Citadel Park in Ghent has been the green lungs of this city in East Flanders since the fortress for which it’s named was demolished in 1875. The park contains both the Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art and Museum of Fine Arts. For a few days every summer though, the park is also the showcase for musical art when the annual Citadelic Festival takes place within the park’s 2,500 acres. The festival, now it its tenth year, presented more than 20 concerts between May 31 to June 5 this year including local and international Jazz and improvised musicians.
For the non-Belgians, one of the revelations of the festival was the skill and creativity of bassist Paul Van Gysegem, who is also a renowned painter and sculptor. In 1971 Van Gysegem’s sextet recorded Aorta, an important document of the emerging European avant-garde, and he’s still innovating at the age of 81. On June 1 on Citadelic’s specially constructed outdoor podium stage, Van Gysegem demonstrated his unique style when as part of a co-op trio Van Gysegem’s energized arco slaps plus crackling below-the-bridge squeaks coupled with ingenious percussionist Chris Joris’ moves among congas pulses, stride suggestions on piano, regular drum kit beats and rhythm sourced from a trio of self-altered pots and pans, created warm yet cutting-edge sounds over which the whimsical trumpeter and flugelhornist Patrick De Groote’s horns chirped. Despite the unruffled veneer, unexpected bass slaps and unusual percussion feints made the program as imaginative as any noisy ecstatic outing.
A similar subtle transformation took place three days later with Van Gysegem leading a trio with pianist Erik Vermeulen and drummer Giovanni Barcella. A member of the Moker quartet, the irrepressible Italian percussion’s backbeat smacks and polyrhythmic rolls swung lustily without upsetting the pianist’s voluminous keyboard strategy. Sonorously staking out a unique territory, Vermeulen’s passing chords brought out allusions to half-recalled Great American Song Book melodies, two-handed quasi-Soul-Jazz descending runs as well as knife-edge key-clipping interjections. Fully in his element, besides power pumps, the bassist at one point sketched out a melodic arco solo that met the pianist’s sonorously balladic musings half way.
Later that same day, on a hillside abutting mostly buried Roman ruins, Van Gysegem was still in his element, playing a conventionally rhythmic solo and then joining four other double bass players – Kristof Roseeuw, Pieter Lenaerts, Yannick Peters and Peter Jacquemyn – in multi-string improvisations. The other four began their string investigations 20 minutes earlier near a deserted Gustav Eiffel-designed edifice, working out string responses to a graphic score carefully laid out on the pavement. There they moved from jazz-like rhythmic thrusts and romantic semi-classical allusions to pure abstraction involving col legno taps on the bull fiddles’ front and back; the improvisation climaxing with a tremolo rush from all.
More phlegmatic in the rustic surroundings minutes later, the now five double bassists produced woody timbres which echoed among the surrounding trees, with pinpointed string swipes often blending with real aviary chirps. Frequently sub-dividing into duos featuring arco, pizzicato or wood-tapping procedures, the bassists sounded their string tones from scrolls to spikes and otherwise manipulating the instruments like individual dancing partners. In perfect harmony at points, the quintet created a narrative true to the double bass’ pictorial and power duality, with the sound remaining atonal enough to not fall on either side of the divide.
Emphasising his more fundamental and non-Western side, Jacquemyn was also part of an inspired recasting of bassist Peter Kowald’s experiments in the global tradition of improvisation three days previously. Partnered by German violinist Gunda Gottschalk and Chinese-German guzheng player/vocalist Xu Fen Xia, the trio fused elements from eastern and western musical streams without condescension or resorting to faux exoticism. Usually the bassist’s rotund plucks scrubbed from his instrument as if he was hewing a sculpture from a tree trunk served as a bridge between the others.
Passionate and pitch-sliding in execution, Xu suggested Asian court music with her triple-stopping runs on the multi-string instrument and extended the recital with sing-song soprano vocals. Other times she approached steel-guitar-like pacing with the guzheng. Gottschalk’s flying spiccato strokes ardently embraced European New Music as well as being loose enough in execution to replicate Roma insouciance. Eurasian strands were finally mated when a penultimate Jacquemyn showpiece included some vocalized Mongolian-styled chest tones on his part, plus a triple-stopping exposition that worked the bow and fingers among strings distended for extra action with an empty can of good Belgian beer.
One day later, seated on a chair in one of Citadel Park’s elevated forested grove, Raphael Malfliet offered a solipsistic variant of a double bass program. Usually standing his electric bass upright, he used a bow and strategically placed clips on the four strings to buzz, bang and accentuate pulses with shallow or elevated pitches creating a phantasmagoric program of raps and rebounds that fascinated and mesmerized in equal measures.
