Monday, September 29, 2003

International Jazz Contest 2003

This contest is held every year in Hoeilaart, Belgium, to promote new talents. The winners then go on to record a collective CD. Past winners include Italian saxophonist Rosario Giuliani and Finnish pianist Alexi Tuomarila.

The 25th edition was held on the the 26th, 27th and 28th september and the winners are:

Fredrik Kronkvist Quartet

Best Group: Fredrik Kronkvist Quartet (Sweden)

Bjorn Vidar Solli

Best Soloist: Bjorn Vidar Solli (Norway)

Alessandro Bravo

Interpretation Prize: Alessandro Bravo (Italy)

Visit the competition's website

Photo credits: Jos L. Knaepen

Lew Tabackin - Brussels, 28/09/2003

Lew Tabackin - tenor sax, flute
Bart De Nolf - double bass
Martin Taylor - drums

This trio played in the Archiduc, which is something of a Brussels landmark. It has an Art Déco interior design with a beige and green-blue colour-scheme, the balcony gives the room a U shape, there are two pillars about 1.5 meters (4.5 feet) apart in the middle and one of the barmaids looks frightfully like a member of the French resistance, 'Allo 'Allo style.

Before this concert, I'd only heard of Lew Tabackin. Throughout, I was struck by the happiness radiating from his horn. This happiness was also expressed in his idiosyncratic body movements: shuffling dance steps which at times approached tap dancing and lunging foot stomps to accompany percussive growls. Tabackin's flowing, melodious improvisations and open, generally vibrato-less tone on tenor recalled late 50s Sonny Rollins. However, he turned to Ben Webster on Duke Ellington's "Self-Portrait of Bean," capturing the former's gruff tenderness. Most notable, in terms of sheer power and energy, were the three tenor-drum duets. The first of these came during the concert-opening "How High the Moon," during which Tabackin erupted into 30 seconds of free wailing. One audience member quipped "The duets are so fantastic, why bother with the rest?"

Bart De Nolf, a last-minute replacement for Philippe Aerts, remained fairly discreet throughout the set, despite numerous, competent solos. Martin Taylor exhibited a light touch and good communication with the leader. During the duets, the extent of their rapport was fully revealed: the saxophone turned percussive and the drums turned melodic.

Tabackin used flute on two more exotic numbers, a middle-Eastern flavoured Duke Ellington number and what I suppose was an original called "Dancing Maja," which was inspired by Spanish music and featured Taylor tapping out the rhythm on castagnettes. "Dancing Maja" abandoned 4/4 time in favour of a whirling, dance-based 6 beat. The concert closed on a very fast bebop number, with the best of the tenor-drums duets thrown in for good measure.

Saturday, September 27, 2003


A recent entry in Greg Sandow's blog entitled Don't believe the hype has me thinking about how I approach music, both as a listener and a writer. I think I'm a bit too much of a music geek without having enough knowledge and experience to really justify that approach: the worst of both worlds?

Ideally, I would like to experience music that renders technical and formal judgement (whether something was well-played or not) not only meaningless, but literally impossible because it is in these moments that music takes on all of its power. I've experienced this only fleetingly: in Turkey, walking through a residential neighbourhood, a kid starts tapping out a complex beat on a garbage can lid, without thinking about it, simply because that's what's in his blood; on CNN, seeing a group of Liberian women sing their hopes for peace in a war-torn land, tears streaming down their cheeks.

Such experiences are, in my opinion, made more difficult in the settings of concert halls and even of clubs, which are formalised almost to abstraction. An experience similar to the two cited above was seeing pianist Mal Waldron's quartet perform in the centre of Brussels three nights in a row, two years ago. For all I know, those were his last concerts in the city he lived in the last 15 years of his life. The first set of the second night was 40 minutes of transcendent, inspired music, such that at times I felt like I was levitating. Waldron's blues-based minimalism was hypnotic, as was John Betsch's phrasing on drums. That Sean Bergin is a South African saxophonist who can sing Martiniquan biguines and Jean-Jacques Avenel a virtuoso bassist also recognised as a master of the African kora was just icing on the cake.

