Monday, May 10, 2004

Pain, glory, mishaps and tarmac

Friday and saturday, I paid two (relatively) long-distance visits to the eastern part of the country.

Friday I went to the Liège Jazz Festival, of which I had happily attended both days last year. This year was a near-total disappointment: never have I seen so much poor music in one day. It's a good thing I got in for free. It started with the Christophe Astolfi Swingtet, a gypsy jazz band, but with drums in place of a third guitar. Later on, I snatched a glimpse of Birelli Lagrène's Gypsy Project and, pleasant as it was, I wondered why the descendants of Django seemed so trapped within their heritage. Lagrène is an exception, as he used to play with Miles Davis and jazz-rockers, but otherwise, it seems a very culturally- and stylistically- closed scene.

After Astolfi, I checked out French singer Anne Ducros. A fine alto voice and likeable stage demeanour, but a heavily overwrought singing style and completely incomprehensible diction on faster tunes. The last one I heard suffered from the same problem, even though it was a slow blues-rock, as Ducros combined superfluous embellishments and pointlessly speedy phrasing. When guitarist Olivier Louvel took a ponderous, rhythm-less solo and the keyboardist started adding some harsh 80s synth sounds, I decided it was time to leave (there were 6 different stages and concerts often overlapped).

Next stop: Olivier Colette, a Belgian pianist whose two albums I don't like, so I knew what to expect going in. The quality of his music depends entirely on his compositions rather than the improvisors. Unfortunately, Colette's writing is too often syrupy. There was a good tango-based piece, though.

I was looking forward to Sarah Morrow and the American All-Stars in Paris, especially as drummer John Betsch (a regular accompanist to Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron) was taking part. Unfortunately, Betsch was replaced by one of the dullest drummers I have ever seen. Morrow is a good trombonist, but the rhythm section seemed to wilfully ignore the progression of her solos, remaining tepid even as she was trying to build up some hardbopping steam. Only for organist Rhoda Scott's solos did the bass and drums heat up a bit. Alngside Morrow was the 85-year old saxophonist Hal Singer. With all due respect to his past accomplishments, he's way, way past his prime...

French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc had left behind his usual trio and teamed up with two interlopers that he visibly had to drag along behind him (musically speaking). It was my first time seeing Pilc and I was surprised, if not wholly satisfied. He was much less athletic and virtuosic than I expected as he chopped Ellington's "Satin Doll" to bits, mashed standards together, played Coltrane's "Mr. PC" as a bolero (and couldn't resist quoting Ravel's "Bolero"), whistled and, at one point, got up and tapped some percussion on the side of Thomas Brameries's bass, as the latter was taking a solo.

The only really fun moment came with the unknown Domguè, an electro-jazz saxophone and machines duo. As the machine-man triggered house, rave and jungle beats, the saxophone-man played spiky funk and soul-jazz riffs, "sang" nonsensical slogans with added electronic effects and danced around. It was often very kitsch, but it was great. One girl got up and danced, an act of true bravery in the midst of those disciplining rows of chairs.

An unlikely match was that of alto saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol, pianist Fred Van Hove and drummer Pierre Favre. The latter two are european improvised music veterans, while Cassol is best known for leading the flagship AKA Moon trio. Indeed, Cassol and Van Hove seemed to often play parallel to each other, as Cassol remained firmly entrenched in tonality, clear lines and vibrato, while Van Hove limp-wristed his way around the keyboard. Favre formed a bridge between the two, metronomically pounding around his kit. At times, though, a weird unity emerged and an indescribable, twinkling music appeared.

My night ended with Belgian saxophonist Steve Houben's quartet + Lee Konitz as guest, in a tribute to Jacques Pelzer. Houben played first, a flub-ridden "Windows" (Chick Corea) on flute and a nice "Minority" (Gigi Gryce (why don't people play more Gryce tunes?)) on alto. Houben left and Konitz came out. It took him a long time to warm up (indeed, he still wasn't fully at ease when I left), but every phrase that came out unmarred by some mishap or other was truly beautiful. When Houben came back out, the two altoists attempted to play a unisson theme on a standard, which led to the biggest crash I've ever witnessed. I was laughing and I'm surprised more people weren't. The two have such different conceptions of rhythm and intonation (and probably little, if any, time to rehearse) that the attempt was rather pitiful. Despite a clever Houben-to-Konitz segue leading to a relatively slow "Cherokee," I decided 1 AM was more than late enough to leave, as I had some (hopefully) much better music to hear and another long drive to face the next evening.

So saturday, I headed to Beringen to see the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet. I arrive at the PCM Casino and think "Wow, this is a really nice place! Look at all those people streaming in! Mothers, families! Wait a minute, something's not quite right here." Indeed, I found a flyer and discovered that the concert was taking place in Hasselt. Thankfully, Hasselt wasn't too far away and in any case, they started over an hour after the stated time. When I arrived at a venue situated at the back of a grubby garage, I knew I was the right place.

Despite being called the Chicago Tentet, a fair number of the musicians weren't even American: Toshinori Kondo (Japan), Roland Ramanan (UK, I think), Paal Nilssen-Love (Norway) and Herr Brötzmann himself, of course.

I'd never heard any of the Tentet's music before and was suitably blown away. I won't describe it too much as I intend to write a full article soon, but the sheer power of Zerang's and Nilssen-Love's (who's becoming something of the European Hamid Drake, don't you think?) drumming when both really let loose was awe-inspiring. Easily better than everything I'd seen at Liège the day before and, I'm quite sure, anything taking place on the second day of the festival.