Festival Report

Jazz Brugge 2012
By Ken Waxman

When a festival like Jazz Brugge 2012 takes place in a Belgium town, designated by UNESCO World Heritage for its picturesque canals and loving preserved medieval buildings, a certain amount of time and space dislocation can be expected. Considering that concerts (October 4 to 7) took place in the attic performance space of the 12th century Sint-Janshospitaal museum or in a massive or a smaller hall of the four-seating tier Concertgebouw, purpose built in 2002, this time-shifting continued. Additionally, three of the most insightful performances melded celebration of art from earlier century with perceptive improvisations.

Most spectacular was an afternoon Sint-Janshospitaal multi-media presentation by France’s Collective ARFI. As individual details or entire scenes from Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s A La Vie, La Mort were projected on a giant screen, four ARFI members – trumpeter Jean Mereu, soprano and alto saxophonist Jean Aussanaire, bassist Bernard Santacruz and Laurence Bourdin on the hurdy-gurdy – provided interpretations of the rampaging skeletons, prone townsfolk and bleak landscapes. A triumph of Folklore Imaginaire it confirmed the spiritual intersection between Danse Macabre and the harsh, cascading textures of improvisers like the Ayler Brothers.

As impressive, but less gruesome were two sets on the Concertgebouw’s main stages by French horn players whose bands respectively reinterpreted the themes of Italian Claudio Monteverdi, whose work led encompassed Renaissance to Baroque compositions; or pieces by 17th Century Italian Baroque composer Antonio familiar violin concerto, The Four Seasons.

With an ensemble consisting of; Gavino Murgia playing soprano saxophone and singing bass, Katharina Bäuml playing Renaissance double reed woodwinds, Bruno Helstroffer on theorbe, a medieval lute, lyric soprano Guillemette Laurens and Michel Godard playing tuba’s ancestor, the serpent, and electric bass, this was far from your typical jazz combo. Goddard`s arrangements expanded Monteverdi’s adaption of basso continuo and polyphony with subtle multiphonics and improvisations from all. For instance, Helstroffer’s slurred fingering or Murgia's agitated licks were thoroughly contemporary; while the bass’s pedal-point pattern provided linking rhythms as did Murgia subterranean rumbles. Serpent slurs frequently created sympathetic obbligatos for Laurens expressive singing, while the pairing of supple soprano sax trills and Bäuml’s piercing schalmei lines were as effective as if a clarinet or oboe was in use.

Saxophonist Christophe Monniot on the other hand played up the populist and universal appeal of Vivaldi; as a jazzman, however he used these motifs as reference points and leitmotifs as others would utilize Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk material. Tubaist Michel Massot provided the rhythmic foundation along with Monniot occasionally invoking “air bass” by singing a bass line into the mike with appropriate hand gestures. Drummer Eric Echampard’s rolls, pardiddles and pops touched on both rock and jazz beats, pianist Emil Spányi spun out appropriate swinging asides, while the all-saxophone Quatuor Arcanes was on hand to recreate Vivaldi’s themes as well as face off individuality or harmonize distinctively to give context to Monniot’s solos on soprano, alto and baritone. Overall the idea of mutating a famous concerto to fit another context worked admirably. Try to extend the metaphor by also exposing pre-recorded voices discussing climate change in French didn’t.

Another missed opportunity – but one that was wildly popular with the audience – was the Monk’n’Roll concept of tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Francesco Bearzatti and his confreres of Giovanni Falzone, who played trumpet and electronics and led sing-and-clap alongs; electric bassist Danilo Gallo and drummer Zeno de Rossi. Although each of the players has broken himself in other contexts, and Monk’s themes are no more sacrosanct than Ellington’s or Vivaldi’s; unlike the sympathetic genre-melding of Goddard and Monniot, this was a cut-and-paste job. Explaining that as forty-something musicians their sympathies were as much with heavy metal as Monk’s music, the four proceeded to mash up Monk themes with rock standards such as “Iron Man”, “Immigrant Song” and “Walk on the Wild Side”. Trouble was that once the Monk head was played, the band related ignored it until recapped at the end, with the rest of the time consisting of common rock tropes. De Rossi pummeled a backbeat; Gallo output was crunchingly repetative; heavily processed, Falzone’s capillary flourishes borrowed from Miles Davis’ fusion period and while pogoing up-and-down like a Red Hot Chilli Pepper, Bearzatti’s reed smears –while miming guitar strums – attempted to channel the spirit of Jimmy Page.

More praiseworthy initiatives were three duos linking jazz veterans with youngish players. One concert at the Concertgebouw’s Kamermuziekzaal united two Swiss players: pianist Irène Schweizer, 71 and soprano and tenor saxophonist Jürg Wickihalder, 39. One at Sint-Janshospitaal a day later matched British soprano and tenor saxophonist Evan Parker, 67, with Belgian bassist Peter Jacquemyn, 49; while Swiss percussionist united two Swiss players: pianist Irène Schweizer and soprano and tenor saxophonist Jürg Wickihalder, 39, another two days later in the same place, featured 75-year-old percussionist Pierre Favre, and fellow Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser, 31.

An object lesson on how actually to blend Monk tunes with others, the two joyously dipped in-and-out of “Ruby, My Fear”, “Little Rootie Tootie” and other Monkisms without altering the music’s flow. Originals mixed with allusions to Charles Mingus and Carla Bley, with Schweizer played with the economy that comes from of self-sufficiency, slipping in blues or boogie woogie references which vanished almost as quickly as they were heard. Able to produce Booker Ervin-like hollers or telescope his breaths, Wickihalder created meaningful comments whether he was, blowing two saxes at once to expose polyphonic contrast, blowing into the soprano’s bell instead of the mouthpiece, or disassembling his horns to display the sonic qualities of each part.

Conversant with every texture and timbre of the saxophone is Parker who produced to underline t the sonorous possibilities of both his horns as Jacquemyn, whose strikingly human-like wood sculptures were on display at Sint-Janshospitaal during the festival, ripped and hacked at plus slapped and scrubbed his bass’s strings. Sporadically inserting two bows behind his strings for reflective multiphonics when both were moved, Jacquemyn, frequently smacked his bow sul tasto, not only in the warm mid-range, but also sawing beneath the bridge and up near the scroll. Rarely evoking his characteristic circular breathing, Parker stuck to smears and reed bites, at points making two complementary trills to be audible. Although both played solo interludes, a characteristic connection appeared near the end as abrasive reed shrieks and frenetic string pumps settled into rapt coordination.

Synchronization was also much in evidence during the Favre-Blaser concert. Using sticks, brushes, mallets, and even curved bean pods to produce rhythms that contrasted or rumbled alongside the trombonist’s slide actions, the percussionist exudes a sense of relaxed swing no matter the tempo. It often seemed as if an invisible bassist was present as well. Eschewing melody shards and comfortable with a variety of mutes, Blaser intelligently uses silences to emulate the drummer’s pacing. Using lip pressure he produced tandem multiphonics; he sticks to breakneck boppy lines, moderated tremolo swing with the occasional plunger growls for emphasis. The two are separate enough in their playing to underline each player’s skills, but cohesive enough in their playing to come to many happy conclusions.

It was sets like this which emphasize the festival’s strengths. Unabashedly European, Jazz Brugge, takes place every second year, 88 kilometres northwest of Brussels. Meaningfully, it always provides a well-composed illustration of advanced continental improv at that juncture.

—For New York City Jazz Record November 2012