Jazz Brugge

Brugge, Belgium
October 2-October 5, 2008

Pianist Alexander Von Schlippenbach’s German quartet rolled through a set of Thelonious Monk compositions; Sardinians, saxophonist Sandro Satta and keyboardist Antonello Salis liberally quoted Charles Mingus lines during their incendiary set; Berlin-based pianist Aki Takase and saxophonist Silke Eberhard recast Ornette Coleman’s tunes; and the French Trio de Clarinettes ended its set with harmonies reminiscent of Duke Ellington’s writing for his reed section.

All these sounds and many more were highlighted during the fourth edition of Jazz Brugge, which takes place every second year in this tourist-favored Belgium city, about 88 kilometres from Brussels. But sonic homage and musical interpolations were only notable when part of a broader interpretation of improvised music. Other players in this four-day festival came from Italy, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Hungary, Poland and Belgium. With strains of rock, New music and folklore informing the jazz presented at the festival’s three sonically impressive venues, music at the most notable concerts was completely unique or added to the tradition. The less-than-memorable sets were mired in past achievements or unworkable formulae

Aided by its intimate surroundings, noon-time concerts in the Groening Museum were a model of realized inspiration. Satta and Salis’ duo was particularly remarkable, especially when Salis attacked the piano keys and strings, partially answering the question: What would Cecil Taylor sound like if he was Sardinian?

Salis was no more Taylor, then Satta was Taylor’s saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, but this longstanding partnership created an individual sound. Conveyed on waves of pedal-pressure and low-slung glissandi from the pianist and the saxophonist’s open tone, which melded the delicacy of Paul Desmond and Earl Bostic’s wide vibrato with the split tones, altissimo squeaks and key slaps associated with Free Jazz, selections were as dense as they were lyrical. Salis’ piano produced minuet-reminiscent arpeggios as well as staccato honky-tonk striding. With Satta often cunningly manipulating blues nuances, both abstracted further timbres from their island heritage. Stretching the accordion bellows or hammering at its keypad, Salis foot-stamped and vocalized pseudo-Mediterranean shanties to emphasize further individuality.

Sicilian percussionist Francesco Branciamore showcased his version of tradition- extension a two days later with trombonist and tubaist Giancarlo Schiaffini and France’s Jean-Luc Cappozzo on trumpet and flugelhorn. Cappozzo, whose capabilities range from producing Gabriel-like triplets to breathing hand-muted mellow lines, worked in unison or contrapuntally with Schiaffini. Meantime the low-brass playing Roman moved beyond pedal-point accompaniment to unleash with the same facility, tailgate trombone braying gurgling, vocalized tuba lowing and shrill mouthpiece-only tootles. Branciamore advanced rhythm with wet finger tips slid across drum tops, hand-stopped cymbals, and wrapped up the performance with a Second Line-like backbeat. But that was after the percussionist shifted to the vibraharp for a four-mallet display of repetitive boppish beats, cushioned by Schiaffini’s feather-light tuba blares.

The reeds missing from this performance were present in earlier museum concerts from France’s Le Trio de Clarinettes and the duo of France’s Louis Sclavis on clarinets and soprano saxophone and Italian Francesco Bearzatti on tenor saxophone and clarinet.

Between them, Sylvain Kassap, Armand Angster and Jean-Marc Foltz played clarinets, bass clarinets and contrabass clarinets, frequently in triple counterpoint, other times with one producing a slurping ostinato as the others decorated his lines in lower-case accompaniment. Using circular breathing Foltz, for instance, created dual counter tones with himself. Meanwhile Kassap turned coughing and wheezing into his bass clarinet into shimmering echoes separated by chromatic honks. By the finale, the three moved from key-tapping and microtonal inferences to a replication – lead by Angster’s bass clarinet – of the sort of trio harmonies Ellington favored.

