Sunday, November 23, 2003

Pierre Van Dormael 404 Quartet - Brussels, 21/11/2003

Pierre Van Dormael - g
Anne Wolf - p
Otti Van Der Werf - el b
Osvaldo Hernandez - perc

Robin Verheyen - ts
Véronique IQ, Kate Maine, Anne-Marie - voc

Pierre Van DormaelPierre Van Dormael is a rare musician. He is of course highly knowledgeable about music and music-making, but is also an idiosyncratic mix of warmth, wisdom, innocence and winking playfulness. He has very few albums as a leader: "L'étendue des extrêmes" (an LP never re-issued on CD) is a guitar-saxophone duo that he describes as an attempt to play over chords while sounding like free jazz, "Djigui," from 1997, is a kora/guitar/bass string trio, that mixes African improvisation (Van Dormael spent 3 years in Senegal) with covers of Bill Withers's "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" and Phil Collins's "Paradise." His masterwork, however, is indisputably 2001's "Vivaces," which presents a global, complete vision of who Pierre Van Dormael is, successfully combining complex poly-rhythms and -meters, dizzying arrangements of the 12 musicians involved and surprisingly catchy and smart melodies. During a marathon interview session, he spoke to me of the healing qualities of the acoustic guitar sound, how it resonates in the air, but also exposed the complex technical foundations of the music found on "Vivaces."

Van Dormael says that most of his groups only played one concert, so as to always keep the music fresh and repetition-free, and the 404 Quartet will probably be no exception. However, he has assembled a regular core of musicians that accompany him from project to project, spanning the best of Belgian jazz musicians, and regularly adding younger musicians such as Robin Verheyen. Friday night at the Studio Athanor, two long-time associates, Anne Wolf and Otti Van Der Werf, are joined by Mexican percussionist Osvaldo Hernandez, whom I've never seen play with Van Dormael before. In fact, the group was the same as one I saw earlier this year, only with drummer Stéphane Galland (of AKA Moon fame) instead of Hernandez.

The concert's first 30 minutes were its most consistently engrossing. Van Dormael became a griot, voice and guitar telling us of a Peugeot 404 leaving for Timbuctoo, a place one never reaches. This was actually based on his own experience of running out of gas in the middle of nowhere in Mali. Then the group played a piece from "Djigui," during which Van Dormael took on the dry, pinched sound of the kora. Wolf laid down deep-pedaled riffs over a light bass-percussion ostinato, creating a thoroughly African, transe-inducing and slightly magical atmosphere. The music shifted gently towards a more complex, "Vivaces"-like construction, but maintained directness of expression through the strong melodic sense which underpins even Van Dormael's trademark harmonically-twisted guitar lines. This huge slab of music ended with a tender song with a more European slant.

Later highlights included Véronique IQ singing a gentle soul/rock ballad in a beautiful, clear, soulful voice. Later, sitting among the crowd, she exchanged African/Islamic-sounding vocalisations with Van Dormael. She usually sings back-up for Starflam, a Belgian hip hop group.

It was also interesting seeing Verheyen, who I mentioned a few posts ago as a rising talent. The 20-year old came on several times. The first time was rather unsatisfying, as he seemed ill-at-ease and out of synch with the other musicians, unable to do anything but run up and down his tenor, spilling out lots of notes but not saying much. When he came back on soprano, he was much better, playing melodically over a quiet, desert-coloured groove. From there, he seemed to have gained confidence, and later played a well-constructed tenor solo which started slow and melodic and logically built up to fast, rhythmic lines. I have yet to see one of Verheyen's own gigs, but I'll be keeping an eye out.

(photo credit: Jos L. Knaepen)