Brass Band Mayhem In The Balkans

My first piece for Rough Guides, on the madness of Serbia’s Guča trumpet festival. 

Imagine the wildest festival you’ve ever been to and double it. Crank up the volume well past 11, pump in the smoke from 100 charcoal grills and add the smell of hog roast, crackling and lager-soaked earth.

Now imagine all of the musicians are brass players, playing with every ounce of their strength. Knock back a glass of throat-scarring rakija and turn them loose in the smallest town you can think of. Do all that and you have some idea of what it’s like to visit Guča. Read the rest on

— Thomas Rees

Review: Brussels Jazz Weekend

Real Brussels is nothing like the Brussels of politicised fiction, with its hordes of scheming Eurocrats and pencil pushers dressed in graphite grey – a land of sour milk and precious little honey, where crossing the road means parting a sea of red tape. It isn’t glum or buttoned up. It’s warm, convivial, bohemian and hip, a happy place to be a musician or a music fan. For a nation of scarcely 11 million, Belgium has always produced an impressive array of jazz talent. We have the Belgians to thank for Django Reinhardt, Toots Thielemans and the saxophone. And, as the inaugural Brussels Jazz Weekend proved, the Belgian scene continues to thrive.

This is an old new festival, which ran for 21 years as the Brussels Jazz Marathon, and the concept remains the same despite the rebrand: three days, over two hundred gigs at venues across the city with a focus on the Belgian scene, and all for free. In fact, it’s one of the biggest free jazz festivals in the world, and certainly the biggest two hours from central London by train.

This year there were five outdoor stages, flanked by beer tents and street food stalls, on squares across town. Place Sainte-Catherine, at the centre of a scruffy, hip neighbourhood that feels a little like London’s Soho, was the place to go for funk and ska-fueled party bands, including Saturday’s headliners, a six-piece called Opmoc, who took the stage to the sound of blaring sirens and had the young, intoxicated crowd jumping up and down 30 seconds into the first number. Place du Grand Sablon, in front of the exquisite, 15th century Brabantine Gothic Église Notre-Dame du Sablon, and Place Fernand Cocq Plein, a leafy square 30 minutes walk from the centre, were more genteel. While Place du Luxembourg, by the European Parliament, was half way between the two – and ultra-relaxed when I pitched up on Friday evening, with children playing and couples lounging on the grass, enjoying a soundtrack of balmy jazz-pop.  Read On…

Insta Review: Tigran Hamasyan

Beatboxing and piano wizardry

Rara and Rhum in Haiti

A review of the Festival International de Jazz de Port-au-Prince ft Danilo Pérez and Christian Scott

Port-au-Prince is one of the most intoxicating places I’ve ever been. The Haitian capital is filthy and utterly dysfunctional – one vast, chaotic squatters camp/street market strewn across the hills that climb up towards Kenscoff and baked onto a coastal plane that drags itself into the Caribbean. It’s the first city of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. A difficult, squalid place to live. But it’s also colourful and captivating. It heightens your senses and works its way into your dreams, filling your head with images of lacy, “gingerbread” mansions and brightly painted “tap tap” minibuses, with the sound of carnival bands, birdsong and grinding gears, and the sweet smell of bougainvillea and gasoline. Read On…

Borealis Bites

Three mini Instagram reviews from Borealis, a festival for experimental music, in Bergen

From @papjazzhaiti to @borealisfestival in #Bergen #Norway with the BBC Late Junction gang! Last night was totally nuts. Cybernetic folk dances that exposed the absurdity of our digital interactions, techno bleep tests, sonic hypnosis, a shopping centre tunnel converted into a giant speaker, Rhodri Davies destroying a harp and these guys, a group called Lemur whose improvised piece, marshalled by a cryptic graphic score, was inspired by the idea of utopia. Maybe it was the nautical paintings on the walls of the concert hall but it felt like they were taking us on an ocean voyage. Fractured cello like the creaking deck of a ship, gusts of flute and French horn and an amazing passage where the group’s two vocalists echoed and distorted one another’s voices from opposite sides of the room. Now off to an abandoned military installation in the fjords for more sonic surprises! | #music #experimentalmusic #bergen #norway #travel #musicwriting #musicmatters #avantgarde #art #artmusic #fjord #soundart #travelwriter #musicwriter #radio #sound #soundart #borealis #borealis2017

