Saturday, January 5, 2019

Huh? Belgium? Well, why not ...

By Stef

Belgium, this little country aggregated out of three language regions, historically a political buffer between the European powers, has an interesting jazz history with some great names, such as Adolphe Sax, yes, the inventor of the saxophone, and then some famous names: Django Reinhardt was born in Belgium, René Thomas was a great guitarist, as is Philip Catherine, and of course the great Toots Thielemans... then what? Not many names resonate internationally. More recently, we have seen bands such as Aka Moon, or excellent musicians such as Bert Joris, Michel Herr, Steve Houben ... but they are all so very mainstream. Technical skills and utterly boring music were often the result. Flat Earth Society has a unique niche with their uncategorisable and often mad big band music. Pianist Jeff Neve also is worth mentioning as is saxophonist Robin Verheyen who released a great modern jazz album this year with Marc Copland, Drew Gress and Billy Hart. In the past, music education in Belgium was heavily focused on instrumental skills, killing the appetite of many young aspiring musicians.

Luckily, a new generation of musicians has extracted itself from this boring instrumental focus and the technical aspects of interplay and arrangements, and found its way to creativity. Pianist Fred Van Hove led the way since the sixties, followed by a handful of other musicians who dared colour outside the lines. Most other musicians remained within an almost academic mode. Today, luckily, a very creative younger generation has stood up, bringing music with character, vision and a good sense of adventure, backed by a few music labels who are willing to take risks.

I will not go into the details of every band or musician, but share some thoughts on their approach and sound.

Albums by Belgian musicians reviewed earlier this year include "Hightailing" by Bulliphant, "Fundament" by Peter Jacquemyn, "Tonus" by Dirk Series and Martina Verhoeven, "Boundless" by Paul Van Gysegem, Chris Joris and Patrick De Groote, Nils Vermeulen on "Luminaria" as the bassist of Frame Trio, and pianist Seppe Gebruers on "Live At Ljubljana" with Luis Vicente and Onno Govaert.

Noteworthy past albums are the ones by hyper-creative clarinet virtuoso Joachim Badenhorst (solo, Lama, Carate Urio Orchestra) and imaginative composer/drummer Teun Verbruggen with his Bureau Of Atomic Tourism.

Seppe Gebruers, Hugo Antunes, Paul Lovens ‎– The Room: Time & Space (El Negocito, 2018) ****½

And now for something completely different. The trio are Seppe Gebruers on piano, Hugo Antunes on bass and Paul Lovens on drums, or a Belgian, a Portuguese and a German; or a 28-year old, a 44-year old and a 69 year old ... and none of this matters. Quite to the contrary, the trio perform as if they have played together for ages. Lovens is one of the icons of free improvisation, a master of percussive effect and story-telling, and Antunes also no longer needs introduction to our readers, maybe with the exception that he did his bachelor both in Amsterdam and later in Brussels, where he currently lives. Gebruers is one of the up and coming musicians in Belgium, and part of the "Live In Ljubljana" album with Luis Vicente and Onno Govaerts.

On this album, the music is equally mysterious, combining an inherent weightlessness with a real physical presence of the instruments, creating both intimacy and a sense of space. Gebruers plays on two grand pianos which are tuned with a quarter tone difference, leading to a strange dissonance, that sounds fresh and appealing (at least to this guy), and at times imitated by both bass and percussion. Nobody takes the lead, and they allow the music to grow and develop by itself, clearly listening carefully what the other two are doing, resulting in a very focused and cohesive sound of sonic particles and splinters locking into each other, creating a forward moving dynamic in the process.

Paul Lovens explains the title in more length in the album sleeve, but here's the last paragraph :
"There are rooms that invite you to seek shelter whereas other rooms seem to help you to concentrate, or they pull out of you thoughts and behaviour that has been waiting inside you to be awakened. Seppe, Hugo and myself met in this little gloomy theatre, and because we were ready to receive, the room took power over us. It is impossible to describe what it did to the three of us, but I find comfort in what Ludwig Wittgenstein told us: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. Still, you can do what we did: listen". 

