The Gent Jazz Festival always presents one of the most adventurous marriages between the music’s hardcore root and its sympathetic popular perimeter. Unlike many others, this epic Belgian festival’s journey towards rock, pop, electronic and global sounds is usually more esoteric and alternative. Yes, the old masters are here—in the shape of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and McCoy Tyner—but we can also drink in the pleasures of a predatory Grace Jones, London’s unpredictably electro-rocking Archive and Berlin’s industrially clangorous Einstürzende Neubauten.
The Gentfest (July 6-15) isn’t too heavy to handle, as the sets simply alternate between the voluminous marquee space and the smaller Garden Stage, situated within the museum grounds of the city’s Bijloke Music Centre, which lies within the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. None of the sets overlap, so there is no pressure to dash madly from one stage to another, or to make worryingly difficult choices between multiple acts.
In a festival that was heavy on highlights, the first day of its second weekend held a particularly notable performance by Shabaka & The Ancestors, beginning around midnight. This band is led by London saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, who also fronts at least two other combos, Sons Of Kemet and The Comet Is Coming, but the majority of its members are players from Johannesburg, South Africa. The Garden Stage tent was crammed, as Hutchings poured out gritty tenor solos, flanked by alto saxophonist Mthunzi Mvubu and singer Siyabonga Mthembu, the latter adopting an unusually gentle and poetic delivery, amid the frequently raging Afro-funk of this set.
The percussion team of Tumi Mogorosi (drum set) and Gontse Makhene (congas) were the leading beat-keepers of the entire festival. Their intense rapport, as they interlocked with ever-escalating urgency, arrived via a complete mastery of polyrhythmic clattering, which was responsible for driving the horn frontline to ecstatic heights.
The preceding set on the main stage had seen Kamasi Washington and his troupe deliver their expected festival roadshow, plowing through a set with a slightly different emphasis compared to the last few years, partly due to the absence of key bassist Miles Mosley. After Washington’s 90-minute romp, soprano saxophonist Rickey Washington (Kamasi’s father) lurked modestly at the side of the stage, and was then encouraged by Hutchings to join the Ancestors. Soon growing in assurance, Rickey was immediately welcomed into the gathering, and then Kamasi himself appeared, ready to increase an already volatile energy quotient, trading tenor phrases with Hutchings before the pair honked in unison.
Everything hit at exactly the right moment, as the audience continued to fill this smaller tent, and the crosscurrents flashed between the Ancestors and the Washington clan, Kamasi and Rickey delivering far superior solos to those heard in their own earlier set.
On the opening evening, the aforementioned Los Angeles bassist Mosley established an energy level which could already be set as a target for all of the festival’s subsequent performers. Leading his West Coast Get Down crew, Mosley sported his signature shoulder armor, standing at the front of the stage to sing, play and conduct the early evening party. One electric moment occurred when Mosley turned up the fuzz while bowing in duo with drummer Tony Austin. “Pray for me,” said the bassist as he embarked on the Hendrix number “If 6 Was 9,” confronting the tendency for critics to compare his sometimes distorted sound to that of Jimi’s guitar. Cameron Graves also impressed both as soloist and imaginative thematic developer, with Mosley including one of the pieces from the pianist’s recent album, Planetary Prince (Mack Avenue), and allowing a solo rumination to graduate toward some steaming funk action.
On the second day, two Christians—Scott and McBride—played back-to-back sets. New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah played a 4.30 p.m. set, continuing this year’s festival trend for opening each day with a crucial performance. Mike Mitchell’s drums often re-created the feel of hi- hop beats, mixing acoustic skins and electro-pads, with percussionist Weedie Braimah laying down complex, organic djembe patterns.
Scott flatters all of his band members during his always-lengthy introductions, but his plaudits for flutist Elena Pinderhughes were markedly appropriate, as she was featured on “Diaspora.” Both of them delivered epic, articulate solos, crossing over into themes as they exchanged roles, keeping the demarcations hazy. Pinderhughes soloed, then Scott caught hold of a phrase and repeated it while the percussionists continued to work their own contrasts and sympathies. By this time, we were already noticing the pristine sound quality on the main stage: it’s usually of a high quality, but sounded clearer and punchier than ever this year.
Bassist Christian McBride’s New Jawn quartet is still playing much the same as when they were in residence at New York’s Blue Note in the summer of 2016, but those tunes certainly bear repetition and continued enhancement. Trumpeter Josh Evans was on marathon firecracker form during Larry Young’s “Obsequious,” like a more mainstream Don Cherry, followed up by a cooler, more slippery solo from Marcus Strickland.
Freddie Hubbard’s “Take It To The Ozone” was surely referring to the Ornette zone on this night, chasing close to the edges of free-jazz. The group closed with “The Good Life,” an actual Coleman composition. Oddly, this sounded more temperate than the Hubbard number. Regardless, New Jawn is one of the most energized new combos on the current scene.
On the festival’s third day, there was a shining set from an older generation of Americans: BassDrumBone, featuring Ray Anderson (trombone), Mark Helias (bass) and Gerry Hemingway (drums). It was a testament to their authoritative bearing that this often intimate music was translated to the vast space of the main stage, with most audience members offering their fully silenced attention.
This is the 40th anniversary of the trio, and the interactions between musicians continue to be vital. Anderson rasped and slipped, a garrulous adventurer in sound, playing the burble-muted blues one moment, then sliding toward free-form soon afterward, as they played Hemingway’s “At Another Time” from their latest 2016 album, The Long Road.
Anderson’s palette is varied, encompassing long tones and fast-flecking action, weaving a percussive impact into his phrases. He ducked out while Helias and Hemingway entered into their private dialog, an exchange of great subtlety, with ample space given to each other. When each member took a totally solo section, it was a symmetrical expression before the full romp resumed.
Most of last year’s best sets were played by indigenous Belgian artists, primarily from Gent. In 2017, the emphasis was on a highly impressive array of visiting Americans, some of them being quite mainline artists, but here offering their very best playing. Also, another pair of crucial sets came from that of Grace Jones, and with the metal-percussion doom-cabaret of Einstürzende Neubauten. Both of these are somewhat sideways from the mainstream jazz territory, but illustrate the great imaginative breadth of the Gent Jazz Festival´s booking policy. DB