Live review

Porous Structures at Mechelen, Belgium

Porous Structures
(Het Predikheren, Mechelen.Brand! Festival. 5 December 2019. Review by Martin Longley)

Mechelen is a small-ish city in Flanders, equidistant between Brussels and Antwerp, but it has its own five-year-old festival of adventurous jazz, blessed with a line-up that can easily compete with the rosters of capital cities. Three days of Brand! (meaning Fire! in Dutch) was ample time to mix nearby Belgian talent with further-flung international guests, as three acts appeared each evening, mostly at the Nona Arts Centre.

A couple of bands had European leaders partnered by some of the starriest players from the USA. Jakob Bro was joined by Mark Turner, the first time this tenorman has appeared with the Danish guitarist’s regularly working trio of bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Joey Baron, whilst reedsman Robin Verheyen brought along pianist Marc Copland, bassist Drew Gress and wildman drummer Billy Hart.

Trumpeter Eric Boeren was the least familiar member of his own band, boasting sidemen who are amongst the most renowned Amsterdam musicians: Michael Moore (reeds), Wilbert De Joode (bass) and Han Bennink (drums). Guitarist Kim Myhr gave one of the most powerful performances of his “You | Me” extravaganza so far, an excuse for multi-percussion ritual abandonment and massed axe-strumming.

Ruben Machtelinx and Bert Cools. Photo credit: Geert Vandepoele

Sometimes the best sounds arrive from the least familiar quarters, and a particular festival highlight was the Porous Structures performance by a new and relatively unknown quartet. This work’s composer was one of the twinned guitarists, Ruben Machtelinckx, the other being Bert Cools. The line-up was completed by reedsman Joachim Badenhorst (another regular Belgian-in-NYC) and outsider French percussionist Toma Gouband.

This gig was staged in the Het Predikheren, a library and cultural centre in a converted 1655 church and monastery. Sensitively refurbishing old buildings for cultural usage seems to be a Mechelen speciality. This was well-suited to the quietness and concentration of the music, which often roamed in zones of near non-activity. The steel-string guitars tended to work in tandem, spinning interwoven threadlines, whilst Badenhorst and Gouband responded around the peripheries, sometimes burrowing into the core. Despite the attention paid to notation, the feel was often that of a ritualised improvisation, akin to some kind of pagan ceremony. There was the feeling that this band were allowed ample space for individual and spontaneous movements.

Badenhorst was interested in the sound of his clarinet and tenor saxophone without their mouthpieces, breathing sideways, vocalising, forming interior gusts, rationing his activities, but making an increased impact when issuing a ‘solo’. Of course, he also blew the fully-assembled instruments, but still in a shadowy manner. The lighting was of the intense mood-limning variety, as Gouband explored each small potential of his skins, often used as a micro-stage for vestigial rubbings or subtle stone-clinking. He mostly used dessicated sprigs as drumsticks, thwipping lightly around his drumheads, faintly glancing off cymbals. He also used a fir cone as a time-keeper. Although subtlety was a frequent state, there were repeated instances of strumming increases and percussive climaxing, the audience remaining transfixed throughout. When the lights came up, we returned, startled, into the surrounding civilisation.

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