival, and these would often be an aid to comprehension rather than an annoying distraction. The close-ups of De Lucia’s visage revealed peepers that were constantly alert to the actions of his bandmates, each reaction and instruction clearly revealed. The uncompromising set offered few of the so-called entertainment tactics that can usually dilute a hardcore flamenco experience. With two singers, who periodically turned into palmas practitioners when a twilight non-vocal role was required, a percussionist/cajon-player (Piraña) and a staggeringly clack-heeled dancer (Farruco), there was no shortage of dynamic alternatives to the gratifyingly frequent guitar soloing episodes. This was also the first time I’ve ever witnessed a harmonica as part of a flamenco ensemble, with the keyboardist Antonio Serrano switching to mouth-harp for an impressive degree of group phrases as well as lonesome statements. The presence of singer Duquende was a key contributor to the evening’s passion levels. The show’s pacing was such that each member eventually came under the spotlight, or there were sub-sections featuring various group permutations.

Day Two: Jim Hall & Scott Colley/The Brad Mehldau Trio/Gretchen Parlato/Ifa y Xango

The second day opened in the afternoon with Ifa y Xango, whose name might suggest that they’re angled towards a hardcore Cuban sound. In reality, these Belgians are very much jazz orientated, dispensing vivid compositional colours, but making these pieces sound as if they’re spontaneously created. They utilised a melding of paused spaces and tentative statements, coalescing into a rhythmic boldness. The front line involved alto (Filipe Nadar) and tenor (Viktor Perdieus), along with a euphonium (Niels Van Heertum) that’s as agile as a trombone, invariably breaking away from his saxophonic partners to make loner statements. Pianist Seppe Gebruers was somewhat frightening at times, concentrating on interior grumbles and jarring key-hammers. It was the presence of congaman Sep François that most suggested a Latin feel, occasionally spurring the band on into a suitably syncopated stretch, splicing as one with drummer Ruben Pensaers. In the main, though, much of the music stood in an abstract space, portentous and challenging. Ifa y Xango could easily have played an encore, but it looked like they probably didn’t have any more material prepared.

New Yorker Gretchen Parlato isn’t a typical purveyor of song. Her style and approach offers an alternative slant to the majority, although such individuality can become narrow-sounding during an entire set. The singer tends to operate on a similar dynamic level throughout, keeping the phrasing untethered, the tone breezy and soft. Parlato glides and skids across the core rhythm, landing askew. She makes an artform out of being relaxed and casual in a studied manner, but the cumulative effect lacks diversity. The trio did play a couple of tunes without Parlato, though, providing some variety. The bass and drum team of Burniss Travis and Kendrick Scott made interlocking patterns that, along with their soulful backing vocals, recalled the smooth R&B gushings of Robert Glasper. Parlato didn’t talk to the audience, but it didn’t look like this was due to any unfriendliness on her part. Presumably she wanted the songs to speak their own mind.

The Brad Mehladu Trio made a return visit to Gent, following their triumphant set at the 2009 festival. As evidenced by the Ode album (Nonesuch, 2012) the pianist and his crew have been getting increasingly funky, less inclined towards introspection and more engaged with a rapid development of virtuoso pneumatic displays. Most of the evening’s pieces were indeed lifted from Ode, the threesome highlighting their complex rhythmic relationships. This is never at the expense of melodic approachability. Mehladau’s left hand might finish off a phrase half-completed by his right, or vice versa. Mehldau has no conventional sense of the role division usually dealt out to each set of digits. He constantly changes the flow, confounding any attempts at anticipation on behalf of the audience. Mehldau’s style is becoming increasingly percussive, opening out to extroverted impulses. Hard clusters of notes, but in the name of a tune. New drummer Jeff Ballard is not so new any more, now thoroughly integrated as Jorge Rossy’s replacement. He’s totally tonal, at first dampening with draped cloths, fur-ball sticks skimming, then even when hardening the sound’s still pressably warm. Bassist Larry Grenadier also sings organically, without much tactile gut-friction, resonant and fluid. The trio’s magnificent rapport won over the crowd once again.

A pattern developed during this year’s festival where an evening would sometimes end with a surprisingly inward-looking performance, avoiding spectacle and instead choosing to cloak the crowds with intimacy, drawing them close to the campfire, as the deluge outside hammered on the marquee roof. So veteran guitarist Jim Hall was joined by bassman Scott Colley, making casualness an art form, in front of the rapt thousands. At 81, the dapper Hall is frail and hunched, ambling onstage with his walking stick, which he suddenly hoisted and used as an imaginary rifle, taking aim at the front rows. Once seated a store energy was unleashed, both in terms of his fingering articulacy and his verbal wit and enthusiasm. Hall’s playing was stronger and more focused than it was the last few times that I’ve caught him in New York City (guesting with Sonny Rollins at the Beacon Theatre and leading his own band at Birdland). Hall was completely in tune with his hushed admirers. His intricate plectrum-picking on the trebly strings was married to a more aggressive strum at the bass end. A fluid grace was coupled with choppy, glancing strikes, his whole output dampened when Colley took a solo, cut back to an almost acoustic stroking. Colley flooded the space with bass presence, providing ample contrast with his fulsome tone. Alongside a Colley original, “Beija Flor” and “My Funny Valentine” floated by, leading towards an impromptu improvisation that was almost avant garde by comparison, set up as a dialogue between the twosome. It was an introverted showstopper. There was no encore, as Hall was probably too tired, but the pair could easily have played several more tunes if the crowd’s demands had been satisfied.