Of course, the music and its surroundings cannot be the only things to blame for my frustration. Music can only give back as much as you bring to it. I often ask myself "What am I bringing to the table?" Charlie Parker's "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn" is often quoted to describe the musician's apprenticeship, but does it not also apply to the listener? That is to say, if you don't live it, can you at least hear it? (Please excuse the Carrie Bradshaw-like phrase construction) The answer surely lies in my wider feeling of distance from nearly all things, events and people. Were I fully able to experience things directly, without distance, in other words to "Let the horse go (, baby)," what I hear, and by extension what I write about what I hear, would surely be different.

Mr. Sandow's text has put in bold relief some aspects of music criticism which I had tried to bury and now will do my best to address. I think that in the end it boils down to one question: "Why am I listening to this music?" In every concert or CD review, this question is more or less directly approached and surely deserves a better answer than whether or not saxophonist X has sufficiently stepped out from under John Coltrane's shadow.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

I'm famous!

Okay, maybe not quite yet. Les Lundis d'Hortenses is the association of Belgian jazz musicians. Last night I attended one of their meetings to help present a proposal for a website make-over. While at their HQ, I picked up their trimestrial magazine. Reading it today, I saw this:

LDH article

So it's not quite the New York Times, but you have to start somewhere.

Saturday, September 20, 2003

Revisited: Jef Neve - Blue Saga (Contour)

Blue SagaI must admit that I rarely return to records after reviewing them. However, after the terrific concert described two posts ago, I felt the urge to pull out "Blue Saga" once more. I didn't remember hearing the high-energy playing Neve displayed in Pascal Schumacher's group, so I especially wanted to see if I had somehow missed it.

It turns out I hadn't missed anything. "Blue Saga" remains in the running for Belgian album of the year, but it is certainly far more sedate than the Schumacher gig. The set consists essentially of original ballads, interrupted only by the uptempo bop of Charlie Parker's "Segment" and "Pink Coffee" and the dynamic, two-drum back-beat of "When Spring Begins." While this may account for what I perceived as Neve's greater ability to carry a ballad (notably in dynamics and pacing), it offers only a limited view of his formidable capacities.

"Blue Saga" can be ordered from Jef Neve's website. Buy the album and help him pay off his brand-new Citroën Berlingo.

Friday, September 19, 2003

Some new CDs

Over the past few days, I've received 3 new, and quite different, Belgian CDs of which I'll give a brief overview. Upon further listenings, I may return with more detailed accounts.

Hilde Van Hove - Insense (Gandharva)
InsenseHilde Van Hove's debut CD is something of a mixed bag. Her supporting cast is thoroughly brilliant: Michel Herr on piano, Hein Van de Geyn on bass, Billy Hart on drums and trumpeter Bert Joris, who appears on several tracks. Billy Hart is especially wonderful, delicate and sensitive throughout.

The repertory is conservative, but with a few interesting turns. It consists mostly of standards such as "East of the sun" and "Blue in Green." My favourite of these is "When lights are low," a joyous voice-bass duet which successfully captures the bounce of Miles Davis's version on "Cookin'." Alongside the standards are an interpretation of Wayne Shorter's ballad "Iris," which conveys Shorter's mysterious elegance of writing and features a shimmering solo by Herr and two Brazilian offerings, "Gentle Rain" by Luis Bonfa and "Triste" by Antonio Jobim. The programme is rounded out by two originals.

I'm not a big fan of Dutch-speaking singers singing in English because their accent lacks the charm of, say, a Brazilian's. As it is, they generally sound a bit clumsy, and Van Hove is no exception. However, and apart from a totally misguided reading of "Every time we say goodbye," Van Hove does a decent job.

"Insense" is available at Hilde Van Hove's website.

Flat Earth Society - The Armstrong Mutations (Zonk!)
The Armstrong MutationsFlat Earth Society is a big band that specialises in somewhat off-the-wall music, as can be gathered from mono-syllablic album titles such as "larf" and "bonk." Here, leader Peter Vermeersch revisits music composed by or associated with Louis Armstrong, such as "What a wonderful world," "Black and Blue" and "St. Louis Blues."

The album's main strong point is that the raw energy that made Armstrong's music the popular, dangerous and fun music of its time is retained, thus avoiding the feeling of visiting a glass-encased museum-piece. Again, a few Flemish singers show up, but on thankfully few tracks. Not that they sing particularly badly, but it is simply impossible to sound idiomatic with a Flemish accent. Overall, however, a very fun and highly recommended CD.

