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

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

Four reviews from the 2016 EFG London Jazz Festival

1. The New Jazz Blueprint

Terrace Martin, Makaya McCraven and Takuya Kuroda at the Jazz Cafe

Bass so heavy it feels like it’s massaging your internal organs. Grooves that walk with a limp, dreamy synth chords prefaced by that little lift (Robert Glasper’s sonic signature) and vicious snare drum backbeats like a captive bolt in your cranium. Beat three. It’s all about beat three.

That. Plus a young crowd, crammed in shoulder to shoulder, nodding heads and bare brickwork and blue light and segues and switches of feel that make set lists feel like mixtapes mixed live. That’s the new jazz blueprint – the defining sound, look and feel of the last few of years. It’s where the momentum is.  Read On…

Review: Match&Fuse Festival London, New River Studios

Alt-jazz and Brexit

Just what Brexit will mean for Europe’s music scene is anyone’s guess – though most people are guessing it won’t be good. A recent BBC News article warned of visas and restrictions on movement discouraging overseas acts from visiting the UK and making it more difficult and costly for UK acts to tour. It hinted at the disappearance of funding bodies too.

Scaremongering? I hope so. Perhaps it will come out in the wash. Right now though the outlook seems bleak and embarrassing for those of us who identify ourselves as musicians and music-lovers of Europe.

We need solutions, but we also need to rail against it all in the best way that we can: against the idiotic nostalgia for an imagined golden age, against mind-forged divisions and pig-headed insularity, and there’s no better place to do that than Match&Fuse, where you can deafen and drown your sorrows in improv and irreverent, pan-European skronk.

Run by Dave Morecroft of UK punk-jazz outfit WorldService Project, M&F celebrates alternative music from across Europe and has branches in Oslo, Rome, Warsaw and Toulouse. This year’s London edition billed itself as “a political ‘up yours’ to the obtuse world we find ourselves in” and came good on its promise by bringing together 23 acts from 14 countries across two days of leftfield music-making.

Saturday took place at East London venues Cafe OTO and the Vortex, as in previous years, with Evan Parker and portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva topping the bill. But I went for Friday, which had the added benefit of being held at New River Studios, a converted furniture warehouse in Manor House run as a not-for-profit arts and performance space, which has just started hosting gigs. It sulks on an industrial estate, a few kicked-in-doors down from Cara House, an old office block full of studios and former squats (naturally, they now go for around £800 a month) that shake with the bass from warehouse parties at weekends. Just the sort of place for some anti-establishment musical agitating.  Read On…

Crimea River

A review of Crimea’s Koktebel Jazz Party for Jazzwise

For a place that was so recently in the eye of a political storm, Koktebel feels negligently laid back. This dusty Black Sea resort town was once a hangout for bohemian intellectuals, most famously turn-of-the-century poet Maximilian Voloshin and his circle, but has been a popular holiday destination since Soviet times. Nowadays it’s a bit like the Crimean equivalent of Margate, or perhaps Skegness, known for its hang-gliding, local brandy and pebbly, naturist beaches – which sounds like an accident waiting to happen.

Wander along the main drag and it’s all bouncy castles and bulgy bronzed bodies, jet skis, inflatables, ferris wheels and shooting galleries, though here they use decommissioned AK47s for the pellet guns. You get the impression that everyday life is much as it was before the Russian annexation of 2014. According to the locals there are slightly fewer tourists around, but it’s still heaving. Business as usual.

Koktebel Jazz Party has never been quite the same however. Founded in 2003 as a joint Russian-Ukrainian venture, it has been Russian-only since 2014, when the Ukrainian contingent left to set up their own version in Odessa. The past two editions have been marred by politics, with artists, including De-Phazz and Arturo Sandoval, pulling out following pressure from their home governments.

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Koktebel © Thomas Rees

I worried a great deal about coming here for fear of tacitly condoning the occupation, saying the wrong thing or indicating any kind of support for the views of the festival’s director, Dmitry Kiselev, a notorious TV news anchor appointed by Putin to head-up government owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya in 2013. He was recently described by The Economist as Russia’s ‘propagandist-in-chief’.

But I was told that the 2016 edition would be different. Koktebel Jazz Party was a cultural event, designed to promote ‘honesty, internationality and artistic freedom’. This year all of the US bands would be announced on the day to avoid any hassle for the musicians and Kiselev (a dedicated jazz fan) would be taking a weekend off from the kind of jingoistic punditry that has landed him on the EU sanctions list – describing Ukraine as a failed state for instance, or making sabre-rattling comments about the size of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.  Politics was to have nothing to do with it.

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Dmitry Kiselev © Evgeniya Novozhenina/Rossiya Segodnya

Almost inevitably, that didn’t come to pass. This year’s logo was red, white and blue for a start (the colours of the Russian flag) and Kiselev couldn’t help mentioning in his opening night speech that Koktebel Jazz had been given a ‘second wind’ by the occupation (questionable when you look at line-ups and photos from previous years). Arina Novoselskaya, Minister of Culture of the Republic of Crimea (one of several political attendees) went a step further, describing the peninsula as ‘the embodiment of a free Russia’ in an address that was anything but apolitical.

