Vijay Iyer, Dan Weiss, Fundament Propel Gent Jazz Festival


The Gent Jazz Festival has been running since 2002, although prior to 2008, it was known as the Blue Note Festival. It’s situated in the heart of the Dutch-speaking Flemish region of Belgium, on the historic Bijloke site, which originally was a hospital and abbey, and now is a cultural center. The structure of the festival, generally, is to alternate headline acts on the main stage with less familiar artists on the garden stage, both of these being open marquees, surrounded by bars and food stalls.

This year, the festival’s early dates offered performances by David Byrne and Tom Jones, but its second weekend (July 5-8) featured a hardcore jazz approach, dominated by U.S. performers like Brad Mehldau, Chico Freeman, Pharoah Sanders, Hudson and Jason Moran.

Taking a prime Saturday night position on the main stage, the Vijay Iyer Sextet delivered avant-funk complexity, their leader still glowing from his recent triumphs in the DownBeat Critics Poll. Driving patterns soon began to emerge, as Mark Shim delivered several molten tenor saxophone solos, followed by Graham Haynes wisely contrasting the mood with his near-ambient cornet responses, sculpted in real time by electronic effects. Haynes took this approach even further than usual (for this sextet), smearing out dusted tendrils, before allowing a jump back into the advanced funk riffing.

Steve Lehman’s alto skated fast over the base time flow, cramming in notes tightly and twisting coiled phrases, choked hard against the clenched structures. He reveled in discovering uncomfortable angles of approach. Texas drummer Jeremy Dutton recently has replaced Tyshawn Sorey, and is not as dominant as his predecessor, which might be a gain for democracy, but a loss for individual expression and excitement. After 30 minutes, these six were fully in flight, careening through portions of Far From Over (ECM), mostly delivered in an aggressive manner, evolving harder, on the road.

“Vijay was a resident of Jazz Middelheim a couple of years ago,” festival founder Bertrand Flamang said the next day. “That was the time frame when the sextet really grew into more of a live band. Before, I always thought that some of the band members had a big effort to get the music properly played.”

New York drummer and composer Dan Weiss has moved into his most extreme arena to date with Starebaby, a prog-jazz quintet that matches Craig Taborn and Matt Mitchell on front-line keyboards, along with guitarist Ben Monder and electric bassist Trevor Dunn. The ensemble played at midnight on the garden stage, ending Saturday with maximum intensity. Opening with a tune called “Annica,” much was made of the sharp contrast between Mitchell’s grand piano and Taborn’s twisted electronics, with several subsequent numbers switching those roles. Meanwhile, Monder multiplied the riffing complexity, keyboards and guitar frequently so intertwined that discerning who was playing what became difficult. “The Memory Of My Memory” involved emphatic plodding, with turgid fuzz bass and metal drum heaviness. “Episode 8” referred to Twin Peaks, with grinding freakcore via doubled electronic keyboards, a manic criss-crossing of riffs, followed by a dynamic density of orchestrated stabbing and concluded with a communal glissando. Weiss has discovered a mysterious highway to an alternative hell.

Saturday, though, opened in extreme style, with Belgian large ensemble Fundament making the most fricative music heard on the main stage all weekend. It was the release day for its eponymous debut on El Negocito. The Fundament concept involves the lowest ends of bass instrumentation, sounding like improvised soundscapes, but clearly organized via compositional powers. The deep spread featured four upright basses, two tubas, bass, baritone, tubax and tenor saxophones. Screens flanked the stage, displaying images captured by a camera beneath a clear surface that artist Brody Neuenschwander manipulated with paint and various objects. The band’s hour-long piece opened with savagely groaning solo bass, other players gradually entering. There was a brutal strength to the horns’ vocal growling, until band members gathered in a throat-singing choir. There were following sections with two tubas and tubax, then a trombone quartet, before the climactic grand riffing began. The composition might be straightforward in general structure, but as images on the screens faded away, it dropped a dramatically darkened mood over the sweltering, sunny afternoon. DB

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