Gent Jazz Festival 2009: Days 1-5
The Gent Jazz Festival 2009
July 8: B.B. King/China Moses & Raphael Lemonnier
Maybe this year's festival, running July 8-19, is going to peak too soon. In 2006, B.B. King (or his management) decided that he wasn't going to tour again outside of North America, thereby filling seats up on a "farewell" European arena datesheet. Now, Mister King has changed his mind (or his management has...), and he's back on the road across the Atlantic, visiting a run of the big summer jazzfests. Tickets are hotly sold once again, and the huge tent at Gent's Bijloke site is at its strainingly fullest capacity, surely pulling in a crowd that can't possibly be matched over the course of the festival's next eight days of music.
Understandably, B.B.'s opening act is overwhelmed by the sense of occasion. Singer China Moses is the daughter of Dee Dee Bridgewater, and is teamed with the band of pianist Raphael Lemonnier, their mission being to reflect the contents of This One's For Dinah, a recent Blue Note album that's paying homage to the work of Dinah Washington. Over its first two nights the Gentfest features two themed treatments of songs associated with a pair of major female singers. Add "ladies man" King to the concoction and this makes up a considerable opening dedication to the vocal form. Moses hits a nerve with the crowd, through a mixture of directly soulful power-control and an appealingly informal, open and robust manner of communication. She delivers in hardcore R&B mode, but also spins around to leave her band jazzing into their solos, lending each number an instrumental weight that sits by the side of punchy song-form brevity. Drummer Jean Pierre Derouard and guesting trumpeter Francois Biensan are particularly extroverted, each dashing out gripping statements, either channeled through a crisp mute or the thunderous resonance of the sound system, emphasising rumbled bass drum weight.
Moses (pictured right) has an eminent set-list to swing through: "Is You Or Is You Ain't My Baby?" "Cry Me A River" (she considers this one a challenge, which she rises to admirably), the early Lionel Hampton hit "Evil Gal Blues," "What A Diff'rence A Day Made," the comic swagger of "Fine Fat Daddy," and her own "Dinah's Blues," co- penned with Lemonnier, who makes a modest kind of bandleader, firmly directing, but avoiding his own potential for extravagance. Moses makes little dancing jogs across the stage, the most open of performers in her nakedly exposed enthusiasm. She shows a genuine astonishment (and gratitude) at the extremely enthusiastic crowd reaction. Moses is a frothy storyteller, providing rich background to the songs, which she interprets with the combined qualities of warm, inviting, forceful and dramatic, yet always relaxed and natural. She's a flamboyant singer, but there's no danger of histrionics, just lowdown R&B, suffused with her sometimes almost uncomfortably personal confessions.
So, here's B.B. King, back in Europe again. He appears way more sprightly than on his last tour, even though he remains a seated being. On the joking front, he's particularly lively, keeping up a run of self-deprecating quips about his age and his condition. Mister King jokes that his knees, back and head are in a bad shape, that he's living with the big inconvenience of diabetes. All he has to do is sing and play the guitar (though traditionally never at the same time), and he also proves the vitality of his artistic expression. Your reviewer has witnessed The King on several occasions over nearly the last two decades, and this Gentian gig is his best showing of them all, smoking with a potency that's cuttingly supported by his band, and in particular the hard-hitting heftiness of the horn section.
King's sheer lust for entertaining is what drives him, his love of his fans and the accompanying bright lights. There is no frailty in his singing or playing, the old guitar sound is full-bodied, and almost ripping when he launches into the first heartfelt solo of the night. King's robust voice is deepened by humour and strength. When guitarist Dennis Charles and bassman Reginald Richards flank their leader, sitting down, it's an excuse for an extended sequence of almost-surreal banter, as if the band are indulging in a low-key club session. Later, old Belgian comrade Boogie Boy (otherwise known as Paul Ambach) springs onstage for a guest spot, sticking around on the jackhammer keys for a couple of numbers. Many of the expected classics are here, and "When Love Comes To Town" is gratifyingly shorn of its U2 pomp, delivered as a swift roller. At the other end of the scale is Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" (B.B. even jokes about his own mortality), taken into a dispersed zone of near-abstraction. Not surprisingly, he ends this near-two-hour show with "The Thrill Is Gone."
New York pianist Fred Hersch's expanded trio sits apart from all the vocal business of these first two nights, and this difference acts in his favour, creating a marked musical contrast. Normally these compositions would be contemplative and becalmed, but Hersch upends the boat by inviting hornmen Tony Malaby and Ralph Alessi to expand the sonic range. These are two soloists who are known for heated escalations, and their steaming intensity nestles almost comfortably beside the trio's luminescent progressions, creating a gentle sense of tension. Hersch is unruffled.