The result is pure magic.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Guillermo Celano, Badenhorst & Baggiani - Lili & Marleen (Clean Feed, 2018) ***½

Argentinian guitarist Guillermo Celano and drummer Marcos Baggiani are two argentinians living in Amsterdam, and Joachim Badenhorst, the Belgian clarinetist and saxophonist, also studied for a while in Amsterdam. The three artists meet for a wonderful journey through the land of music, touching on a number of musical influences through their compositions, and adding joyous improvisations welcoming other cultures and people and sounds into their idiom. The music is genre-bending, with little tunes and compositions that sound vaguely familiar, as if taken from our common unconscious and reformated into something more modern and exciting, imagining new and totally unexpected, and even contradictory sounds, with one instrument playing 'inside' while the others go completely 'outside', creating tension and coherence at the same time. The same can be said from the combination of Celano's often harsh guitar sounds versus Badenhorst's warm clarinet tone. But again that's not a given, because once you detect a pattern, these guys will take you again on the wrong foot and do the exact opposite.

This is smart and interesting music. Modern jazz with a very open perspective.

De Beren Gieren - Dug Out Skyscrapers (Sdban Ultra, 2017) ***½

Possibly internationally best known from "The Detour Fish", their album with Susana Santos Silva live in Ljubljana, this piano trio is again of international assemblage, with pianist Fulco Ottervanger of Dutch descent, and bassist Lieven Van Pée and drummer Simon Segers of Belgian origin.

The trio is one of the best known jazz trios in Belgium, also outside the more avant-garde scene, even if 'known' is still very relative. Their music is not mainstream, yet it has a level of accessibility that will lure many jazz lovers to their more creative approach, rhythmically, harmonically and in terms of timbre, integrating rock elements as much as avant-garde ideas. At times the music of Benoît Delbecq comes to mind, and that is a great reference.

Dirk Serries & Colin Webster - Gargoyles (Raw Tonk, 2018) ****

Dirk Serries may be known for his minimal music, as reviewed recently with his Tonus series, but in this duo with saxophonist Colin Webster, the style is direct, raw and expressive. There is not one long track on which a whole sonic environment can be slowly created and developed and expanded on, no, quite the opposite: the duo offers us seventeen short tracks, with only two of them exceeding the 2-minute ceiling. Serries' guitar sounds harsh and distorted, as abrasive as Webster's tones on baritone and tenor. Their dialogue is one of immediacy and suppressed violence, with sounds being squeezed out of the instruments, apparently against their own will, colliding and rapidly being replaced. The total lack of resonance and spatial feeling, makes the listener feel as if he's part of the proceedings, and if not, at least watching and listening from very close by. This intimacy by itself collides with the ferocity of the interplay.

The titles of the seventeen tracks can all be found in the Wikipedia article that explains what "Gargoyle" means. Gargoyles are not meant to please: they depict evil, the grotesque, and may have been used to deflect evil, but in any case they are disturbing creatures, distorting the peace of mind of the person who sees them.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Jukwaa - Cushion (Smeraldina-Rima, 2018) ****

Originally a piano trio, for their latest album, pianist Thijs Troch, bassist Nils Vermeulen and drummer Sigfried Burroughs are joined by Laurens Smet on bass and Elias Devoldere on drums.

Despite the double rhythm section, the music relies more on sonic texture than on pulse, and is relatively fragile and light. All five musicians manage to create very abstract, intimate improvisations, built around an agreed structural approach for each song. This makes that each of the six piece has a distinct character, which can shift from the gentle "Feodorovna", the joyful to the outright sinister, as on the slow "Yakhont" and "Hen", to the neurotic "Vekselberg" and the dense and hypnotic "Trellis".

Kabas - Negen & Live At SMUP (FMR, 2017) ****

Kabas and Juukwa are closely related bands, because the core musicians are the same: Thijs Troch on piano and Nils Vermeulen on bass, and Elias Devoldere on drums, with the addition of Jan Daelman on flute. The performance was recorded during a concert in Lisbon and Portuguese musicians Luis Vicente on trumpet and Caros Godinho on percussion join.

The music of Kabas is even more abstract and intangible than Jukwaa's, with sound sculptures and sonic scenery that does not rely on the identification of individual instruments but rather on the total and collective effect of all instruments at the same time. The first track is a calm opener, and the energy increases as the music develops, culminating in the fierce "Cilindro Pendulo", the central track of the first album, then it slows down again for the intense calm of "St. Print 3", only to end the album with the ferocious and dense "Fogofaze".

