A Gentle start

Martin Longley begins his coverage of the Gent Jazz Festival, one of Europe’s finest double weekenders.

Gent Jazz Festival 2014: Part One
Gent, Belgium

The two weekends of this year’s Gent Jazz Festival were characterised by their extreme differences in weather. The first half, traditionally concentrating on jazz in its naked state, was buffeted by persistent rainfall and chilly temperatures. The second weekend always opens up the borders to musics on the jazz periphery, and this part was blessed with extreme heat and overall dryness.

Ultimately, the elements didn’t really affect the music, as both stages were erected within covered spaces, but the weather conditions are important to the general hanging-out vibe in the bar and food areas, which were also littered with wooden chairs, suited for folks who desire a more environmental posture. Such a stance was extremely undesirable during the first weekend, with all listeners huddled indoors for a more intimate listening experience. This did have some advantages, however, closening the collective focus.

The major change over the last two years is the appearance of a second, smaller band stage, which replaces the opened-out concept of dj sets in-between the main acts. Now, there are virtually no gaps in the live music programme, no chance to re-calibrate the ears during the pauses between performers. The positive side of this is that the crowds are constantly immersed in music, with choices increased, but a negative aspect can be seen in the loss of a more relaxing, socialising interlude. In the end, folks can make their own choices, if the flow becomes too dense. After all, the majority of festivals feature constant music, often with three, four or more alternatives at any one time.

Several combos had difficulties adapting to the somewhat odd policy of presenting a three-part session on the smaller stage, with the same act playing for a mere 30 or 40 minutes. Some of them were just getting heated when it was time to pause. This actually created an interesting potential for organic development over the course of an evening, as a band attained its coitus interruptus climax, achieving completion eventually.

The London-living singer Zara McFarlane had this mission on the opening night, treating it like a club gig with long breaks between short sets, and quickly adapting to this new platform. Her repertoire hadn’t changed much since her visit to Antwerp’s Jazz Middelheim festival in 2012, but her confidence and stage-craft have developed further into a slicker form of casual closeness. Two of the newer songs were Move and Woman In The Olive Groves, both of them providing calmer points in the set-list, simmering with a contained intensity.

At the beginning, McFarlane leapt into the charged zone almost immediately, engaging in a dialogue with tenorman Binker Golding, who remains a potent force within an already powerful band. He’s still not so well-known, but will go even further in future years, judging by his constantly astounding solos in this setting. Tension oozed between the two of them, with McFarlane’s tough scatting working its way around Golding’s arresting solo on her tingling More Than Mine. The old Junior Murvin reggae chestnut Police And Thieves appeared again, slowed-down and dissected into a very different kind of manifestation.

This was an evening dominated by singers, and you don’t get much more dominant within the jazz pantheon than Bobby McFerrin. Your scribe is not a particular follower of his work, and only witnessed him in action for the first time in 2013. Picking up murmured responses to his Gent set, it was clear that some folks were disturbed by his reincarnation as a gospel country’n’western interpreter. For this reviewer, that orientation presented no problem, and McFerrin’s bold new direction emanated a forceful sense of easy-going relaxation. The set had the feel of a late night gathering in the singer’s living room, allowing the audience to experience an intimate family rapport in reclined action.

McFerrin remained seated for much of the time, then coasted over to the piano for a spell, or wandered around enjoying his daughter Madison’s equally assured vocal contribution. Her phrasing was both cool-headed and sprightly in its gentle bouncing. Pops McFerrin slapped his chest a lot, for percussive effect, but his lines were mostly very word-based, not nearly as abstract as expected.

Songs such as Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot might sound like tired old selections, but not when imparted via this hillbilly spiritual language. The sound was rooted in the folksy earth of the 1970s, with father and daughter looking content and peaceful, laid back to the max. The end result was akin to an imaginary fusion of Caetano Veloso, Neil Young and The Eagles. Rarely have we seen a band who appear to be so deeply digging each other’s company, languishing in the arrangements of keyboardist Gil Goldstein. Then, they did the mashed potato to He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands, followed by the unexpected inclusion of Blind Faith’s Can’t Find My Way Home. McFerrin was a shamanic figure indeed.

Even though he played in the penultimate slot, McFerrin was the obvious headliner of the day. The foursome of drummer Manu Katché, bassist Richard Bona, pianist Eric Legnini and saxophonist Stefano Di Battista had a tough act to follow, not least because their instrumentally searching nature sounded too dispersed and background-ey in the wake of McFerrin’s uplifting narratives. A stippling Bona solo started to liven up the fusion blandness, spinning into Battista for his own high-vaulting statement, getting into a sleazy blueserama, but sometimes bordering on smooth jazz. After a slumbering patch, the set perked up when Bona took a vocal, a funky development finding Battista honking on his alto, Katché generating friction across his skins with great finesse.

Another curious stratagem for the smaller Garden Stage was the booking of Black Flower for all four nights of the first weekend, striking up their set at the midnight hour. Fortunately, this was an excellent choice, a local combo who specialise in Ethiopian influenced jazz, with a glutinous dollop of dub. Their songbook included around 25 numbers, which they shuffled around between each evening’s performance. It was possible to catch quite different sets on two consecutive nights, but dropping in for three or four sessions led to a deepening familiarity with some of the works.

The substance of this combo was such that repeated exposure was highly rewarding, as they built up their retro grooves, exotically complex, Nathan Daems swapped from scampering flute to earthy baritone saxophone, whilst keyboardist Wouter Haest toggled between miasma organ and rupturing clavinet. Drummer Simon Segers was fascinating to watch, as he maintained an almost constant cyclical funk complexity. Surely he must be an acolyte of Jaki Liebezeit, from the mighty German ethno-marauding combo Can.