Høiby And Kinch Lead Brits Charge At Brussels Jazz Fest

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There were three dominant artist groupings during the Brussels Jazz Festival. Naturally, there's a considerable indigenous Belgian contingent, plus a strong showing by US artists, but there was also a powerful wave of featured British players. These acts were mostly gathered into a marathon UK Night, but were also spread out across days other than this Saturday spectacular.

The 10-day festival (January 11-20) is held at Flagey, an arts complex in Ixelles, which lies south-east of the city centre. It's an eye-catching Art Deco building from the late 1930s, a former radio studio that has the look of a steamship, illuminated from inside with mood lighting glowing through its windows, in different hues for different portholes. With much of its wooden interior intact, Flagey's converted, acoustically-welcoming studios provide mixed-size venues for performances.

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It's always advisable to have a stellar artist booked for opening night, so the 80-year-old saxophonist Archie Shepp made a relatively rare appearance, with his quartet. It's been decades since he produced the free jazz extremity of his early years, but this Stateside tenorman has successfully rehabilitated himself into being a mainline blower. His set featured several standards, though some of these were less obvious selections. There were also a few of his original compositions. Shepp's overall demeanour was threaded with a quiet power, making him seem like a younger player, and on stronger form than when your scribe last witnessed him, around seven years back.

His longtime team of Daryl Hall (bass) and Steve McCraven (drums) were on hand, with the more recent inductee, pianist Carl-Henri Morisset. There were tunes by Elmo Hope and Duke Ellington, the latter's 'Don't Get Around Much Anymore' operating on the cusp of free-ness, loaded with fingered decorations. Shepp has an unusual way of playing, his mouthpiece inserted slackly, with great vibrato visibly resulting from his horn-quaking technique. When singing Duke, his voice also had a similar shook-all-over property, easy-going and with sliding, near-gargled phrases. He found a good balance between cabaret foot-tapping and free-inspired abstraction. Billy Strayhorn's 'Isfahan' was another popular choice, giving Morisset the chance to provide a luminous solo. Shepp's weathered voice had a dignified, churchy tone during 'Come Sunday', continuing the Ducal run. His own 'Revolution' saw a shift to electric piano, with firmly thrummed bass and roiling drums, Shepp choosing soprano, trilling out the tune's labyrinthine theme. All of this cut away sharply, for another vocal, spiritually inclined, and in the mode of original old-school beatnik rapping. The band were only just about willing to give up the storm, swooping down to rest, before closing with a bluesy dedication to Bessie Smith.

As a taster for the actual UK Night, on the following evening, Phronesis bassman Jasper Høiby's Fellow Creatures have a London line-up that includes the frontline of Laura Jurd (trumpet) and Mark Lockheart (tenor saxophone). Initially reined in, the leader's finely composed pieces heated up their temperament as the set progressed, 'Tangible' making space for Høiby's own involved solo, but his percussive bass snap was almost too much, distracting from the whole. The horns have a combined buoyancy, weaving along the same trail. Jurd soloed with a flamenco sting, and Lockheart stood under the spotlight, issuing a contained scream, breaking out of his accustomed understated fluidity.

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The UK Night itself opened with alto saxophonist and rapper Soweto Kinch's trio, in the smaller Studio 1, where the Birmingham instant poet delivered one of his best-ever freestyle raps, just when we might have been starting to tire of this accustomed section of his set. As the crowd shouted out, he grabbed their proffered words: banana, rain, ukulele, sunshine, shithole, energy and love, shaping multiple rap-lines on the hoof. For his wiry, serpentine alto, he employed footpedals, laptop and a harmonising build-up, straight outta the Brecker boys in the late-1970s, or perhaps like a one-man electro World Saxophone Quartet. This was followed by the linear pulsations of Portico Quartet in the concert-hall-scale of Studio 4, managing to imbue stasis, repetition and surface simplicity with a continuing compulsiveness. Perversely, the night's most powerful set happened in the smaller foyer/café area on the ground floor, with Binker & Moses, the tenor saxophone and drums pair who are now spreading their popularity across the Atlantic. 'Unleashed' is the best word for their state, as Binker Golding piled up the hard-bitten reed seizures, and Moses Boyd trapped and tinkered, like a more direct Tony Williams. The set was akin to a ritual, draining out the topical pus, sizzled up by the duo's amazing empathy and musical commitment.

– Martin Longley
– Photos by Olivier Lestoquoit

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