Monday, February 09, 2004

Orange Kazoo & Pascal Schumacher Quartet - 5/02/2004, Brussels

Amazingly, I forgot my notebook, and then suffered computer problems that stopped me from posting earlier, so the accounts of these two concerts will be more sketchy than usual.

I had seen Orange Kazoo almost two years ago, when they released their first album. Back then, they had a singer who sang in a language of his own invention, to very good effect, but he's no longer in the band. Despite this, and being playfully billed as "jazz rock afro bulgarica," Orange Kazoo seems to have become far more song- (they even words everybody understands now) and composition-oriented, reducing improvisation to almost incidental levels. But wait, I hear you ask, who/what is Orange Kazoo?

Orange Kazoo is a band that originated in Charleroi (home to comic book character Spirou) and is made up of musicians that come from outside the music academy circuit (and, from the look of some of them, from the dingy-hippy demographic). Because of the notoriously atrocious concert conditions at the Café Central, I'm not sure what the line-up was. I could make out drums, electric bass, keyboards, guitar, marimba (an essential distinguishing feature), saxophone, trumpet (I think) and flute. At least two of the musicians (including the female marimba player) did some singing. I say "made out" because I couldn't be bothered to stand up during the one (first) set I heard (a sign of aging?) and there were many bodies between the band and me. That's part of the reason I left after one set: all those people seemed to absorb most of the higher-register instruments, leaving the bass as lead voice (from where I was sitting) and rendering front-line passages extremely indistinct.

The "jazz rock afro bulgarica" tagline sums up the band pretty well. They started out with a jazz-rockish 5/4 groove, and sometimes went into the long unisson lines characteristic of the genre, but a Fela Kuti horn arrangement influence ensured that the lines never became too unwieldy. The bulgarica intervened once, when they briefly sounded like an East European fanfare. Still, after a 40-minute set, I had had enough of the poor listening conditions, so I decided to drive cross-town to the Sounds to drop in on the Pascal Schumacher Quartet. Long-time readers will moan "What? Again?" What can I say? I like 'em.

I got to the Sounds in time for the last song of the first set. If the November concert had been dissappointing because of the stress of an upcoming recording session (the quartet's first CD, Change of the Moon, will be released next month on Igloo Records), here they were relaxed and in full gear. While not as explosively energetic as at the Hopper, this was perhaps the most balanced and well-rounded of the three PSQ concerts I've seen. Ballads such as bassist Christophe Devisscher's "Goodbye Little Godfather" (the version recorded by Alexi Tuomarila's quartet, of which Devisscher is also a member, contains an incredibly poignant solo bass intro) and Schumacher's "Change of the Moon" were played sensitively, and the semi-ballad reading of "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" was playful. They also played a few of pianist Jef Neve's compositions: the fast, stop-start "Pink Coffee," the poppish backbeat of "When Spring Begins" and the Bad Plus-ish "Blues For Mr. PS." The first two were given fantastic versions that easily topped those recorded on Neve's Blue Saga and highlighted how much of a band this quartet has become over the year or so they've been together. I interviewed Schumacher recently and he told me that the great thing about this particular group was that they really were friends: they didn't just see each other at concerts or rehearsals, but also met up to go see a movie. Apparently, this is fairly rare. In concert, the pieces seemed at once tightly arranged and loosely played, as the musicians bent the music in whatever direction they felt like going in. When Schumacher and Neve gently decrescendoed to near-silence, they proved once again that the best way to silence a crowd is to play quietly, rather than overwhelmingly loud. More generally, vibraphone and piano blended most felicitously, at times sounding like a new, third instrument.

For me, though, the highlights were a few of Neve's solos: I (and the rest of the crowd, judging by the applaud-o-meter) was left slack-jawed in wonder. He was in a lower register mood, and continuously came up with ways to make the bottom end of the piano sing. I've seen him in three different groups (including his own trio), and so far the PSQ is the one that has really pushed him the most, although I'm curious to see his new-look trio (later, Neve told me that he was soon to record a second trio album, and that in November he had a gig backing up no less than Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu). I think that he has the potential to become something like a Belgian Stefano Bollani: technically impressive, yet always audience-oriented in a non-pandering way (his solos retain a strong sense of melodic development) and with humour and fun shining through. At times, his contrapuntal playing, florid left-hand accompaniment (halfway between Bach and Bud Powell) and exchanging of leads between right and left hands may seem like a bag-of-tricks approach, but then again, I had never heard him do much of what he did last night.

After the concert, guitarist Pierre Van Dormael gave me some unexpected and amusing news. A song he composed/performed/recorded for that pride of Belgian pop, Plastic Bertrand, "Tout Petit la Planète," had apparently been covered by the Star Academy in Québec (Star Academy=Fame Academy=musical reality TV show) and that they had sold 520,000 CDs and 100,000 DVDs with his song on it. It's really hard to square what I know of Van Dormael with the most crassly commercial musical offerings, but it's great news nonetheless.