With the Russian Ministry of Culture and lead sponsor Smolensk Diamonds fronting the cash, no expense had been spared on the stage, a beachside confection complete with giant video screen and roving red and blue spotlights. Sat in front of it on the first night, in a half empty stand separated from the cheap seats on the beach by a ring of burly security guards in tight-fitting Koktebel Jazz Party t-shirts, I briefly wondered whether this was all just for show, a spectacle for no one but the press and the TV cameras. But then the first of the bands came on, the stand filled up and Kiselev put down the mic and retired to the VIP balcony to survey the scene over a glass of brandy. The next three nights were mostly about the music.

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Takuya Kuroda © Evgeniya Novozhenina/Rossiya Segodnya

Nights one and two were uneven, though the music-loving holiday-makers in the crowd were wonderfully appreciative, needing little encouragement to get up and dance. Shanghai-based trumpeter Li Xiaochuan, a leading light on the Chinese jazz scene, proved himself a superb technician and an imaginative improviser, but his set of indie rock-inspired originals was scuppered by one of several sound-crew meltdowns that left the stage littered with blown amps and agitated roadies. A performance from the Japanese-born New York-based Tachibana Quintet felt a bit thrown together, though Blue Note-signed trumpeter Takuya Kuroda and pianist Martha Kato impressed with some gutsy solos; and we saw our fair share of sketchy vocalists.

Still, there were plenty of high points too. A set from British blues man Julian Burdock, performing with his all-Russian band the 24 Kopeks, was a huge hit with the crowd and brought theatrical guitar, harmonica and washboard solos, along with a cheeky rendition of The Beatles’ ‘Back in the USSR’. Russian/Cuban outfit Mambo Party, led by all-singing-all-dancing frontman Juan Horlendis Baños, delivered hip-swinging grooves; and performances from Georgy Garanyan’s Krasnodar Big Band and Russian pianist Yakov Okun and his International Band were both excellent.

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Yakov Okun’s International Band © Vladimir Astapkovich/Rossiya Segodnya

Garanyan had teamed up with Finnish clarinet player Antti Sarpila for a tribute to Benny Goodman that was all spit and polish – a right royal rumpus full of silky melodies and raucous big band shouts. Okun’s set of intricately arranged standards was an excuse for his all-star septet to stretch out. Horace Silver’s ‘Filthy McNasty’ saw the pianist knit a Monkish cat’s cradle of lines and ‘Body and Soul’ was deeply moving, with passionate solos from trombonist Phil Abraham, Spanish alto player Perico Sambeat and trumpeter Viktor Guseinov, full of age-old phrases and hard won wisdom.

On the final night, the mystery Americans rolled into town, the stand was packed, the sound crew seemed to have ironed out the kinks and the quality remained consistently high. New York Connection were one of several bands formed especially for the festival and featured a rock solid rhythm section of pianist Miki Hayama, bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Willie Jones III. With Johnaye Kendrick on vocals, ubiquitous tenor player (and festival art director) Sergey Golovnya and trumpeter/bandleader Vitaly Golovnev completed the frontline.

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New York Connection © Evgeniya Novozhenina/Rossiya Segodnya

Golovnev was a semi-finalist in the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition (won that year by Ambrose Akinmusire) and proved his mettle in the opening number, an original called ‘Long Hands’ studded with dissonant hits. From there the six-piece swung through some lesser-known standards and straightforward Kendrick compositions. Hayama’s solos, all clambering motifs and nerve-shredding harmonic tension, were a highlight, but Kendrick was the darling of the crowd. When she reached for the top of her register, scatting and stretching notes to breaking point, it brought the house down.

The grand finale was a set from drummer Jimmy Cobb. It was more straightahead jazz, but immensely enjoyable all the same, with fluid, rhythmically inventive piano solos from Alexei Podymkin and some magisterial alto-playing from Vincent Herring. He hurtled through ‘Blue Monk’ quick as a cannonball and poured a lifetime’s worth of language into his flourishing double-time cadenzas. Cobb swung hard but kept things low key before letting loose with a bustling, feature-length solo on Gershwin’s ‘Strike Up the Band’, mouthing the rhythms as he went and taking his applause with an almighty stretch, a playful grimace and a grin. He’s seriously impressive for a man of 87.

When the organisers came back on, Cobb was thanked profusely for ‘being brave enough to come to Russia’. I suppose the implication was that he’d defied a repressive US regime in order to do so and at that point I lost interest.

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View from the beach © Vladimir Astapkovich/Rossiya Segodnya

If you want to find the soul of this festival you have to join the crowds of loved-up couples, hippies in harem trousers and tie dye, and families with babes in arms down to the beach, away from the bright lights and the posturing of the main stand. Sitting out there in the gathering darkness, listening to the lazy lap of the waves and the crunch of pebbles beneath sandy feet as the sound of Legends of Brazil drifted across from the stage, the world of geopolitics seemed very far off indeed. Nationalism and nationality were utterly irrelevant.

The same was true of the sprawling, vodka-fuelled jam sessions that rocked the hotel bar until five am each morning, but, as a whole, the festival isn’t quite there. It still feels as though it has a secondary, if not an ulterior, motive and it’s questionable whether it can ever be truly apolitical while Kiselev remains at the helm. This year was a step in the right direction, but if it wants to emulate its carefree host town and easy going audience and to ensure that boycotts and moral dilemmas become a thing of the past it still has work to do.

– Thomas Rees 

This article was origianlly published on jazzwisemagazine.com