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Brussels jazz festival 2023 (Part 1)

Brussels jazz festival 2023

(Flagey, Brussels. Thursday-Saturday, Jan 12-14 2023. Festival report by Jon Turney)

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Artist in Residence Nabou Claerhout’s trio. Photo credit Cindy De Kuyper

This is the first of two reports from Brussels by Jon Turney (*)

Brussels’ cosy indoor jazz festival resumed this year after COVID hiatus, with a compressed programme over 4 days instead of the customary 10. Four or 5 gigs each day with no overlap made it possible, in theory, to hear everything. In practice basic physiological needs meant missing bits but the alternation between large and small venues in the comfortable Flagey building – originally a broadcast HQ – mostly worked well.

No moves were needed on Thursday evening when festival artist Nabou Claerhout opened the double bill in the capacious Studio 4 with her first contribution, a breezy, open trio featuring her trombone, guitar and drums. Several long improvisations displayed her rich tone and fluent invention and her delight in the prospect of the festival to come, and the full house, was infectious.

Sébastien Texier. Photo credit Cindy DeKuyper

After the young lion, an old dog – in the shape of the great Henri Texier, a couple of years shy of his 80th birthday. The bassist also fielded a superbly well-integrated trio, as it ought to be with his son Sébastien Texier on alto sax and occasional clarinet. Texier the younger is a vigorous bop stylist, with a touch of Ornette Coleman when it suited the theme. A softer tone emerged on two ballads, including a soulful Round Midnight which left the cherishable image of Henri, seated at the bass, tapping both feet gently in unison throughout.

Linda Frederiksson. Photo credit: Cristina Vergara

Friday evening opened with Finland’s Linda Frederiksson exploring their beautifully atmospheric 2021 album Juniper in the smaller space of Studio 1. Frederiksson’s lightly plangent, anthemic compositions set a beguiling mood, with some more emphatic soloing than the album affords, and world class backing from a quartet including the superb Olavi Louhivuori on drums.

Emma-Jean Thackray. Photo Axel/ Studio 156

After a set in the big studio from Emma-Jean Thackray heavy on declamatory vocal, beats and near dub bass, it was back down to Studio 1 for the mighty Shake Stew, none the worse for an overnight train ride from Vienna. Two drummers, Niki Dolp and Herbert Parker, and at times two basses, lay a plush carpet for the three horn players, alto saxophonist Astrid Wiesinger shining particularly brightly in this set. Like all the others, the timetable restricted the band to a 60-minute set, circumscribed by a video screen clock facing the players and counting down. This device, perhaps best reserved for disciplining conference speakers, created a slight tension through all four days. Shake Stew were one of several bands who played a satisfying set within those bounds, but definitely sounded as if they had more to give.

Bendik Giske. Photo by Olivier Lestoquoit

Friday evening’s opener saw Norwegian saxophonist Bendik Giske deliver one of the most talked about sets I heard. An impressively indefatigable circular breathing specialist, he is exploring a kind of minimalism-with-maximum-technical prowess, playing what are essentially a series of saxophone studies. Each one unfolds with a scale, a pattern, or sometimes a single note being stress-tested through exhaustive timbral variation. It’s an arresting, sometimes impassioned, performance, though two extra mics on the saxophone keys (along with the bell of the sax and a tiny throat mic) create a static rhythmic backdrop to the horn line that palls after a while. It would be great to hear him with a sympathetic drummer, though he might still make one wonder where he will take music that can sound like a feat of personal endurance, for player if not listener.

Nabou Claerhout trombone ensemble. Photo credit: Olivier Lestoquoit

Then on to collective music making of a most interesting kind, with Claerhout presenting her festival special, pieces for a six-trombone nonet in the large studio. This was the good thing a festival ought to do if it can, allow an emerging artist to realise a long-nurtured ambition. Claerhout rose to the challenge with some excellent writing for the wonderfully fat sound of the six horns, mostly deployed as two sections of three, prompting inspired solo work from Robin Eubanks who she had modestly invited to be featured guest. After his most exuberant excursion she joined him in duet for a rousing closer from a perhaps unique ensemble that will present us with a CD later in 2023.

That would have sufficed handsomely, but Belgian crew Black Flower immediately afterwards in Studio One were too good to miss. They were backed by visuals procured from a selection of science labs, evoking what they termed the “NanoKosmos”. These, though a little obscured on the night by the stage lighting, in turn led the band into some delightfully melodic reflection. Like Shake Stew the band often feature strong rhythm backdrops in a multi- cultural musical brew, but this set in slightly lighter mood was a delight and a fine addition to a brilliantly varied array of music on day three.

Nabou Claerhout. Photo by Axel / Studio 156

(*) Jon Turney was the guest of Brussels Jazz Festival and Brussels Tourism

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