Day Three: The Wayne Shorter Quartet/The Dave Douglas & Joe Lovano Sound Prints Quintet/The Fabrice Alleman New Quartet/Combo 42

Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter

Joe Lovano was originally billed as appearing with Combo 42, in this project of the local School Of Arts. Although due later in the day, Lovano’s earlier presence didn’t materialise, and his place was taken by fellow saxophonist Stefano di Battista. This put the Combo’s tenorman Mattias De Craene in a high stress position, now saddled with a much greater solo responsibility. He rose to the challenge admirably, but there was still a sense of disappointment with Lovano’s absence. The set was an oddly mixed bag, opening with “Footprints”, heralding the soon-coming appearance of its composer Wayne Shorter, set to be the evening’s headliner. This was followed by what turned out to be a majority of vocal numbers, fronted by the efficiently straightahead singer Annelies Emmerechts. Her precision was notable during the scatting and ensemble theme sections, but this was amongst the most blandly mainstream music of the entire festival. The Italian Battista only joined the band at the beginning and the end of their set, which also featured several strong solos from guitarist Edmund Lauret.

The Mons reedsman and flautist Fabrice Alleman led his New Quartet, which featured keyboardist Nathalie Loriers, a bandleader and composer herself, bassist Reggie Washington (an American now resident in Belgium) and drummer Lionel Beuvens. Alleman is a brightly communicative leader, his enthusiasm pouring into a particularly optimistically-fuelled suite of pieces. The foursome proceeded to engage in some tight interlocking, with Loriers moving from acoustic to electric pianos, particularly exciting on the latter. Alleman’s periodic eruption into vocalisation had a striking effect, making the hard complexity suddenly more accessible.

Trumpeter Dave Douglas and saxophonist Joe Lovano revealed their new Sound Prints Quintet, an outfit which is setting out on a surge of activity in the second half of 2012. On the surface, it’s an unusual combination, with the two leader-composers normally operating in quite different zones. In this setting, Douglas can be heard at his most straightahead whilst Lovano is pulled towards a more innovative zone than is usually expected. Even so, Douglas and Lovano are old comrades, and their dialogue creates an atmosphere of assured yet casual virtuosity, a complete confidence in the cutting chase. The resultant pieces perch in just the expected area between the anticipated territories within which the leaders commonly stride. It’s an out-there form of post-bop, with Wayne Shorter stated as their primary influence. Indeed, the entire evening’s performances seemed to act as a build-up to the appearance of the man himself. Several tunes in the Sound Prints book have actually been penned in collaboration with Shorter, specially for this band. Lovano’s “Sound Prints” was answered by Douglas’s “Sprints”, typifying the sharp, playful vibe between the two. Joey Baron was his usual scintillating self on drums, whilst the fast-rising Australian-in-New York bassist Linda Oh was still celebrating her Initial Here album release on Douglas’s own Greenleaf label. The only member who prevents this being a supergroup is the less familiar pianist Lawrence Fields. He was also the least remarkable player, his solos frequently representing a dip in the level of intensity. Oh regularly set up a fulsome pulse of emphatic walking, with the horns trading both long and short solos, always maintaining a keen sense of variety in their attack. Lovano and Douglas accumulated a successive amount of flash, bouncing back and forth with the even more energetic than usual Baron, who is almost like a one-man band in terms of his tonal vocabulary and his speed of skin-pattering. He was a dervish of detailed strikes, jousting ebulliently with the front line.

The Wayne Shorter Quartet seem to get better better each time they perform, steadily refining their telepathic bond. A cosmic journey was underway. Shafts of spangled light set up a minimalist aura, as black-and-white images were projected on the stage-side screens, as if this was some strange rediscovered broadcast from the 1960s. This time, there was more evidence of music on music-stands, as if the foursome were more rooted this time, occasionally referring to their notes. Usually, they appear to fly off into completely abstract strata. A long opening piece eventually gave way to briefer, more pointed episodes. Shorter frequently switched between tenor and soprano, as if never sonically satisfied, always seeking out a fresh pathway. His horn-swaps always seem genuinely spontaneous, and sonically necessary choices. There was also a regular move from cautious spaciness to lusty, dense eruptions, with Shorter in particularly powerful shape. The presence of Jorge Rossy on the drumstool changed the quartet’s dynamic nature (sitting in for Brian Blade), adding a shimmering subtlety, less inclined to break out with a crashing backbeat. Pianist Danilo Pérez often seems to be delegated as the prompter of significant changes, invariably being the first to suggest a fresh phase. The quartet has evolved so that it gathers in strength over the years. The relationship deepens. Shorter is a mystical wayfarer, a sage with faraway eyes.

