Hometown Heroes Spice Up Belgium’s Gent Jazz Festival

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The Belgian blues artist Roland performs a tribute to Moondog at the Gent Jazz Festival in Ghent, Belgium, on July 10.

(Photo: Jos L. Knaepen)

This year, the Gent Jazz Festival in Belgium celebrated its 15th edition on July 7–16 with the kind of high-quality program that fans have come to expect. Founded as the Blue Note Festival (it changed its name roughly halfway through its existence), the event spanned two long weekends, opening with hardcore jazz, but frequently spreading out toward sympathetic musical styles.

Unlike other big festivals, the selections in Gent are usually more esoteric and alternative, although the program still provides some popular acts.

The impressively historic city of Ghent lies in the Flemish, Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, and the festival takes place in a large pavilion, where this year, crowds flocked to see Kamasi Washington, Pat Metheny, John Cale, Jill Scott and St. Germain.

Despite the international thrust of its bookings, some of the most exciting music this year was indigenous: not just from Belgian generally, but from Ghent in particular. There was, of course, the riotous Flat Earth Society big band, a Belgium-based ensemble that has long held a significant global profile, touring the Americas, Europe and beyond. At Gent, the band’s inspired, kinetic set was purportedly dedicated to the memory of Frank Zappa, although without actually playing many of his works.

There was a hyper-speed medley that quoted “Eat That Question” and “I’m The Slime,” among many more, in its rapid-fire jumping, and this was followed by stirring versions of Zappa’s “There Will Come A Time” and “City Of Tiny Lites,” which showcased the singing of guest guitarist Mauro Pawlowski, a member of the Belgian rock band dEUS (though regular Flat Earth Society guitarist Pierre Vervloesem was actually more exciting as a soloist and general performer). The group concluded with the colossal complexities of “Abracadabra.”

De Beren Gieren, a trio that walks the improvisational edge, is one of Belgium’s best jazz groups, consistently probing for fresh textures and dynamics. Launching straight into brooding stormclouds at Gent, they quickly found a pulse, with Fulco Ottervanger offering a stream of piano notes before the set evolved into a headlong vehicle for simultaneous soloing. Lieven Van Pee bowed his bass, Simon Segers gently darted around his drum-skins, and a glassy shimmer gradually developed.

Electronics magnified the piano interior, and the music jolted from calm to aggressive before landing once again on a dreamy cloud. Much of the set had a suite-like quality, and the trio concluded with a more conventional groove—drums wild, bass flooding and piano hammering as electronics trilled in the background.

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