A digression: FES recently provided music for an opera called "Helioglabal." While the opera itself was generally panned, the New York Times praised the music.

Flat Earth Society's website

Quentin Dujardin - Khamis (Agua)
KhamisQuentin Dujardin is a guitarist strongly attracted to Flamenco and Moroccan music as well as to jazz. This album, his second, is an intimate affair, with delicate modal improvisations setting a meditative atmosphere drawing mostly on North African modes. Here and there flute, accordion or violin step into the solo spotlight, continuing the Arabic chamber mood. A mood broken only slightly on one flamenco-inspired track with a more insistent rhythm.

Quentin's website does a very good job of presenting this sensitive young man.

Michel Bisceglia Trio - Second Breath (Prova)
Second BreathYes, I said three CDs, but here's a quick note to say that Michel Bisceglia has released his third album as leader. On first listen, it's a calm, modern trio date, coming out of the Keith Jarrett tradition and made up essentially of originals, with the inevitable "Blue in Green" popping up once more, Wayne Shorter being represented by "Footprints" and more originally, a version of Jacques Brel's "Le port d'Amsterdam."

Michel Bisceglia's website

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Pascal Schumacher Quartet - Antwerpen, 15/09/2003

Pascal Schumacher - vibraphone
Jef Neve - piano
Christope Devisscher - bass
Teun Verbruggen - drums

My oh my... Three words for last night's concert: energy, energy, energy.

I already knew and appreciated the talents of the Belgian rhythm section, but this was my first encounter with Schumacher, who is from Luxembourg (I didn't ask, but probably no relation to Michael and Ralf, despite a passing resemblance).

I may be over-stating the merits of this concert, as I was sitting within striking distance first of the vibraphone, then of the drums, but rarely have I seen young Belgian jazz musicians play acoustic jazz with this combination of energy, enthusiasm, joy and technique. Take away the lacklustre ballads, of which there were few in the incredible first set, too many in the second: these four guys (their collective age would be somewhere around 100) haven't yet mastered the art of dynamics necessary to make the ballads work. That leaves you with roof-raising, no-holds-barred playing on five or so long tunes. The pleasure they took in their music-making was evident, both visually, in the exchange of looks and smiles, and musically. This quartet is recording in November and I hope that this energy and joy can be captured on tape.

Pascal SchumacherPascal Schumacher was a very pleasant revelation. I pretty much never see vibraphone players, yet I've seen three in a little over a week: Belgian drummer Jan de Haas (vibraphone is his second instrument) and Frenchman David Patrois. Schumacher was the most fun of the bunch. When using two mallets, he successfully played fast bop-blues lines with soulful touches. I don't know what the dynamic range of the vibraphone is, but I would have liked to have heard a bit more space in his phrasing.

Teun Verbruggen refuses to settle into anything for too long. While paring down would lead to increased clarity and deeper groove (but maturity can wait!), his overflowing ideas and rhythmic shifts are a joy to behold. In the first piece, Satieology by Schumacher, Verbruggen moved easily between 3/4 and 4/4, sometimes super-imposing them. Later on, even when not formally called for, different rhythmic formulas tumbled forth.

Christophe Devisscher suffered from the "seen but not heard" syndrome that affects so many acoustic bassists, but contributed an enjoyably knotty, spikey and inscrutable composition called Chu Chu's Groove. While the bass remained fairly steady, the drums were even more unsettled than usual, the melodic elements veered towards the abstract and the whole kept on jumping nervously from one improbable construction to the next.

Jef NeveJef Neve (interview, in French) was the man last night, for me. I have and enjoy his debut CD, Blue Saga (review (in Fench), which you can purchase at his website when the second pressing is done), but as a sideman he simply took his playing to another level. On a Joe Henderson composition, Neve provided a long, thoroughly awesome solo which started out in a mid-tempo, spare, funky, bluesy and percussive style and built up towards uptempo bop lines brimming with inventivity and playfulness. On another tune, his climax consisted of splintered chordal pounding. Which is not to say that great intelligence and structural elegance where not in play: they were, in spades. On the standard You and the Night and the Music Neve improvised in a Keith Jarrett fashion, throwing out lots of short, semi-abstract boppish lines, with attentive support provided by the rhythm section.

photo credits: Jos L. Knaepen