Brussels, BelgiumFlagey, Ixelles
Brussels Jazz Festival
January 16 – January 17, 2020
The Brussels Jazz Festival is now in its sixth year, and has established an individualist style at the Flagey cultural centre in Ixelles, a short tram ride south of the city center. Flagey looms over its own square, next to a pair of small lakes, and was built in the Art Deco style, initially housing radio studios in the 1930s. It’s an impressive building that looks somewhat like an exotic steamer, illumined by a vivid blue glow after dark. Inside, the old studios have become concert halls, retaining their original wooden curvatures.
The festival offers three gigs each night for most of its 10-day run, with a few matinées to boot. Amongst a native Belgian core, there are always international invasions. In 2019, there were several US acts invited, but this year the focus was specifically on the Chicago scene, and even more specifically, its International Anthem Recording Company.
Guitarist Jeff Parker debuted his new album, Suite For Max Brown, and band, The New Breed. The work didn’t sound very suite-like, and it didn’t appear to invoke the expected past-time of its dedicatee, Parker’s mother. The new music sounded very much of the funky moment, full of West Coast electro-blobular Alpha Pup twitching, and danceable collage effects, with a nod to the older guitar angularities of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time. Parker spouted compact, acidic solos, or played in tandem with Josh Johnson’s alto saxophone, with much of the rhythmic content arriving via samples, matched with live drum patterns from Jamire Williams.
At times, the quartet were oddly unfocused and hesitant, though this was the start of their tour. Bassist Paul Bryan also used a sub-belching Moog, while Johnson shifted between alto and keyboards. The emphasis of the fleeting numbers was on small sketches and fidgety shifts of attention, until Bobby Hutcherson’s “Visions” dragged slow, with Parker’s solo given a whirling Leslie-speaker quality. Some spotlight sections sounded like half-solos, the full push not quite there, until Johnson topped the set with some alto dancing, bobbing, and weaving in vital fashion, hinting at Ethiopian modes.
Your scribe has witnessed trumpeter (and singer) Jaimie Branch on multiple occasions during the last two years, and here she led a dreamy, introverted set, awash with open experimentation, continually making the new Fly Or Die repertoire sound even newer. Each gig manifests the material in differently askew natures. Branch’s “Prayer For Amerikkka” has already become a classic, its ragged urgency virtually guaranteed, as she vocalized with casual intensity, electrifying the room, her mute wah-wah suggesting a radically re-born Louis Armstrong. All this while cellist Lester St. Louis issued a deep-groaning riff, as Branch spat and crackled high. Percussionist Chad Taylor was mostly coiled trip-tension personified, but he also dispersed into the gong chamber, bowing his cymbals, or striking deep bell resonances.
As an alternative to Branch’s abstraction, we got punched hard an hour later by sticksman Makaya McCraven, leading his full-force quintet towards a reeling maelstrom of steeled bop, funk-soul, and free jazz. This band had the feel of trumpeter Marquis Hill’s Blacktet, not least due to Hill’s actual presence, along with players who are also ongoing members of his band: Junius Paul (bass) and Joel Ross (vibraphone). That’s three out of five, completion of McCraven’s crew arriving with Irvin Pierce’s soaring, cathartic saxophone.
Following a two-year gap since last witnessing McCraven, your scribe noticed a certain movement from improvising experimentation towards sleek, head-rush climaxing of a continual nature. This is no complaint; Pierce emoted bluesily throughout an extended tenor solo and Ross trickled African juices across his metal bars for the long opener of “In These Times.” Hill had a chorus/harmonizer effect on his horn for “Atlantic Black," an energized scrabble of toughened density, topped by the leader’s wild-man drum solo. Paul stepped forward vocally on “I’m New Here” from McCraven’s new album, which reworks Gil Scott-Heron’s parting disc. The epic set-closing of “The Bounce” and “Lonely” had the latter veering from 1950s Pulp noir, with a jostling horn theme, cutting into a house-y pounce, Ross vibes aglow.
On the previous evening, the Belgian drummer Antoine Pierre and his Urbex Electric band investigated the legacy of Bitches Brew, by way of original compositions reflecting the mood of that mighty Miles Davis double album from 1970. There was a pronounced authentic aura swirled around by Pierre’s octet, with acoustic and electric pianos, two guitars, percussion, bass, saxophone, and trumpet. Impressionism graduated to a churning groove, the horns jousting, then soloing, Pierre burrowing deep down for a supple pulse. Guitarist Reinier Baas tended to dominate, but often to ripping effect, particularly during a serrated outbreak with the horns. The tension of surprise was upheld, as the phases continually changed relationships and dominances, until Pierre took his blast-off drum solo on “Obsession,” the number’s velcro theme periodically returning, in between other spotlit ascendancies. Urbex encored with Joe Zawinul’s “Directions,” Frédéric Malempré taking a cuica solo against tripping snare and talking bass.
Straight afterwards, fellow Belgians MDC III played a set on the foyer stage, with a standing crowd set on further tension-release, courtesy of this trio of saxophone and doubled drummers. The abstract groove-mood continued, with drummers Lennert Jacobs and Simon Segers intent on the perpetual motion of abused skins and ringing metal, cyclic in extremis, Afro-ritualised to dry ice jam-thunder. The skinsmen skillfully exchanged roles of monomaniac rhythm and tingling detail, while the brawling tenor of Mattias De Craene flew under its own rules, with its catching-in-throat expectorate tone. He also deployed a long rubber tube for an extreme echo-solo before the trio quieted down for a mbira hush with delicately tapped tin cans, Segers arranging metal around his skins. De Craene began to vocalize like a stressed-out Tibetan monk, and Jacobs then revealed why he often goes under the name ‘king of the bongos.’ It was well past the witching hour when MDC III completed their magnetizing ritual.