Boggamasta boogie on down at Brussels Jazz Weekend

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The UK equivalent to the Brussels Jazz Weekend would be to hold a jazz festival in Trafalgar Square, something that's not too likely a prospect. The BJW has its heart in the Grand Place, right in the centre of Brussels, but its massive freebie programme also operates around three main zones, both indoors and outdoors. Uptown, downtown and the 'European district' are blessed with three days of open air gigs, shifting into an extreme infestation of clubs, bars and cafés during each of its three nights. This 2018 edition was the second, but the weekend has a two-decade history in a previous incarnation, as the Brussels Jazz Marathon. The event represents a massive jazz takeover of the capital. Even those attuned to the Belgian jazz scene would find a multitude of unfamiliar acts, so vast is the programme. Besides the majority jazz quotient, there are also many artists arriving from global-ethnic quarters, or from alternative rock/pop, hip hop and electronic music zones.

A highlight of the Saturday evening was the strange beast named Boggamasta (pictured), at Ancienne Belgique, one of the city's prime multi-genre music venues. This was the large ensemble usually known as Flat Earth Society, but acting under a special name, to signify the inclusion of guitarist David Bovée. He was an early member of FES, and also the central figure of Antwerpian global mulchers Think Of One. The repertoire for Boggamasta resides at the funkier end, incorporating a strong hip hop element, as if Frank Zappa had moved into avant rap music. Led by bass clarinettist Peter Vermeersch, FES have been together for over two decades, their deep rapport immediately visible, the line-up still including the likes of Bart Maris (trumpet), Michel Mast (tenor saxophone), Berlinde Deman (tuba/vocals) and Teun Verbruggen (drums).

The gig was only the second (or possibly third) occasion that this Vermeersch/Bovée music was performed, the latter impressing equally on lead guitar extremity and forceful frontman freestyling, complete with monsterised bass-flooded voice effects. Bovée was often partnered by Vermeersch, in a perverted manifestation of Run DMC's verbal ping-ponging. Humour and funk co-existed with power and complexity, while the big band's carefully woven layers were clearly discernible via the PA system's sharp mix. Twisted effects cloaked ensemble vocals, as most of the group tackled chorus refrains, as if in the midst of some twisted hip-hopera. Twinned drums kicked beneath charged horn parts, as Bovée battled with Peter Vandenberghe, vying for Cecil Taylor-esque freedom on a shared keyboard.

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A chief pleasure during this weekend was its variety of locations: to stroll from a big show like Boggamasta's, down an alleyway into the Théâtre Royal De Toone, just off the Grand Place. It's a marionette performance space and a bar, where De Braave Joenges could be found, after the witching hour, playing downhome blues, but sung in the Brusselois Dutch-French dialect (and sometimes English), with acoustic guitar, harmonica, simple percussion and joint vocals. Complete intimacy, to close the Saturday night, with not a spare chair in sight.

Les Chroniques De'Inutile opened the Sunday afternoon on the Grand Place main stage, tempting already, just because they are signed to El Negocito Records, one of Belgium's best imprints, operating from Gent. This septet played works by their guitarist Benjamin Sauzereau, opening with a vaguely Latin lope, bass flute soloing, their drummer playing like a conguero, making a light-toed funk, with ensemble horns led by a tenor saxophone onslaught. They aren't a Latin jazz combo, but that form nevertheless provided a firm influence, alongside hints of ska and a spikier, compact incarnation of the Gil Evans palette. Even though solos happened, this crew had an overriding ensemble mentality, making clean stabs with their horns, chased by a Fender Rhodes outbreak from Eric Bribosia that sounded like an early Bill Frisell guitar solo, piled-up with spangled jangle. There was a sudden interjection of manic Zappa-oid soloing from Sauzereau, followed by an episode of collective free-Zorning that didn't drive away the Grand Place crowd. On the contrary, it was wondrous to see such sounds warmly embraced in the city centre on a Sunday afternoon.

Once again, a five-minute wander brought us to Les Cercle Des Voyageurs, where the Don Kapot threesome were sunk deeply into the Afro-free brutalist basement, with blurting baritone saxophone, cyclic guitar and insistent drums, reminiscent at times of the much-missed Morphine. Sleazed noir-jazz throatiness shrunk by the third number, a tiny wooden flute revealed, before tight-tripped sticks and creamed basslines herded the sound back to a late 1960s groove, then into a ramming Norwegian head-bang.

In the uptown area, the Place de la Chapelle offered a smaller outdoor stage alternative, with the locally-based Kel Assouf representing the weekend's strong North African winners, operating in the Saharan desert Tuareg rock mode. This band are now stripped down to a hardcore guitar/synth/drums power trio, with grinding riff curlicues, spilling over with distortion, basslines (or more accurately, pulse-lines) and organ mimicry, via small keyboard electronics. They built a Flying-V Hendrix churn, with incantatory vocals. Meanwhile, the more urbane and sophisticated Hijaz played in the aptly-named Brussels City Bar, where a more select atmosphere held sway. Their combination of oud, keyboards, bass and various goblet drums facilitated a powering Arabic jazz fusion, full of streamlined detail, dynamic in execution.

Martin Longley

– Photographs by Clara Blanckaert