The first album is a studio release, the second was recorded Live, as the album's title suggests. And the music is different. Luis Vicente's trumpet plays a more audible role at front stage, over the mysterious sonic background woven by his band members, offering the stage to Jan Daelman's flute near the end of the track. On the second track, silence gets slowly woken from its sleep by the quiet rustling of various instruments, with the flute slowly and hauntingly dragging the trumpet along for a slow and sad and eery improvisation. The last and very long track leads us to various moods and approaches, in an intense and carefully crafted sonic edifice, that seems fragile at first, but ends with full solid power.

In short, a real treat by a group of musicians who feel very comfortable with the possibilities of their instruments and the musical engagement with each other, managing to bring very coherent and impressive music.

Lynn Cassiers - Imaginary Band (Clean Feed, 2018) ****

Even if I am not a fan of vocal jazz, Lynn Cassier's approach is slightly different from traditional jazz singing, very melodic and sometimes more pop than jazz. Her compositions are quite something else, angular, quirky, dense, a little crazy at times, and well arranged.

Her 'imaginary' band are Lynn Cassiers on voice and electronics, Ananta Roosens on violin and trumpet, Sylvain Débaisieux on soprano and tenor saxophones, Niels Van Hertum on euphonium, Erik Vermeulen on piano, Manolo Cabras on double bass, and Marek Patrman on drums (in fact the latter three are the normal Erik Vermeulen trio).

Cassiers is brilliant. She really couldn't care less about genres and vested expectations: she creates her own sonic universe in which avant-garde pop (think Laurie Anderson), traditional jazz and free improv meet, in a wonderful mixture that avoids all the traps of doing this, for the simple reason that she does not just add styles to emphasise musical knowledge and cerebral composition, but quite the opposite: she has a musical vision for which she needs the varieties of styles to make it come to life. The styles offer the ingredients to make it happen, yet the result is coherent and strong.

An artist with a clear and personal vision.

Teun Verbruggen feat. Jozef Dumoulin, Nate Wooley, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten - KaPSalon (Rat Records, 2018) ***½

This quartet performance was recorded live at the Middelheim Jazz Festival in Belgium in 2014, and brings together drummer Teun Verbruggen en pianist Jozef Dumoulin with Nate Wooley and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten. Both Dumoulin and Håker Flaten are also member of Verbruggen's Bureau Of Atomic Tourism (BOAT), yet the music on this album is totally different, and possibly the presence of Nate Wooley's more adventurous spirit is the determining factor. The record is relatively short, 27 minutes in total, but the playing is good, very dense, highly unpredictable, and great fun to listen to.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Catherine Smet & Dirk Wachtelaer ‎– Improvisations (Creative Sources, 2018) **½

Catherine Smet is a classically trained pianist, who studied both at the Conservatory of Brussels and Antwerp. She has been active in many genres, including African and Latin, which she further perfected in Buenos Aires and Cuba. She is a member of the tango band 'Tango2".

Dirk Wachtelaer has been a drummer for over 30 years, and has played in a variety of experimental settings, including collaborations with Toshinori Kondo, Jim O'Rourke, Paul Lytton, to name just a few.

Even if the album's title is not very original, it says what it is, and you get eleven tracks of improvisations. Smet's harmonic approach is more classical than jazzy, improvising with limited use of dissonance and extended techniques, and very loud and 'busy' in terms of style, as if afraid of silence, playing full chords very often, as if trying to avoid any sentimentality, and very broad in her improvisations, using the full range of her keyboard each time, with a high sense of drama and immediacy, as if what she has to say must be told now, immediately and completely, as if she is running out of time. All this makes for a very nervous and agitated album.  Wachtelaer's drumming, which is excellent, luckily matches her style, as he's also hard-hitting and intense, and he often leads the improvisation, or at least he takes the intro for some pieces. Yes, there are more subtle pieces, such as "Look At The Right Side", which is more avant-garde and quiet, and "Improvisation 11", which is calm and gentle, both welcome variations in the avalanche of pounding chords.

Both are also member of the Eclectic Maybe Band, whose "The Blind Night Watcher's Mysterious Landscapes" was released earlier this year on Discus, and which I could unfortunately only listen to for two minutes, despite the presence of Joe Higham, our former colleague in the Free Jazz Collective.

