Ghent Jazz Festival: Successful mix of Jazz and Pop

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Ghent Jazz Festival 2018 attracted 32,000 visitors, and it continues to grow. This is roughly equivalent to the number of enthusiasts who visited the famous 13th century Abbey complex in the Belgian city last year. There were seven festival days this year in the period from June 29th till July 8th.

Festival director Bertrand Flamang mentions, among others, the concerts of David Byrne (June 28) and Pharoah Sanders (July 7) as his favourites.

As is the case of the large festivals, jazz is currently not the big crowd puller. On three of the days all tickets were sold out. The main acts were Melanie de Biasio, Paolo Conte and The Roots. In my opinion they’re not “real” jazz artists, but popular artists who are influenced by jazz.

On July 6, the pianist, Jef Neve, one of the most popular jazz musicians in Belgium, concert was fully sold out. Jef is also a classical composer, performed “Spirit Control, and a selection of his more recent compositions.

I’d already heard Jef Neve’s music in the autumn of 2016 during a classical festival and was very impressed at that time. The (classical) string quartet and (jazz) rhythm section were amazing.

Dutch Trumpeter play with Jef Neve at Ghent Jazz 2018 – © Maurits van Hout

In Ghent the performance was breath taking, especially when the Dutchman Teus Nobel (trumpet/fluegelhorn) came on stage for “Christal Light”. His soloing in that composition of Jef Neve, dedicated to the victims of the terrorist attacks in Brussels and at the Zaventem Airport (22 March 2016), was superb. Especially the trumpet sounds at the end caused emotions: it sounded like the screaming of people in deep gut wrenching distress.

Organizing such a large festival cannot be realized without the non-jazz events. In other words, the attraction of pop music plays a key part in funding top quality jazz musicians  and to ensure some unforgettable Jazz days in Ghent. On July 5, Jazz artist where in full swing – Hudson, Chico Freeman Plus+tet and Brad Mehldau Trio were on stage. Especially tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman (son of Von Freeman) made a lasting impression with his spontaneous appearance on stage. It was a power play at a high level.

Pianist Brad Mehldau was as good as he always is. The dialogue between his hands remains a phenomenon to witness. I believe it allows him to create music no one else can.

Hudson is the band of John Scofield, Jack DeJohnette, Steve Colley and John Medeski. These are four of the most celebrated artists. It was an impressive concert, but Mehldau and Freeman personally fascinated me the most.

July the 7th was another true parade of the famous. Pianist Vijay Iyer was recently awarded a first place at the DownBeat International critics Poll for the second time (Jazz Artist and Jazz Group, with his sextet). Ambrose Akinmusire was my choice as number one among the trumpeters. Living legend Pharoah Sanders was there with his trio. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton was the guest with the living legend and pianist Jason Moran & The bandwagon also performing.

This resulted in four different types of concerts. Akinmusire played on the small Garden Stage three sets of 25 minutes. He demonstrated an impressive technique on his horn. The concert was a mixture of free jazz and “classical jazz”. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton was impressive as well on the Main Stage. He provided moments of rest for Pharoah Sanders. The tenor saxophonist is now 77, but his great sound is still alive and kicking!

Pharoah Sanders trio at Ghent jazz 2018 – photo © Maurits van Hout

The trio of Jason Moran played with exuberance, yet expressed a light-hearted energy. Vijaj Ijer is a more academically styled pianist. His music sounds almost scientific. The sound colour of his sextet is unique and therefore very recognisable.  In short, four fine concerts in one day.

The (little) Garden Stage is a fine place to hear music during Ghent Jazz Festival. I was impressed by Belgian flamenco guitarist Myrddin De Cauter. He did a set with his young daughter Imre (cello) and one with Nathan Daems (flute and tenor sax) before teaming up with famous saxophonist Tineke Postma. Soprano and guitar created two beautiful musical paintings.

Sir Tom Jones was one of the stars that day (July 3th) too. He is not a jazz singer but let’s call him a crooner. He did a fine job on the Main Stage and at the end of the show the audience enjoyed the songs that made him a world famous artist.

Tom Jones at Ghent Jazz 2018 – Photo © Maurits van Hout

The conclusion: Ghent Jazz 2018 was a successful mixture of jazz and pop music. The Roots, the house band on NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, were the last to perform and endorsed my statement.

Text:  Peter Beije

Photo credits:  Maurits van Hout 

Last modified: July 24, 2018