Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Maak's Spirit - 16/02/2007@Jazz Station, Bruxelles

Laurent Blondiau - tp, flh (website)
Jeroen Van Herzeele - ts
Jean-Yves Evrard - g
Sébastien Boisseau - b
Eric Thielemans - d

By the beginning of the second set, insanity had clearly taken over. Jeroen Van Herzeele was sitting on the right edge of the stage, band leader Laurent Blondiau and Jean-Yves Evrard were roaming around in front of the stage, almost among the first row of chairs and tables. Eric Thielemans had switched over fully to his electronic kit and stiffened his gestures to match his 80s-electro groove. It was hard not to think of a wind-up monkey drummer. Sébastien Boisseau was attacking his bass with the bow. They slipped imperceptibly in and out of a shrieking free-rock undercurrent. How had it come to this?

Every Maak's Spirit album differs markedly from the last. Le nom du vent was a spacious and intimate sextet conversation, while Al Majmaa (Igloo) added Gnawas and kora player and turned into a trance-groove party album. 5 (De Werf) is made up of music written by Jean-Yves Evrard, the band's guitarist and resident savage genius. On stage, he's like a grand, drunk, old Shakespeare-trained English thespian, who'll mumble something intricate, suddenly bellow and then come up with something beautiful, all the while maintaining a kind of tattered dignity. Of course, Evrard's rips, tears, spark-shooting fast runs and cleanly plucked soft grooves show that he's fully in control. Why else would he wear a black jacket with "Naïf et Violent" in a 3-D silver glitter font on the back?

5 is garage jazz, literally: it was recorded in a low-ceilinged room, musicians huddled close together and sounds like a bleached-out, over-saturated photograph, with Jozef Dumoulin's Fender Rhodes further thickening the mix. The sound quality enhances the music's sense of urgency: the opening "Sonnerie" and the three parts of "Datta error" scattered throughout the album charge out of the gate with hard-edged, big band-ish lines, sturdy swing and explode into fierce collective improv.

There's another, quieter, side, too. "Interlude" is a textural, slightly worrying ambient piece full of long tones sounded off in the distance and recurring cymbal rattling. The most hard-hitting track, though, is "Strange Meeting." A woman with a singing African accent (South African? Nigerian?) recites a poem about domestic abuse. Both her words and her intonation express the inextricable jumble of strength it takes to absorb the pain and weakness it takes to stay, love and hate, resilience and despair of the situation. It's a powerful, bone-chilling moment.

Finally, the profundity and rage are tempered with some absurdity, as in "Trois mûles bleues"'s seemingly random objects listed in a faux-childish voice over an ebulliantly ramshackle beat. There's been a spate of amazing jazz-rock albums coming out recently (Othin Spake, Rackham, the upcoming Animus Anima) and 5 is perhaps the most idiosyncratic of them all.

Contrary to the album's claustrophobic feel and aggressively lo-fi sound, on stage they took advantage of a wide dynamic range and left empty spaces, so the music became warmer without mellowing much. They started, as does 5, with "Sonnerie," but introduced it by way of a heart-felt guitar lullabye, which Thielemans underscored with quiet patter and Van Heerzele highlighted with equally quiet, but more emphatic long, high notes. Finally, the whole band came in and went hard into the the intricate theme's acute ricochets and rambunctious swing.

Amid this rushing energy, humour was always close to hand. Whether it was Blondiau jabbing his mute over Van Herzeele's bell or Thielemans insisting on playing a silly melody or purposefully stiff, 80s-electro groove on the electronic portion of his kit, there were lots of moments when I was just cracking up. No-one else seemed to be, though, so maybe it was just me.

The sonic room opened up by the absence of Dumoulin's Fender Rhodes (he isn't part of the touring band) was taken advantage of in the quieter passages. Never more so than when they reached back to 2003's Le nom du vent for a langourously elongated, Malian-style guitar groove whose seductive power was enhanced by the overall quietness. Boisseau played a free-yet-appropriate arco solo, alternating swathes of noise and keening melodies. The horns eventually joined in from off stage, adding an oblique fanfare that regularly crested and faded away to offer contrast.