Saturday, September 04, 2004

Mons en Jazz - 04/09/2004, Mons

Mons seems to be a lively place. Driving in, I passed by a couple of 16-18-year-old (let's say 17) girls, one with hair dyed a lively pink, passed out in front of a public establishment, their friends around them, assisting. It was 8 PM. When I left the city, at 2 AM, things were only just getting started (that is, for those who hadn't already passed out). Police and a TV camera surrounded my car, never a good sign (especially when you consider the duct taped state of my rear bumper). It turns out they were breathalyzing people. Unfortunately (because I've never done it and would have passed), I didn't get tested.

Last year, the festival took place mostly in the nearby Hall, but now it's being held entirely in the K.fee, a great club I've already mentioned, presumably because of last year's disappointing turnout. Also, this year's line-up is 100% Belgian. The place was packed. Festival's in a club don't seem to be much of a tradition here, but it does generate a nice atmosphere straddling festival formality and logistics and club intimacy.

The Bart Quartier Quintet kicked off proceedings in surprising fashion, playing Dave Holland's "Looking Up." It was the first time I'd heard anybody cover a recent Holland composition, but it makes sense, as they're often great. The line-up was pretty similar to Holland's Quintet as well: Quartier on vibes, leader of Belgian mainstream sax Bart Defoort on tenor and curved soprano, Nico Schepers on trumpet, the inimitable Jean-Louis Rassinfosse (see below) on his signature 5-string double bass and the ubiquitous Jan de Haas on drums.

They gave a rather tepid set. When you've heard the Dave Holland Quintet several times, it's difficult for others to compare, especially when sticking to a similar arrangement. Defoort sounded thin and Rassinfosse weirdly agressive. A couple of bland Quartier compositions followed, before "8 AM" started kicking the set into gear: during the head, drums rolled, vibes and bass looped very cool independant chord cycles (the vibe chords dissonantly echoing the 9 PM church bells that had just rung outside). Unfortunately, they abandoned thorniness in favour of straight-forward funk for the solos. On the following ballad, Schepers made a powerful, heart-felt theme statement and the strong, not-too-complex harmony offered the soloists nice melodic paths, which they exploited effectively. A Mike Mainieri tune was the first real uptempo burner, and Schepers wowed, letting loose a Hubbard/Morgan salvo. The group was obviously gelling, Defoort's sound was getting thicker, but while they were winning the battle against lack of group identity, they were losing the one against festival set time constraints. They closed with another Quartier tune, "Doodle," a sort-of blues that found everyone far funkier than before.

Philip Catherine's trio took the stage next (don't worry, he was only briefly on all fours), with regular drummer Joost Van Schaik and irregular bassist Sal LaRocca filling in for Philippe Aerts. I'm not much of a fan of this trio, they just seem overly cushy with each other. This was made clear earlier in the year during the Brussels Jazz Marathon, when Rosario Giuliani sat in on "Mr. P.C." and blew them apart in the space of a few minutes, forcing Catherine to get up from his chair and respond in kind. A similar thing happened here, but in a quieter vein, when guitarist Pierre Van Dormael stepped onstage for Catherine's "L'éternel désir" and the standard "Autumn Leaves" (which was amusing to me, as only a few days ago I discussed learning "Autumn Leaves" with Van Dormael). The second guitarist made the leader space out his phrases and consider the weight of each one more carefully.

Before all that, though, the trio wound its way through a couple of Catherine tunes, which allowed him to display his usual melancholy iridescent pedal-controlled chords. "Letter From My Mother" was especially strong, with a great melody hiding gushing emotion under the British restraint of a little waltz. They blew on "All The Things You Are" and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" (which contained a great, "how's he going to resolve this" harmonic digression from Catherine) and closed with "More Bells," the two-beat of which allowed Van Schaik to loudly and joyfully play around with the off-beat during the song's climax.

The previously-seen Van Dormael followed with a quartet that's played several times now (a notable feat, as most of the guitarist's groups have, by his own admission, played only once). Van Dormael has a totally unique harmonic sense that allows him to sculpt intricate melodies out of seemingly inhospitable intervals. Mix this in with his blues leanings, African sensibility (notably in his approach to space) and desire to unite the intellectual and the emotional, and you have a musician who never ceases to amaze me. The first time I saw this quartet, I was amazed and transported for about 25 minutes. This time, I was a bit disappointed. Van Dormael was consistently fascinating and bassist Otti van der Werf (on his battered 4-string electric) has a pared-down, deeply groovy style, but throughout the 1.5 hour-long set, the tempo and general feeling hardly budged. Anne Wolf, excellent on piano in her own trio, continued to annoy on keyboards, using mostly cheesy pan pipe patches (the same as she always uses, aren't there any other settings on those things?) and occasional strings, with a balafon/marimba sound at one point that was, I must admit, rather nice. Still, though, I have yet to hear her play anything on keyboards that sounded really good, as she mainly restricts herself to weak, often out-of-the-groove blues scale + modulation wheel noodling. But I'll repeat how good her own trio is: very (which makes her performances with Van Dormael all the more puzzling).

The set ended with Dylan's "My Back Pages," whose melody provided a more focused and forward-moving context and Van Dormael's "Hip Hop Etude no. 11" which had a great, funky bass line inevitably de-intensified by the above-mentioned keyboards. Things started getting crazy when Van Dormael took the mic down the first row, making people shout "Woo!" into it. Then Rassinfosse got a hold of it and started scatting. When that ran out of steam, he turned to free-associated and free-morphing words rather winningly (anyone who's seen him on stage knows he's a great entertainer). Then Van Dormael played a famous disco-funk bassline I can remember but can't place and sang a bit of "I Shot the Sheriff," all for no apparent reason, but it was fun.

Second and final day of the festival tonight.