The correct credentials are in place for Sing The Truth: The Music Of Nina Simone. The difficult departed one's longtime musical director Al Schackman leads the band and acts as Master Of Anecdotes, whilst Simone's daughter Lisa is one of the four singers parading in turn with their reinterpretations. Lisa is enigmatically known simply as Simone, flanked by Dianne Reeves, Angelique Kidjo and Lizz Wright, which is a rather impressive vocal front line for any production. Strangely, this foursome don't offer any radically varied approaches, but instead emanate different reflected facets of strong personality and deeply resonant tones. All four are pulling in the concentrated forces of authority, beaming stern gospel-aware soul to the nether regions of the marquee.
The songs that Simone tackled were always colonised by her forceful personality, lending a wide range of material a unified voice. Fittingly, Simone herself (the younger) is the most extroverted performer, dominating on an exaggerated scale. There's a slight element of the overly organised, as each singer rolls out in the same order, repeated in symmetrical fashion. Nevertheless, this is the only way to ensure democracy. As Schackman switches between guitar and vibraphone, then paints vivid images of his old employer in-between songs, there's a strong feeling of the revue capturing the essence of Nina Simone's life and repertoire. Even though your scribe is certainly not a Simone disciple, this production seduced the fingers into an itch for re-investigation of her oeuvre.
Aka Moon are one of Belgium's finest combos, and are now almost qualifying as veterans, having been together since 1992. The saxophone-bass-drums trio cram their all into a 75 minute set, negotiating tightly formed unison themes in an electrified hard funk mode that's reminiscent of Prime Time and Five Elements (Steve Coleman was an early mentor). They sound free and spontaneous, but this is within a base of complex repeating patterns, skewed, angular attacks and sinuous riffing. Alto saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol squalls, wails, rattles and rushes, leaping around the electric bass-glue emissions of Michel Hatzigeorgiou, ramming up against the detailed clatter of drummer Stephane Galland. One of the most engaging stretches arrives when Hatzigeorgiou sets up a nest of samples, extending his output into an almost symphonic layering. The teasing builds until his bandmates hurl themselves into a run of high speed collisions. It's compacted, breathless and sleek, high-precision with a ragged texture.
New York pianist Randy Weston's core band is his trio, a long-running collaboration with bassist Alex Blake and percussionist Neil Clarke. They're now at a point where their collective grasp is intuitive, where they know exactly how far to push each other, and how best to skate across the dynamics set up by Weston's classic compositions. His repertoire still revolves around a key cluster of pieces, many of them penned over fifty years ago. This doesn't feel staid, though, as each time this trio (or his quintet) performs, the tunes sound like fresh explorations, substantial frameworks for chance encounters. Weston's flourishes often stand alone, as is the case with the bass and percussion solos. The bewhiskered Blake sings whilst he thrashes his strings, hoisting his bass almost into a guitar position, and savaging his instrument with great chording strums. Blood is expected to pour! Weston's Africanisms are perfectly infused. It's not so much that his music recalls any specific folkloric style: it's more of an Afro-American combination of varied essences.
McCoy Tyner's trio is augmented by guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Gary Bartz, both of whom might be considered unpredictable choices as guest stars. Their presence nudges Tyner's music into a completely different zone, transforming magisterial concentration into an outwardly rolling speed-chase. Frisell is paying special attention to his music stand, and appears to be uncertain at times. Then, he'll latch onto a piece's motion and reel off a fluid post-Wes Montgomery solo as if he's been playing with Tyner for months. There's a similar relationship between trio foundation and guesting duo to that found during the Hersch set. Tyner is concentrated rather than showy, with most of the fire licking out of Gary Bartz's horn. Drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt is also repeatedly exploding with hard statements, considerably raising the passion levels with his emphatic belligerence.
July 11: Christian Scott
The New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott is rapidly becoming a significant presence in the rising star stakes. The first time that your reviewer caught him playing live was quite recently, at New York's Village Vanguard with Allen Toussaint's Bright Mississippi Band. Under those dim lights, Scott still looked like the stripling he is, although delivering peppery solos within a sepia trad setting. He seems to be a man of many images, be-suited with Toussaint, and now garbed in an outfit that looks like one of those pooch collars that are designed to prevent paws from opening up healing wounds. Much later in the evening, at the festival jam session, he's reverted to casual, again transforming his appearance completely. This creates an aura of cool that might make Scott appear like an aloof poseur, but this feeling is defused once he opens his mouth, coming across as more relaxed and casual.