Other steadfast bassists who operated during the festival in the classic Jazz-improv tradition were Kobe Boon, in the Steiger trio with keyboardist Gilles Vandecaveye and drummer Simon Raman, who played June 2; and on the final afternoon, Brice Soniano, who was one-third of the appropriately named 3/4 Peace band with pianist Christian Mendoza and alto saxophonist/flutist Ben Sluys. With Steiger, although the drummer’s square pulse and the bassist’s determined control of the rhythm as well as uplifting and focused extensions during his solos defined the performance, Vandecaveye appeared determined to avoid Jazz-oriented profundity, preferring to clank out histrionic pseudo-classical patterns from the piano and convulse this-side-of ProgRock glissandi and explosions from his synthesizer and electric keyboard.
That observation was confirmed on the final evening when Vandecaveye led the Bardo band, heavy on electric guitar and electric bass showmanship, as a vehicle for his fervently disclaimed – in English – song-poetry replete with lyrics slathered with adolescent angst. With 3/4 Peace, Soniano’s precise ostinato and bowed breaks set the mood. But with the pianist usually content to reference conventional piano styles and Sluys’ low-pressure output taking on the least fervent delineation in his’ solos, the effect was cumulatively enervating, like being repeatedly hit by a downy pillow. With tunes as hermetic and compact as jingles, the musicians appeared to have internalized the breeziness of so-called Cool Jazz, without leaving enough space for the guttiness that would have tipped their set into even restrained excitement.
Oddly enough a similar malaise affected the quintet of Spanish vibraphonist Jorgy Rossy which closed Citadelic’s second night program. Dispelling another myth about American energy verses European passivity, it was undeniably a low-key performance. Except for French guitarist Jaume Llombart and Rossy, the quintet was manned by name American players: tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Doug Weiss and drummer Joey Barron. A literally last-minute replacement for Al Foster, Barron was the only player who was constantly on, contributing well-though-out polyrhythms or percussive fills where most appropriate. Otherwise, what worked in their favor was that the band members were professional to a “t”. They just didn’t appear able to express much fire. Rosy, for instance, cheerfully told stories between tunes, as well as outputting slinky and silvery vibe tones, swinging or solemn as the occasion demanded. Effortless melody was so the order of the day and the band conception so traditional that night, that this was the only set where the hoary exchange of fours between the vibist and drummer was obvious and audible. Meanwhile the guitarist and bassist were so self-effacing as to suggest disinterest, while Turner’s tone was smooth, soothing and so frail that it seemed to vanish into the night air.
Fragility was not the adjective that could be applied to the trio of Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser, French guitarist Marc Ducret and Danish drummer Peter Bruun which closed the festival’s performance schedule two nights later. The three were energized from the git-go with themes propelled by Blaser’s slip-sliding tremolo extensions and mute collection; Ducret’s chording which slid from violin-like spiccato to neck-hammering flanges; and Bruun’s percussive command, which as easily created proper accompaniment using only cymbals as he did bringing the whole kit into play. Whether expressing blues-like melancholy or jiggling, juggling and humping staccato timbres into the furthest reaches of stratospheric dissonance, the three were as notable as soloists as they were in timed, triple concordance. Capable of creating a hushed folksiness, which they demonstrated when they answered the festival audience’s one encore, the Blaser3 energetically epitomized modern swing. Able to fluidly synthesize brass multiphonics, whinny string shimmies with a percussive backbeat, the result was foot-tapping without freneticism or fawning.
Later that same afternoon, Rodrigo Fuentealba and Philip Weies created an uncommon mix of traditions with guitar improvisations alongside the Japanese Taiko drum and guzheng stylings of Tsubasa Hori. Like the Xu- Gottschalk-Jacquemyn trio two day previously no attempt was made at authenticity. While the string-strummers moved among microtones, whining flanges and fiery finger picking, Hori smacked her traditional single drum as a pure beat-maker or produced tones from her guzheng that could have come from a 1960s psychedelic Raga-Rock LP. Adding some reflective Tibetan-bowl manipulation at the end, her sometimes wordless vocals added up to set that was intriguing if someone mystifying.
More futuristic, but just as intriguing was a performance that took place in the rose garden near the outdoor podium stage on Citadelic’s final afternoon. Using a quartet of toy pianos, with their tiny spear-like protruding soundboards amplified and attached to a mixing board and processors, Pak Yan Lau clipped and bounced obtuse patterns on several mini keyboards at once. With foot-pedal direction and real-time processing she multiplied and mulched the resulting output, for an outer-directed set that enchanted.
While other parts of the program were less satisfying, the experimenting without alienating that the best musicians brought to Citadelic ’17 demonstrated why it has thrived and expanded over the last decade. Considering the care with which it’s programmed, its free admission and the fact that it takes place in a storied park, with food and drink on site and visual art nearby, the big question is, why isn’t the annual event on the schedules of more Jazz and improvised music followers?