Grégoire Tirtiaux and Gratitude Trio lead Belgian genre-bending blitz at Jazz à Liège

gregoire tirtiaux

This is a festival where it’s possible to completely miss Kamasi Washington, John Scofield and The Bad Plus. Jazz à Liège happens in Belgium’s third city, over four evenings, taking over seven venues, all of them situated in a remarkably small zone, convenient for strolling. The festival is on the brink of celebrating three decades, and just about the only negative observation to be made is that there are so many gigs happening simultaneously that really tough choices have to be made. For the hardened jazz completist, it would be better if the performances began around midday, rather than having the vast majority of sets crammed into an 8pm-to-11pm deluge, with only a couple of venues opting for an earlier 7pm start or later, post-midnight finish. On the other hand, given that most of these shows appeared to be either sold out, or very well-filled, does this really matter?

Another factor is that, for a Jazzwise frequent-fester scribe, there was the added urge to catch many of the indigenous Belgian artists, smaller in international status, but often promising previously unheard delights. It was also exciting to catch a few less-seen artists, on the international front. The Swedish-Norwegian keyboard trio of Rymden (pictured below) are still in their infancy, and the Samuel Blaser Quartet displayed an unusual line-up of keyboardist Russ Lossing and drummer Gerry Hemingway, in a membership of fluid Euro-American status.

Rymden

In the late night, all-standing Reflektor club, Rymden were surprisingly uncompromising in their attention to sonic hardness, or amorphous atmosphere-weaving, often evoking a dark, mysterious swirl of committed improvisation. Their music is still at the undiscovered stage, before too much muscle memory arrives. Meanwhile, in the steep Cité Miroir theatre, Swiss trombonist Blaser filled his set with works that wormed free-form adventuring into elaborate theme constructions, allowing stark solos for all bandmembers, Hemingway in particular tinkering with, and disassembling a tune.

Jeroen Van Herzeele is a ubiquitous Belgian saxophonist, but the Gratitude Trio finds him weighing into the electronics maelstrom, via knobs’n’wires, but also with the better end of the EWI (electronic wind instrument). Drummer Louis Favre also provided vocals that lingered between poetry, rapping and orientalist, lending a genre-allergic perspective. This set was in La Halte’s small upstairs theatre, which was also suited to a solo baritone saxophone recital, courtesy of Grégoire Tirtiaux (pictured top). Initially, he circular-breathed closely next to Colin Stetson, fingering up the mountain of accumulation, but then he introduced greater space, taking leave from that density, making percussive clicks and eventually dismantling his horn, resuscitating it directly through its neck, with lightly fluting trails. Tirtiaux also turned up in Sitardust, one of two reedsmen in a line-up of sitar, mridangam and other percussion. The original compositions of sitarman Joachim Lacrosse were heavily steeped in raga history, then dusted with jazz horn-head arrangements. This was in the Cinéma Sauvenière’s bar, which housed a nightly forum for askew styles, and was one of the festival’s best stages. Also here were Condor Gruppe, a sprawling multi-instrumentalist outfit involved with the retro sounds of film music, funk and fuzz, their vocabulary broad, their love for Morricone evident. A horn section, a driving bass/drum twinning, and a series of cauldron guitar solos, kitsch and crazed combined.

Still in the cinema, there was a very rare opportunity to view The Wrong Object, a Belgian combo on Moonjune Records, obsessed with the Frank Zappa repertoire. They chose some exceptional tunes not often revived by other FZ units, such as ‘Wonderful Wino’ and ‘Filthy Habits’. Perversely, guitarist Michel Delville was the only member whose solos begged for a volume hike, his quieter onstage sound surely not being intentional. These Wrongs were experts of alternative Zappa discovery.

Among the non-Belgian acts, there were also strong sets from our own Maisha, Theon Cross, Nubya Garcia, Exodus, Phronesis, Ill Considered and one-man-band blues primitivist Thomas Ford. There was no paucity of stellar Americans either, but as our musical nodes were short-circuited by impossible choices, it was wise to winkle out the Belgian weirdos.

Martin Longley
Photos by Dominique Houcmant

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