Live review

REVIEW: Thrill Festival 2019 (Scottish and Belgian musicians in Edinburgh)

Michel Michel Massot of Mâäk Quintet on sousaphone
Photo credit Patrick Hadfield

Thrill Festival 
(Various venues in Edinburgh. 7-9 February 2019. Review by Patrick Hadfield)

In the otherwise gloomy days of mid-February, the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival and Visit Brussels decided to brighten things up by programming a three day festival in Edinburgh featuring Scottish and Belgian musicians. Each bill featured bands from each country or collaborations between the two.

Irini Arabatzi
Photo credit: Patrick Hadfield

On the first night, the Jazz Bar featured one such collaboration, the Thrill! Sextet – three young musicians from each country, working together for the first time. This was their second gig – they debuted recently in Brussels. Mark Hendry, a familiar face to Edinburgh audiences playing double bass, lead the band jointly with Belgian reeds-player Tom Bourgeois; together they provided the tunes. The music was engaging and assured. Irini Arabatzi provided mostly wordless vocals, her voice soaring and shining like another horn. The one piece with lyrics, Bourgeois’ Familiar Note had spoken as well as sung words as Arabatzi narrated a tale of alienation as if she were describing a Hopper painting. The other musicians were similarly adept. Joining Bourgeois on tenor was Sylvain Debaisieux, who made his sax scream. Drummer Stephen Henderson was playing better than I’d seen him, both forceful and subtle. Together, the sextet sounded like they’d been together much longer than a month or so – and I hope this is the start of a long productive relationship. They were followed by Mâäk Quintet, who were something else. Featuring four horns and a drummer, there was a ferocious anarchic streak running through their music. Providing the foundation was Michel Massot‘s serpentine sousaphone; it towered over the musicians. Whilst Massot worked hard on the bassline, Samuel Ber‘s drumming was frenetic but precise: full of energy, he drove the other musicians, pushing them harder and harder.

The three frontline horns were lead by trumpeter Laurent Blondiau, who directed the band. He used a variety of mutes on his trumpet, bending the sound. The saxophones – Jeroen Van Herzeele on tenor and Grégoire Tirtiaux on alto – were impassioned, screaming and soaring. The music the Mâäk Quintet created was exciting and felt risky, balanced on the edge of chaos but never quite crossing the line.

Grégoire Tirtiaux, Laurent Blondiau, Jeroen Van Herzeele
Photo credit: Patrick Hadfield

The following night marked the first show of a new partnership between EJ&BF, Creative Scotland, City of Edinburgh Council and the Scottish Government, who together have established the St Brides Centre as a space for jazz all year round. A converted church, it has seen gigs before, but its relaunch marks a new venture, and one that bodes well for Edinburgh’s music scene. Fittingly, the first set was by one of Scotland’s most exciting young bands, Graham Costello’s STRATA; it was also the first night of their short tour celebrating the release of their new CD, Obelisk. St Brides is a larger space than I’d seen them in before, but it suited their full sound, somewhere between electric jazz, classical minimalism and progressive rock. Maybe with a bit of psychedelia thrown in for good measure.

Mark Hendry – this time on electric bass – filled the hall with sounds like an organ. Joe Williamson‘s guitar chopped and shimmered, sometimes drone-like, whilst his solos provided a gentle break. Saxophonist Harry Weir provided emotional depth with his soulful solos. Behind it all, Costello’s high energy drumming and Fergus McCreadie‘s repetitive piano patterns drove the music along. They played without pause, barely leaving time for the audience to show their appreciation before moving onto the next theme, and without introducing the tunes, all written by Costello. Watching STRATA is an intense and exhilarating experience, full of contrasts.

Another drummer-lead ensemble, Belgium’s Antoine Pierre URBEX played the second set. Starting from a similar point as STRATA, their sound was a lot cooler and, at times, impressionistic or abstract. The music was a slow-burner, ending up with the appropriately named Closing Off being full of frantic guitar and an angular, jagged sound. Jean-Paul Estiévenart‘s trumpet had an open, spacey sound, reminiscent of Tomasz Stanko. Drummer Antoine Pierre‘s band ends up sounding like avant garde post bop, with quirky time signatures belying a strong groove.

The last day of the festival – dubbed “Saxturday” in honour of Adolphe Sax, the Belgian-born inventor of the saxophone – saw another Scottish-Belgian double bill at St Brides. The Colin Steele Quintet opened the show. Steele is no stranger to Edinburgh audiences, but his soulful, folk-infused melodies are always welcome. The set covered several years of his repertory, starting with I Will Wait For You from good most recent CD and working backwards to an extended suite, Down to the Wire, originally commissioned by Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival more than a decade ago. His tunes are lively but hint at a deep Celtic melancholy. The quintet is comprised of Scottish jazz stars: Konrad Wisniewski played some blistering, bluesy tenor whilst also evoking Highland pipes; bassist Calum Gourlay, making one of his frequent visits back to Scotland, is always welcome for his warm, lyrical playing; drum star Alyn Cosker. And at the heart of the band, Steele’s long term collaborator Dave Milligan played some forceful but elegant piano solos, and was particularly elegaic on Steele’s romantic tune Bacharach on Lochwinnoch.

Toine Thys Trio featuring Hervé Samb
Photo credit: Patrick Hadfield

The second set was courtesy of the Toine Thys Trio featuring Hervé Samb, which, for the avoidance of doubt, made it a quartet. With Arno Krijger providing a funky groove on the Hammond B3 organ and Hervé Samb adding a slinky, choppy touch of Afrobeat with his guitar. The organ sound brought to mind 1970s soundtracks and late nights in smokey basements. Toine Thys played tenor and soprano, the notes cascading from the horn.

It’s hard not to put the collaboration between Scotland and Belgium that produced such musical highlights in the context of the political backdrop. Brexit risks make such enterprises far more difficult to produce, as freedom of movement to and from Britain has restrictions placed on it. The benefits of working with others – the cross-fertilisation of ideas – were plain to see at the Thrill Festival.

Patrick Hadfield lives in Edinburgh, occasionally takes photographs, and sometimes blogs at On the Beat. Twitter: @patrickhadfield.

Categories: Live review

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