Thursday, August 30, 2007

Jazz Middelheim (Day 5) - 19/08/2007@Antwerpen

Every time I go to a festival and see the people, the tents, the setting (idyllic or not), the scramble for seats that haven't been "reserved" by means of jackets or cordoned off for VIPs that only show up for the headliner, the mind-numbing excess of music, the crush of photographers at the lip of the stage (Volume12 was apparently amongst the mob and got some nice, crisp shots out of it), the food stands and the picnicking, I ask myself why I put myself through it at all (maybe I attend the wrong festivals). Two years ago, Jazz Middelheim was for Wayne Shorter, this time it was for Ornette Coleman.

Jef Neve Trio
Jef Neve - p (myspace)
Piet Verbist - b
Teun Verbruggen - d

The M.C. ran down Jef's accomplishments, insisted on the word "philharmonic," and my resentment grew: must the audience really be reassured of the social worthiness of the music they are about to hear? Would they be less accepting of it if Jef had not won lots of prizes or not had the top-selling Belgian jazz album of 2005 (and, according to a press release, of 2007)?

The actual music was as magnificent as ever, and demonstrated its continued evolution. Gladly, the seven song set was made up exclusively of original (and mostly unrecorded) compositions: their shape-shifting, mischievous and romantic ways have always been far more vivid vehicles for Jef and the group than their takes on standards. Indeed, the uniqueness of this music is becoming ever clearer, from small gestures like the odd, fleeting shapes Jef used to accompany the bass solos, to the larger ones, such as the broadly-written story arcs the drove each piece. And between the two poles, there was Teun's liquid groove, whose details shifted around so continuously that it became almost amorphous.

For a long time, the immediate point of comparaison for Jef has been Brad Mehldau, and he'd be the last to deny the influence. However, I'm increasingly hearing that of Keith Jarrett as well (which undoubtedly has as much to do with my own listening as with the music itself) in the mix of vamp-based pop/blues, mainstream bop (the hard-edged '90s kind), heart-tugging melodies and classical clarity. A section in "Nothing But A Casablanca Slideshow Turtle" (which is as wacky as its title: it begins with a Hanon exercise gone psychedelic and shoots off from there) that featured the heaviest percussive playing I've ever heard this group do, also pointed in this direction. Whereas Mehldau and Jarrett inject everything they do with A Great Significance, Jef did all this in a spirit closer to Jacky Terrasson's playfulness.

every year i love this less and less

Nicolas Thys & The 68 Monkeys
Tony Malaby - ts
Andrew D'Angelo - as, bcl
Ryan Scott - g
Jon Cowherd - p
Nicolas Thys - b (myspace)
Nasheet Waits - d

Thys called up some heavyweight New York friends for a set that ended up looking better than it sounded. It started promisingly, with D'Angelo and Malaby climbing to a dual scream atop a steady vamp. Their mindsets were compatible despite their very different styles: D'Angelo, rocking violently back and forth, raced ahead with a tone that always seemed on the point of bursting, while Malaby, nearly immobile aside from a twitching leg, hung back with a calmer, slower-building power.

The steady vamping, as melodic as it was rhythmic continued, in pretty much all of Thys's compositions, but the overall mood felt a little too smooth, despite Waits's characteristic churn and the front-line interweaving. It was only at the very end that Thys's bass solo turned the mood from appeased to soulful.

Bert Joris Quartet
Bert Joris - tp, flh (myspace)
Dado Moroni - p
Philippe Aerts - b
Dré Pallemaerts - d

The Brussels Jazz Orchestra's The Music of Bert Joris is an absolutely great album of Joris's compositions (and soloing) that I cannot recommend enough. His quartet has just released a new CD, and it's with its title-track, "Mangone," that the concert really took off. The understated 4-bar vamp and the steady ticking of four-to-the-bar rim clicks allowed Joris's sensual phrases to hang in uncluttered air. The sense of stripping away the superfluous to arrive at a pure melodic core is central to Joris's playing, and emerged fully when he played fluegelhorn on an almost-ballad. Despite its quality, I didn't listen to the whole concert because I wanted to rest my ears before Ornette Coleman came on, but the crowd went wild for its local hero.

Ornette Coleman 3 Bass Quintet
Ornette Coleman - as, tp, vln
Tony Falanga - b
Charnett Moffett - b
Al McDowell - el b
Denardo Coleman - d

Most miraculous to me about this performance was that it made music mysterious again. How did they decide to begin and end? Why the trumpet, now, the violin, later? How was the inscrutable relationship between alto and the rest determined? With his spoken introduction, Coleman offered a seemingly simple answer to all these questions, and others besides: "If you follow the sound, we'll all be in the same room."

The three bassists mostly kept themselves out of each other's timbral range (Falanga and Moffett swapping bowing duties, Moffett judiciously applying Milesian wah-wah pedal as Coleman played trumpet, McDowell chording in the upper register), but three improvising bassists is never going to be easy for the listener to follow, so perhaps Denardo's steady, but not unsubtle, pummeling is meant to act as a counterweight to that tangled complexity.

The habitual (though always spine-tingling) encore performance of "Lonely Woman" (no improvisation, just an interpretation of a melody well-suited to a bass-heavy setting, as the original recording already featured that amazing bass thrum) highlighted a second outstanding aspect of Coleman's mysterious music-making. His tone and melodic playing have a conservative beauty that is startling in the context of the rough and tumble of Denardo's high-octane drums and the three-bass mêlée. I once read somewhere that Coleman was unhappy with the way the classic Atlantic quartet albums were mixed, because he wanted the instruments to be more equal in the mix. Here, though, it is difficult not to hear him as above the fray, even as he pushes and pulls against it. It is often said that musicians mellow as they get older, but I wonder if it is not rather that they are rid of all extraneous elements. Everything Coleman played sounded essential, in any case. The crowd roared.

"The Good Life" was included in the set-list (along with a Bach prelude that drew some laughter and some stuff from Sound Grammar). How could you not love this tune, even though the tumbling section in the middle was absent from this rendition?