Similarly expressive, Bearzatti and Sclavis maintained a rhythmic cohesiveness as they introduced any number of ornamentations, running from jerky spittle-encrusted vibrations to blaring flutter-tonguing. On soprano saxophone Sclavis favored a flashy Sidney Bechet-style lyricism, while Bearzatti’s clarinet solos included jazzy, mid-range glissandi. Most impressive was a duet which joined shaky mouthpiece quacks as if from a chanter and basso pedal-point drones as if from bellows, to suggest insistent bagpipe-like undulations.

The duo’s performance was better realized than that of Sclavis’ Big Slam Napoli in the Concertgebouw, which matched the two reedists with a rhythm section and rapper Dgiz, who, despite hip-hopping from one side of the stage to the other, easily confirmed that rap-jazz admixtures are best left to performers from North America.

Similarly, French bassist Henri Texier’s sextet, while pumped full of Jazz Messengers-like energy resulting from a front line of trombone, baritone and alto saxophone, mired itself in crunching funk. Relatively faceless in execution, except for the profoundly resonating solos of the leader, the presentation lost its mooring when the band’s drummer was given free rein to unleash the sort of showy pounding firmly moored in Hard Rock.

Branciamore’s percussion facility was more germane to improvised music as were the work of three drummers associated with both bands involving British bassist Barry Guy. Swede Raymond Strid and Briton Paul Lytton guided the 10-piece Barry Guy New Orchestra (BGNO) without beat bluster, while earlier in the evening in the Concertgebouw’s Kamermuziekzaal, Spaniard Ramón López unveiled a similar low-key strategy playing with Agusti Fernández, BGNO’s Barcelona-based pianist, and Guy. Turning the classic jazz piano trio on its head, López’s Iberian rhythms, often expressed with vibrated bells, a sound tree, a triangle and ratchets, defined the tunes. Meanwhile Guy used a short stick plus his bow to hew unexpected stressed chords from his strings as well as plucking animated arpeggios. With Catalan-styled voicing periodically demanding he stretch crab-like across the keys, Fernández outlined clipped and insistent chording to steer the pieces astride the jazz tradition.

Filled out with a EU impov whose’s who – baritone saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and tubaist Per Åke Holmlander from Sweden, German trombonist Johannes Bauer, British saxophonist Evan Parker, Swiss clarinetist Hans Koch and one American – trumpeter Herb Robertson – the BGNO was an object lesson in showcasing individual improvisations within a notated score. Conducting as he played, Guy sometimes directed the reed and horn sections to cross pollinate each other’s cumulative vamps in canon fashion. Then it was his own forceful string twangs, Fernández’s targeted slides and pumps plus vibrating cymbal color and unexpected tutti crescendos that provided the performance’s bonding musical glue.

Interjecting individual theme variations were, among others, Parker’s flutter tonguing and chirping tenor saxophone, Koch’s wispy scene-setting bass clarinet puffs and blistering triplets from Robertson. Throbbing on top of a configuration of bass clarinet, tuba and baritone saxophone, the piece reached its climax following diminishing drum beats and hunting-horn-like yodels from the trombone. Heraldic trumpet tattoos and low-pitched piano lines signaled tension release and conclusion.

One reason the BGNO performance was satisfying was because players created variations on a previously recorded Guy orchestration. Mutating familiarized themes in another fashion was less notably expressed by Von Schlippenbach’s Monk’s Casino band and Takase and Eberhard’s Ornette Coleman Anthology set. Although bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall fused exuberant altissimo and split tone playing with the ability to duck walk across the stage; and trumpeter Axel Dörner fused triplest and a blues tonality in his solos impresssiverly, overall the Von Schlippenbach four crammed too many 78-rpm-length Monk themes into the set that would have lost focus if not for the powerful walking bass of Jan Roder. Similarly the Takase/Eberhard duo substituted Coleman’s innate quirkiness for readings that straightjacketed the alto man’s tunes into standard head-variation-solo-recap formula. It felt as if the two bands presented the Classic Comics or Reader’s Digest version of advanced jazz.

All and all though, Jazz Brugge’s pluses overwhelmed its minuses, setting up high expectations for 2010’s fest.

— Ken Waxman

— MusicWorks Issue #103