The anonymous and soulless location, the concomitant oppressive over-abundance of "Jazz!" signifiers, the frustrating simultaneous concert format (quantity over appreciation) and an overall experience that's usually better on paper than in the flesh explain why I hadn't come to Jazz à Liège since the first day of the 2004 edition. This time, I attempted to focus on a few concerts that I really wanted to see. Still, after four hours of music, it's difficult, for me at least, to continue to be entertained without feeling tired and force-fed.
Dave Douglas Keystone
I still haven't heard the original Keystone album, but I like the Live In Sweden version. The "Fatty And Mable Adrift Suite" it starts with gives the music time to work its way to a buoyant groove. Here, the group jumped into that groove right away, superposing Gene Lake's drummed beats and DJ Olive's sampled ones for a sort of acid jazz feel. Overall, the concert felt very much like electrified hard bop: Dave's interventions were consistently excellent, whether blazing or restrained. The perverse side-effect of this consistency was that the stand-out moments came when saxophonist Marcus Strickland really got going and married his matte sound to torrents of slippery yet visceral lines.
Two such moments occurred. First came a brief, unbridled and ferocious percussion work-out by saxophone, bass and drums. Later, the intensity level was set even higher as trumpet and saxophone solos were broken up into little chunks by punchy brass fanfares. It was a good example of the way in which Dave stretches traditional jazz composition, weaving it in with improvisation in unusual ways.
Manu Hermia Quartet
I'd never seen Manu's acoustic group before, and I was really surprised by how good it was. His latest CD, Rajazz, presents his attempts at reconciling the completely different worlds of jazz and modal Indian music (there are detailled explanations on his website, along with other interesting writings). He brings to this endeavour a beautiful, rich sound and a lyrical bent and a sense of group construction influenced by John Coltrane.
The title track is a sort of westwards trip: it began with the alto alone presenting the equivalent of an alap, then playing a volubile solo over Lieven Venken's churning polyrhythms, before Erik Vermeulen evoked McCoy Tyner to a swinging walking bass pattern, the whole thing tied together by an urgent riff. It's a shame that the way the festival is set up meant that this excellent concert started with a full room and ended with a nearly empty one.
Brewed By Noon ft. Marc Ribot
This pot-pourri of an all-star group (Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Mat Maneri, Marc Ribot, a second guitarist and an African singer/percussionist) played drummer/leader Sean Noonan's compositions. They brought together African rhythms, Irish melodies, prog-rock drama and let them all be blenderised by improvisers who could play sleek lines, infectious funk, shredded rock or all-out noise. By this point, I was kind of tired and fidgety, so I walked in and out of the concert, despite its combative spirit.
Noonan regularly got up to give signals or simply exhort his troops as he pounded the toms, which allowed us to see that he was wearing boxing shorts. After the concert, he played up the Irish-American thing to the fullest, walking around wearing a canary yellow boxer's gown with black trimmings and his name on the back. I'd never seen anything like it.
Jan Rzewski/Fabian Fiorini
Probably the best set nobody saw. The Jazz à Liège public is generally recalcitrant at the possibility of dissonance, so the small room stayed unfortunately empty for a great set. Knowing Fabian mostly with Octurn, this spare context really revealed to me what a dazzling pianist he is. Jan Rzewski, last seen sitting in with Anthony Braxton, is fairly close to Steve Lacy.
Mingus's "Peggy's Blue Skylight" provided Fabian the opportunity to provided rich, full-bodied, varied accompaniment. The originals were light-hearted and elaborate. They trod multiple paths, perhaps starting as harsh, noisy improvisation and ending up as a dance, after a number of seamless permutations.