Trappist artist

Following a three-day breather in the city’s groovy bars, Martin Longley jumps into the second weekend of the Gent Jazz Festival.

Gent Jazz Festival: Part Five
Gent, Belgium

The second weekend of this festival is traditionally devoted to musics that lurk outside of the jazz sphere, but resonating in sympathy with the core. Of course, there were a few stray acts from the mainline, just as the first weekend saw invaders such as Ibrahim Maalouf and Taxi Wars, whose stances weren’t strictly jazzy.

Hence the appearance of Bogus, a quartet that featured the guesting Belgian trumpeter Bart Maris on several tunes. They moved from jagged unison figures to a strutting folksiness, with some fine soprano saxophone work from Ambroos De Schepper, and some flamenco-flavoured acoustic guitar work from Florian De Schepper (yes, these founder members are brothers).

The Swiss piano trio Plaistow crafted a journeying motion that reminded the listener of The Necks, using an ongoing key-pulse, with slowly measured bass and drums, then converting to a dub reggae vocabulary. They might even have been listening to newer generation New York trio Dawn Of Midi, for a different sense of repetition.

The important difference is that Plaistow have shorter pieces that sound less improvisatory, enabling them to explore a wide range of styles. Next came a work with an Arabic feel, becoming sparse in the extreme, with Johann Bourquenez delving into the piano interior, coaxing out qanun (zither) sounds. In the end, the trio didn’t have sufficient core-burning energy to sustain the quiet tension of some stretches, but they solved this lack by breaking up the contrasting moods into more digestible nuggets.

Julia Holter grew on us. This Los Angeles singer and keyboardist embarked on her three Garden Stage sets with a detached, poised bearing, appearing much too self-conscious. It took a pair of manically cavorting kiddies, down at the stage-front during one of her particularly sensitive prog-ballad, free-form epics, to reduce (or elevate) Holter to a fit of uncontrollable giggles. This spread to her band members, and was a rare and wonderful instance of a performance that oscillated rapidly between cool arty dignity and complete mirth override.

Holter’s style is original, singing with a breezily eccentric weightlessness, her music often entering an improvisatory free-blowing realm, led by her lusty saxophonist Daniel Meyer. The songs traversed borders between faint transparency and roughed-up belligerence, the saxophone and keyboards contrasting with violin and cello voices. Holter travelled well, over the course of her three sets, and even reprised that earlier giggle-toon, determined to deliver a straight-faced version as her final number.

It might not have been established at first, but for the main mass of the evening, an atmosphere developed that enveloped the festival with a filmic soundtracking essence, a run of artists who were concerned with mood, meditation, aural environments and dim lighting. Even Plaistow and Holter had played their part in developing this landscape. Ólafur Arnalds, from Iceland, imposed a minimalist calm on the early evening, his music belying the heatwave conditions outside the main stage tent.

Inside, all was cool and collected, as Arnalds probed the spaces with his delicate piano formations. His string section were waiting patiently, seamlessly introducing their slow bleeds, feeding in trace elements gradually, swelling the panorama in paced stages.

Eventually, this extreme subtlety of the strings was startlingly scarred by an extreme hard-bass rupture of electronics, used very sparingly, but striking in impact. Acoustic traceries were mostly left undisturbed, but the electro-bruises were made at strategic moments, beautifully sullying the icy purity. Towards the end, singer Arnór Dan Arnarson broke the mood with a pair of songs, delivered in the Sigur Rós old choirboy manner.

Melanie De Biasio elected to perform in near darkness, clad in black, like an elfin beatnik poetess, illumined by a scattering of suspended yellow-glimmering light bulbs. This Belgian singer was freshly arrived from her personal body expression workshop, supporting every line of her songs with elaborate gesticulations, making significantly eloquent shapes with her hands, like a shadow puppeteer, and making mantis-crouches or birdlike swoops across the stage.

The audience patience had already been flexed like an underused muscle, and now we were fully receptive to De Biasio’s hour-long set, which sounded more-or-less like a single extended song, even if it was in fact several, sewn together into the ultimate mood-suite. She embraced chestnuts like All Of Me and Afro Blue, but they emerged from the deeply cruising flow, before being subsumed and merged into one of her original works.

Multiplying the ambiance, De Biasio also had her flute on hand to intersperse with the song-form, another element to add to the narrative. In an unusual move, there was a request for press photographers to refrain from taking shots until the last three songs, rather than snapping during the usual opening three.

At the beginning of her set, the music was so hushed and the atmosphere so concentrated that the lensmen would have made quite a disturbance. Her vocal range mostly stayed down low, but this suited the aura. As the set progressed, De Biasio’s four-piece band moved into a pulsing zone that was reminiscent of French jazz-houser Saint Germain (aka Ludovic Navarre), accumulating a repetitively organic groove.

This was without compromising the mood, but just intensifying the density, emulating slinky jazztronica, but with organic tools. Some folks might have deemed this set too one-dimensional, but De Biasio succeeded in her mission to lay out an inevitably evolving sequence of deeply pulsing ritual song. It was very much in keeping with the emerging mood of the evening.

The Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi also preferred to ration electricity on the lighting rigs, continuing the introverted orientation. He brought along a large ensemble that emphasised the strings, but also included doubling on guitar and percussion, with a dose of electronics to maintain the evening’s electroacoustic slant.

There was a reflection of the Arnalds approach, as lone piano contemplation was contrasted with full string lushness, allowing a range of emotions from calm up to heated, exploring a great dynamic range. When his pieces were riding at full gallop, the sound was pretty meaty, bolstered by a massive bass drum and tingling tambourine, in the Italian folk tradition. At one point, three of the players revealed their xylophones, and another minimalist pulse was unleashed. Earlier, there were some decorative mbira (thumb piano) shadings.

Overall, the works were linear in aspect, Einaudi preferring to develop along a straight path, simple in intent, but actually layered with massive amounts of developing detail. All states were covered, from faint faltering to full-on romping.