Oh yes: the playing. This quintet's music has the advantage of embracing mainstream jazz tradition, funky fusion and ambient balladry, with Scott mastering all of his chosen forms. It's significant that he's surely the only known trumpeter who dares to perform with a deliberately manufactured upwards-bent horn, in the Dizzy Gillespie manner. Such is Scott's great confidence. The combo has crossover approachability, but there are also interludes of spacey exploration, all underlining the involved web of contrasting influences and attitudes that form the Scott stance. Much later in the evening, the band turns up at the aforementioned all-nite (and they do literally mean aaaaaall-nite) festival jam session at the NH hotel's Medieval basement den in the centre of Gent. Here's another facet: even more straight-ahead post- bebop charging, tossed off at a relentless pace, charged with soloing action, and baptising this new fest development with a sizzle. The concept is that the evening's artists will hang around to hook up, and many of them do, although on this particular night George Benson is safely tucked up in his satin sheets, after gliding through a sugary-smooth set of disco pop pap rather than the more jazzy manifestation that was apparently promised.
The next night, it's back down to the jam session dungeon once more, where the Israeli pianist Yaron Herman manages to top his own earlier trio set. The 'official' performance is efficiently negotiated, but doesn't float beyond a level of reasonable attractiveness. Herman has a distinctive way of releasing brutally cyclic clusters, rising up from his stool to facilitate more wrist-leverage. Later on, this technique is employed in a ceaselessly inventive hi-power gush, as drummer Gerald Cleaver becomes subtler instead, splashing around and supporting Herman's wild excursions. They're relaxed into jam session shape, but this can have its advantages when chances are taken and freedom is allowed. It's a epic adventure into full keyboard dissection. Two totally different environments, of course, but this late-late session provides an essential glimpse of Herman's un-clenched side.
The Belgian pianist and composer Nathalie Loriers is collaborating with trumpeting countryman Bert Joris, her new pieces calling on the services of the Spiegel String Quartet. The entire suite-set has a logically unfurling sequence, making a lyrically narrative journey. Loriers herself is more of a constantly rippling presence than a displaying soloist, but her energy is always reliably smouldering at the music's heart. Joris takes the lead- voice role, his every statement answered or emphasised by the oceanic swell of the strings. They're playing as if this will be the only performance of these pieces, although in these times, there are obviously fewer opportunities to expand a band into this impressive festival incarnation.
This orgy of pianos reaches its pinnacle with the Brad Mehldau Trio. Being married to the Dutch singer Fleurine, Mehldau's able to speak in the Flemish tongue, not surprisingly the only American to attempt such a thing during this festival. The trio's gigs are subject to the sensitivities of its leader. More than many outfits, there's the chance that the music might not be imbued with its full spark. Mehldau doesn't fake it, and it's usually possible to catch any dissatisfactions or artistic weariness. This gig's one of the best, and probably the peak form possible from the pianist. Mehldau's battle is almost half won because of his sense of authority, before even beginning to speak about technique or expression. He has a way of making every "sentence" count: of pausing, ruminating, delivering then climaxing. Therefore, the mind is not allowed to wander during this set. There's always some unexpected twist or curve to magnetise the audience.
The festival's first five days of hardcore jazz finishes with the Richard Galliano Quartet. The next weekend's four nights will be dedicated to jazz peripherals, with dashes of soul, rock, country and electronica. Frenchman Galliano is the night's exception, although his band does include a pianist in the shape of Gonzalo Rubalcaba. It's nearly a Stateside-based supergroup, with the remaining pair being bassist Richard Bona and drummer Clarence Penn. An attempt to imagine the globally-untethered style they might adopt turns out to be accurate. The base is jazz, but Aregentina, Brazil, and most of the African continent are potential melodic and rhythmic sources, even as these motifs are deliberately displaced and incorporated into a polyglot style. Bona's presence is particularly strong, as he's providing a wide range of vocal effects, a wordless instrumentalist. Galliano will knock, shake or bounce his accordion, making use of its wheezily percussive nature. He'll also heighten the lung-bellow qualities of the instrument's breath, while ribboning out highly decorative lines. Following the intense journeying of Mehldau, this set has the desired lightness of touch that's suitable to make the crowd breathe out and relax. The tunes aren't lacking in substance, but they're mostly bright and happy, just what's needed as the loins are girded for the all-night jam session.
Jos L. Knaepen & Bruno Bollaert