Donder - Donder (Self, 2018) ***

Despite its title, this is the trio's second album, after "Still" which was released in 2016. The trio are Harrison Steingueldoir on piano, Stan Callewaert on double bass, Casper Van De Velde on drums, all three born in 1995, and joined here by Danish reedist Lars Greve on clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor saxophone. "Donder" means as much as "thunder" in Dutch, yet it's a strange name for the music, which is usually calm, open-ended and light, with the exception of "Mirror" and the short "Secrets". The band uses nature as an inspiration for their music, and the musicians agree in advance on some compositional concepts, around which they improvise. The quality of the playing is good, yet there is a lot of unused potential in the trio: for musicians of their age, a little more risk taking is welcome, so that they can carve out their own voice.

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Jozef Dumoulin, Lidlboj ‎– Live In Neerpelt (El Negocito, 2018) ***

One of the reasons why keyboardist Jozef Dumoulin has not been reviewed often on our blog, is simply because his approach to music, even if unique and eclectic at the same time, is always just that little touch outside of the profile of the adventurous music that we cherish. Does that mean that Dumoulin not adventurous? No, not at all, and quite to the contrary even, but he develops new musical avenues within given idioms, and even if the bands he plays in are quite distinct, his approach to music and to his instruments remains unique. He likes subtle changes and precise gestures rather than bombast and volume, he likes his playing and music to have a floating, mysterious quality that permeates the entire sound in an unhurried but determined way. He has released albums with musicians as diverse as Magic Malik, Reggie Washington, Jerôme Sabbagh, Keiji Haino, Benoît Delbecq and Nate Wooley. 

On this album we find him back with his no longer existing band "Lidlboy", with Lynn Cassiers on voice and electronics, Bo Van der Werf on baritone saxophone and electronics, Dries Laheye on bass and effects, Eric Thielemans on drums. The music is "poppy", with Cassier's vocals preciously drifting over a strange texture of light-footed music that is rooted in jazz, yet equally borrows from rock and traditional music. Some of Robert Wyatt's later work come to mind.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Jozef Dumoulin Orca Noise Unit - A Beginner’s Guide To Diving And Flying (Yolk, 2018) ****

"A Beginner's Guide To Diving And Flying", is a typical Dumoulin album. Yes, it's jazz, very much so, but it's also something else. It's one of his very idiosyncratic explorations of lyricism and rhythm, performed by an eclectic band of young French musicians: Sylvaine Hélary on flutes, Antonin Tri Hoang on alto saxophone, clarinets and percussion, Bruno Chevillon on double bass, Toma Gouband on percussion and Jozef Dumoulin on piano and percussion. For once the performance is entirely acoustic, even without his preferred Fender Rhodes.

The band's name is an anagram of "oneironautics", the ability to travel within a dream or into the dream of someone else, and it should not be a suprise that the sound reflects this bizarre concept: eery, intangible, open-ended, again with a high floating quality, as if hanging in mid-air without foundation or roots, at times with sounds that coalesce into a potential unisono, but mostly just caressing each other, coming and going, calmly, unexpectedly, surprised by themselves and the world they create. A strange dreamworld.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Pentadox - Between (Self, 2018) ****

Pentadox is a quintet built around the trio of drummer Samuel Ber, Bram De Looze on piano, and Sylvain Debaisieux on tenor saxophone, all three younger than thirty. They are joined by Guillaume Orti on saxophone and Bo Van Der Werf on baritone saxophone. All five musicians also play gong. The music is a creative mixture of tightly composed and arranged moments, around which almost anything can happen, even if some core improvisational concepts are agreed upon. For such a young band, it's amazing how comfortable they are with open space and silence. The individual musicians don't feel the urge to be heard, they just to let the music run its inherent logic and course, resulting in a really refreshing sound, that is at times playful, at times disorienting, often open-textured but with very dense and intense moments of interplay. The quality of the pieces is consistently high throughout the album, and so is the band's ability to keep playing within their own sound.

Not surprisingly, they won the Young Talent Award at the Ghent Jazz Festival. A band to watch!

Echoes of Zoo - First Provocations (Self, 2019) ***½

This young band is a highly energetic mixture of jazz, rock and world music,with Nathan Daems on saxophone, Bart Vervaeck on electric guitar, Lieven Van Pée on electric bass and Falk Schrauwen on drums. It's an EP, with only four tracks totaling twenty minutes, but that adds to the flavour: high compact music, with lots of rapid changes and variations. Luckily, the instrumental skills do not overshadow the emotional value of the music. It is both angry and full of sad compassion with the state of the world, and then especially with the animals. 