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One of my favourite moments from the past few days at @borealisfestival was travelling to an abandoned Second World War military installation in the fjords, passing swathes of pine forest, gun-metal-grey lakes and rain washed cliffs dripping with moss. Once there we went underground, down a tunnel with a disconcerting sign marked “TNT” and a collection of particularly evil-looking sea mines. At the end was a vast cylindrical chamber. Norwegian sound artists Signe Lidén and Espen Sommer Eide set up a series of telescopic speakers and filled the space with meteorological recordings and snippets of distorted birdsong. Best of all was when Espen played some suspended metal rods that made the walls shiver and reverberate like a giant amplifier. The most immersive experience of the weekend. |#borealis2017 #soundart #installation #artmusic #experimentalmusic #echo #echochamber #vibrations #birdsong #avantgarde #music #musicwriter #musicwriting #stripes #shadows #Scandinavia #norway #bergen #fjord #blackandblue #bunker #ww2

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Leg over. A snap shot from “Drums” ft Michaela Antalová, Chris Corsano, Anja Jacobsen & Øyvind Skarbø. Another @borealisfestival highlight and the start of a great night. Moor Mother delivered a violently confrontational half hour of politically-charged spoken word and electronics, and DJ Marfox produced one of the most rhythmically engaging DJ sets I’ve seen. African drum samples and syncopated bangers kept us on our toes. | #drums #borealis2017 #drumming #drummer #artmusic #experimentalmusic #vibrations #avantgarde #music #musicwriter #musicwriting #Scandinavia #norway #bergen #drumkit #legover #snare #percussion #handsfree #syncopation #rhythm #dancing #dj #spokenword #borealis #politics #political #poetry #club

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— Thomas Rees

AA Gill is Away

A complicated eulogy

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A friend bought me that copy of Previous Convictions when I was 17. Since then it’s been half way around the world with me. It’s battered and bruised, full of folded-down-corners and scribbled notes. It was in the rucksack I lugged across Latin America with a string of pearlescent green Mardi Gras beads and a leaky bottle of deet – hence the smudge on the cover. It’s pretty much the reason I got into travel writing. Gill’s prose has everything, and there have been times when it’s all I’ve wanted to read. 

Even so, I didn’t think his death from “an embarrassment of cancer, the full English,” would hit me quite so hard. I didn’t think I’d cry, sat alone at my desk, leafing through the obituaries. A few dry sobs, and all for a vicious, “baboon murdering bastard” (his words not mine) who once told Mary Beard she was too ugly for television.   Read On…


Memories from a trip last autumn. On beauty, sadism and steak

Florence is not a beautiful city, not by Italian standards at least. It doesn’t make you love sick or sweep you off your feet. It’s too brusque and businesslike, too solidly built for that.

It rained when I was there. The painted plaster-work of the buildings along the river Arno, all yellows and ochres, looked smudgy and dull in the half light. The cobblestones had an oily black sheen. But even when the sun shines, there’s something forbidding about the streets. They’re hemmed in by high walls, meters thick, that amplify the sound of voices, the whine of scooters and the rattle of bicycles. Many of them are studded with barred windows and iron rings that give the Tuscan capital a slightly sadistic feel. They’re the trappings of somewhere hard-edged and just a little twisted, of a city with a thing about power.  Read On…

Insta Gratification

I’ve recently joined instagram (a dizzying 28 followers at the moment, thanks for asking) and have been trying out a few bitesize reviews of albums and gigs that I haven’t been able to write up in full.

So far:

1. Work Songs a recent release by US drummer Jaimeo Brown and his Transcendence project (Motéma Music), which makes superb use of field recordings from around the world. Read

2. A set from Inuit throat singer/political firebrand/2014 Polaris Music Prize winner Tanya Tagaq at Cafe Oto. “Like watching a particularly messed-up exorcism.” Read

3. Free jazz legends the Art Ensemble of Chicago at Cafe Oto. Read

— Thomas Rees