Jazz Middelheim (Antwerp) Festival 2011

Peter Slavid reports from last weekend’s Jazz Middelheim festival in Antwerp

Not yet a subscriber of our Wednesday Breakfast Headlines?
Join the mailing list for a weekly roundup of Jazz News.


Jazz Middelheim is now in its 30th year and getting record attendances – 19,000 people over four days this year. It’s one of the nicest festivals I know. Firstly because of the venue – in a beautiful park on the outskirts of Antwerp, a really attractive city which is a great one to walk round and has a brilliant public transport system. Incidentally, the fourth day of the festival – Monday 15th – is a public holiday in Belgium, but in Antwerp (and only Antwerp) its also Mother’s Day – and no, I have no idea why that’s the case. [Ed showing off: because it’s the feast day of Mary, mother of Christ, who has been patron saint of Antwerp for over a thousand years, and of the city’s vast gothic cathedral since the first church on the present cathedral site went up in 1124]

The programming of the festival has something to suit every taste – and I’m pleased to say that people are willing to listen to it all – from 30s swing to free form avant-garde, from Jamie Cullum to John Zorn. For me that’s the essence of a music festival: the opportunity to hear things you might not otherwise go to. Along with highlights, a festival should bring surprises.


The highlight for attracting an audience (and for the sponsors who were out in force)was Jamie Cullum. He brought in an audience about twice the size of any other day, and he got on to Flemish TV, and delivered a typical high energy show.

My personal highlight, however, was the Saturday Night sequence of performances by John Zorn. This was one of those gigs that will stay in the memory for years. I’m not sure I can imagine this scene in the UK – 4000 people on their feet calling for encores from John Zorn after two of the best sets I can remember.

Two major gigs that evening – first Zorn’s Bar Kokhba sextet and then the Masada sextet. This is all very accessible and exciting music, and the formula for both is the same. Take a brilliant rhythm section of Joey Baron on drums, Greg Cohen on bass and Cyro Baptista on percussion. Then add a selection of John Zorn’s simple and often beautiful middle-eastern tinged tunes. Now put all that with three front-line improvisers of the highest quality, and throw in Zorn’s own style of improvising conducting to get the maximum impact – and you end up with music that leaves everyone with a smile on their face – audience and performers alike.

The quality of the improvisers is critical – in Bar Kokhba we had Mark Feldman (violin), Eric Friedlander (cello) and Mark Ribot (gtr). Ribot’s power was really impressive, and it turned out to be very Rock ‘n Roll. For Masada they were replaced by Zorn himself on alto, Uri Caine on piano and Dave Douglas on trumpet. A more conventional sounding line up, and a harder edge to the music, but the melodies and the rhythm section made sure that even when Zorn went off into the stratosphere he soon came back down to earth.

Zorn has always been difficult to categorise, and some of his music is free improvisation of the fiercest kind, and perhaps that unpredictability scares off a lot of promoters. The music on Saturday Night was Zorn the entertainer – jazz of the very highest quality – and the audience lapped it up and stomped for more, long after the encores had finished and the lights had come up.


Two good and unexpected surprises for me. First was the opening act of the festival – Trio Grande with Matthew Bourne. I’d never heard this band before but Trio Grande are a spectacular act with multi-instrumentalist French sax player Laurent Dehors playing every size of clarinet and saxophone, sometimes two at a time, plus recorder and bagpipes; Michel Massot plays various tubas plus trombone, and Michel Debrulle on drums. The total effect has a madcap brilliance mixing lyrical melodies with free improvisation and complex and intricate rhythmic writing. Matt Bourne’s sparkling piano increases the temperature up another notch. Incidentally – Trio Grande are desperate to play in London – so promoters take note!

Second was the solo piano set by Omar Sosa, reminding me at times of a young Abdullah Ibrahim in the way he switched from gentle African melodies to fierce attack I was massively impressed by this.

One poor performance though which did surprise me was Randy Weston’s African Rhythms’ tribute to James Reese Europe (a first world war African-American soldier and prodigious composer). Very rarely for an American touring band I thought this was under-rehearsed and sloppy. I like Weston’s piano playing but the music here was basically the blues, and the band sounded as if they had only seen it that night for the first time – lots of short solos including tuba and banjo – all very strange.

But fortunately the disappointment didn’t last long as we were then treated to Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra – and this was the full 12 piece US band (not the European version that came to UK recently), and they sounded as if they had been playing together all their lives – absolutely together as they played music from the CD “not in our name” and some new Carla Bley music celebrating environmental causes. Plus of course top rank soloing, all of which provided a good rousing end to the festival.


Categories: Uncategorized

6 replies »

  1. Last week's Babel Babble, my show on Internet station NTSlive, was a feature on Belgian jazz, including a Trio Grande/Matthew Bourne track. That trio started at Gaume Jazz Festival, which was also taking place last weekend in Eastern Belgium (near Luxembourg). Another of Michel Debrulle's bands, Reve d'Elephant, was playing there – also well worth catching.
    A podcast of the show will be available soon.

  2. Shameless advertising! Of course I omitted to mention that I will be playing TWO tracks from Trio Grande on my show next week on ukjazzradio.com.
    I love Rêve d'éléphant and all those quirky Belgian Bands (Flat Earth Society, Octurn, AKA Moon etc.)

  3. I would say it IS useful for people to be reminded of alternative places to hear this music, so don't hold back on publicizing these radio shows and encouraging people to check them out. Any more useful links out there??

  4. Flat Earth Society was at the Vortex last September. We have a Belgian (though now resident in Paris) at the Vortex on 9 September – Eric Legnini – in a double bill with Largo from Luxembourg. So come and check jazz from across the Channel LIVE!!!!

  5. Just found this site : I want to say, I'm glad I went to the “Zorn day” on the Saturday,
    2 totally great sets with Bar Kobha and Masada Sextet, both sets were fantastically well played featuring the usual Zorn suspects.
    An urgent, expressive, intense mix of jazz improvisation, klezmer, blues, surf rock, middle-eastern and swing. The festival crowd laped it up, standing ovations baying for encores , while the rain beat down on the tent roof : a great night to remember.

Leave a Reply