LABTrio - Nature City (Outnote Records, 2017) ***

LABTrio are Lander Gyselinck on drums, Anneleen Boehme on bass and Bram De Looze on piano, with the first letter of their first names explaining the band's title. So, no, they are not chemists or lab technicians spending their free time as a piano trio, even if their chemistry is excellent, as is their sense of experimentation. They are not free 'per se' but sufficiently creative to find their place in this overview. Gyselinck is thirty already but the other two not yet, and despite this young age, their music already has a strong sense of a personal voice and sounds mature, which is not surprising since they have been performing together for more than ten years. They create complex rhythmic patterns with lots of changes, with little jokes, such as "Variation 15", reminiscent of Bach (yes, De Looze studied with Uri Caine), but also other influences and inspirations, from pop, rock and jazz music. Lyricism, unexpected compositional changes and rhythmic complexities are their hallmark. All three of them are wonderful musicians, but again I would love to see them take their sound even a step or two further, into more adventurous realms. 

Giovanni Di Domenico & Abschattungen  - The Ear Cannot Be Filled With Hearing (El Negocito, 2018)

True, this album is a little out of place in this list, because keyboardist Giovanni Di Domenico is not Belgian but Italian, as his name suggests, but he's based in Brussels and the band he works with on this album is entirely Belgian. The band are Quentin Manfroy on flute, Jordi Grognard on clarinets, duduk and oboe, Laurent Blondiau on trumpet, Audrey Lauro on alto sax, Daniele Martini on tenor sax, Gregoire Tirtiaux on baritone sax, Marti Melia on bass sax, Giotis Damianidis on electric guitar, Axel Gilain on electric bass, Jakob Warmenbol and Mathieu Calleja on drums.

Di Domenico is a composer and musician with a broad musical background, originally self-taught, he received more formal training in his twenties. The fact that he is self-taught may be an obstacle for some, but not for Di Domenico, whose sense of listening is exceptional, as well as his skill at absorbing music in a natural way. We've reviewed around fifteen albums with him so far, in very different types of ensembles and sonic universes, demonstrating his versatility and eclecticism.

With Abschattungen, Di Domenico brings us a great mixture of rhythmic free jazz. "Infra-Thin", the first track, has a Miles Davis-like beat, but then as the foundation for a much free-er interplay by this band of musicians. His explicit inspiration are Sun Ra’s "Lanquidity" and Gruppo Di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza’s "The Feedback", if these are known references, combining 'futuristic sounds indebted to black music'. The big difference is that there is no real soloing as was the case in the inspiration albums, but rather a collective sound with once in a while a single voice that escapes out of the band (Blondiau's trumpet, Damianidis' guitar, ...) and that shifts between short arranged themes that work as anchor points and total freedom. Yet it is not fun and funk. The dark "Instruments Of Darkness", is a kind of resting point on the album, slower, ominous, a-rhythmic, with a more prominent role of Di Domenico's piano in the middle section. Even if different from the other tracks, it kind of consolidates the unity of the whole album, adding a suite-like effect to it.

... and it works. It works well actually: the solid pulse, the electric bass and the drums lay a really solid and hypnotic foundation for a kind of music than could go on forever, with all the horns, the guitar and the keyboard weaving a dense and warm collective free sound without evolving into chaos. There are no outbursts of anger or changes of energy, no contrasts between silent and high volume moments ... the listener gets taken on board for a psychedelic journey that is both welcoming and infectious.

It is not free jazz, but it is well worth listening to.


Ernst Grgo Nebhuth said...

Thanks Stef for this survey on creative music out of Belgium.
Spotted a minor "mistake", though. Not that it matters much but master Lovens is 69.

Stef said...

Good catch! Math was never one of my strengths :-)

Nick Metzger said...

Great read Stef, really enjoyed this.

ubu said...

Bobby Jaspar, Jack Sels, Fats Sadi (Lallemand), Jacques Pezler and his daughter Micheline Pelzer, Benoît Quersin, Jean-Louis Rassinfosse, Eric Legnini - quite a few excellent jazz musicians in Belgium ...

For those that want to check out the older generation of Belgian (mainly) mainstream jazz musicians, this recent compilation by sdban Records is a good starting point:

As for myself, I should definitely check out some of the albums reviewed here ... Joachim Badenhorst is the one name really familiar and a musician I greatly appreciate (same goes for Giovanni di Domenico, but not in a Belgian context so far).

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