Day Four: Melody Gardot/The Bad Plus & Joshua Redman/The Robin Verheyen New York Quartet/Ninety Miles

Concealed behind the Ninety Miles band name, there’s a posse of starry players, making up a virtual supergroup. The line-up features trumpeter Nicolas Payton, tenor saxophonist David Sánchez, vibesman Stefon Harris, pianist Edward Simon and drummer Terreon Gully. The lesser-known members are bassist Ricky Rodriguez and percussionist Mauricio Herrera. The band’s name refers to the short-though-far distance between the USA and Cuba, and their repertoire is the result of a hard-won visit to Havana. Sánchez and Harris went there with Christian Scott, but the resulting album’s trumpeter was replaced on tour by Payton. Ninety Miles suffered slightly for being onstage so early in the running order, their audience huddled up as they fled the drab downpour outside. Payton in particular looked removed from the proceedings, though he did warm up as the set progressed. Nevertheless, Harris was able to provide more than sufficient enthusiasm in his stead. The drum and percussion team were bonded with a strong Latin thrust, unsurprising given the nature of the compositions. Gully lashed around his kit with a notable fury, and Herrera was particularly impressive on the ringing batá drums.

The Belgian soprano and tenor saxophonist Robin Verheyen works out of New York City, but his profile there isn’t massively high. Here he was celebrating the release of a new album Trinity (52Creations, 2012), which finds him partnered by three American bandmates. Ralph Alessi (trumpet), Drew Gress (bass) and Jeff Davis (drums) all have a much bigger international status, and Verheyen seamlessly works into their company as bandleader and composer. Alessi mostly used his mute, scribing detailed phrases with poised attention to mood-crafting. The pieces were studied, refined, and well-honed, possessed by a contained passion. Verheyen stated that this set was very different to the previous day’s performance, so it was presumably more introverted in nature.

Dave King - The Bad Plus. Photo Credit: Bruno Bollaert

Dave King – The Bad Plus. Photo Credit: Bruno Bollaert

The Bad Plus have been developing a couple of extended projects outside of their customary parameters. The first is an audio/visual treatment of Stravinsky’s “Rite Of Spring”, and the second is their collaboration with saxophonist Joshua Redman. The expansion of the Plus piano trio immediately lends them a more mainline jazz quality, as their compositions seem to open up for more soloing and less ensemble structuring. Reid Anderson took more bass solos than usual, tending towards a percussively pronounced maltreatment of his strings. The trio still investigated space and pausing, they still packed a punch, but the themes took on a jazz life, and this is probably as close to the music’s core as they will ever come. Even so, the soloing divisions certainly weren’t conventionally demarcated, and seepage was still apparent. The delicately-formed tunes certainly bypass the ordinary dynamics of a jazz soloing sequence. Drummer Dave King was mostly manic, but in a contained fashion, the scale of the festival stage and crowd discouraging some of his usual microscopic percussion details. Anderson also took over the between-tune announcements, after many years of pianist Ethan Iverson’s urbane deadpanning. Anderson was still deadpan, but more approachably humorous when following Iverson’s surreal observations. Anderson joked about kidnapping Redman for the tour’s duration, with the saxophonist quietly smiling. He’s fully integrated, calmly strong-willed and not prone to an overabundance of storming outbreaks. The balance sounded just right within this ultimate ensemble of uncompromising individuals.

Since playing at this festival in 2009, Melody Gardot has conceived an entirely new stageshow, and it is indeed a show rather than a plain old gig. Her touring band three years ago mostly just concerned themselves with playing the songs, but now there’s a new visually-aware concept to accompany her recent album The Absence (Decca, 2012). The front of the stage was littered with what looked like harbour flotsam, and the lighting was set on the far side of moody, minimal and shadow-playing. Gardot herself came onstage garbed in an even more extreme version of her reclusive movie star wardrobe, singing and clapping and stamping her hoof, then sitting at the piano as her large band gradually took their places. She’s put a lot of thought into the presentation, the pacing, the sparse-to-strutting dynamics of the show. Two gospelly backing singers, cello, percussion, Charnett Moffett on the bass, old sideman guitarist Mitchell Long and vigorous new sidekick saxophonist Irwin Hall, all were helping to spread Gardot’s palette far towards the horizon. Gardot is exploring the entire globe for stylistic motifs, from Latin to African, jazz to reggae, fado to flamenco. Hall led his own spotlit segment with an emphasis on crowd communion. Gardot switched to guitar, sitting at the front of the stage, confident and chatty with the audience, weaving explanatory tales between the songs, being effortlessly natural in the name of entertainment, rather than some forced, hollow crowd-manipulator. this was a fitting climax to the first week of the festival…

Joe Lovano plays at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, London, on October 18th and 19th 2012, as do The Bad Plus on the 23rd and 24th of the very same month.

The Wayne Shorter Quartet play at Birmingham Town Hall on November 1st. See website here

Melody Gardot plays at the Barbican on the 10th of November, The Brad Mehldau Trio plays there on the 14th of November, and Jim Hall plays at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the 18th November, all as part of the London Jazz Festival…