Diana Krall & Joan Baez impress at Gent Jazz Festival 2019

Written by | Festivals, News, Reviews

Gent Jazz Festival has produced some memorable concerts this year. Two women played a leading role in the Belgian city: Diana Krall and Joan Baez. The first is a pure jazz artist. The second is a living legend in the folk world. Their performances were highlights.

It was a pity that the concert of Sting (Monday, June 8) was cancelled at the last moment. The pop icon was sick, problems with his throat and his voice, it was said. There were 6000 disappointed visitors at the Bijloke site. Organizer Bertrand Flamang will try to re-book Sting next year.

The nine festival days, between June 29th and July 9th,  achieved 39,000 visitors to the 18th annual Gent Jazz Festival. That’s a record, beating 2012, 38,000 visitors count.

Joan Baez (78) is on her farewell tour. The American singer performed on Thursday evening 4 July in Ghent: The last concert of the day on the main stage.  “Thank you for staying up so late. It’s way beyond my bedtime“, she said with a smile. Her voice may not be as pure as decades ago, but her performance radiated energy and conviction. Dirk Powell (mandolin, banjo, guitar, bass and violin – no instrument forgotten, I hope) and her son Gabriel Davis (percussion) formed her “big band“, while Grace Stumberg supported her vocally. “Farewell Angelina” was the first of a series with cheers welcomed songs.

On Friday 5 July, Diana Krall had four famous musicians in her band: drummer Karriem Riggins, bassist Robert Hurst, guitarist Marc Ribot and, as a special guest, tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano. Everything during this concert was perfect: the interplay, the solos. A concert by Diana Krall has a simple structure. Almost always a standard is played. The pianist sings the first part, then she follows with a number of solos. It was done in a perfect way, time and time again. Diana Krall sang well and with conviction, while seated at the piano. The concert was one big swinging party.

Jamie Cullum is also a pianist and singer. He was the main act on Sunday, June 30. The Brit is an entertainer, who sometimes plays the clown on stage: a jump from the piano stool or he climbs singing from the stage and walks into the audience (“I’m Just a Gigolo“). All in all, it does not have the quality of Diana Krall, but really great fun! Earlier in the day, the young singer Judi Jackson made a surprise concert.

The great piano talent Christian Sands also performed on July 5th. It was my first introduction to the American, who has a fabulous technique. His companions were Yasushi Nakamura (bass) and Clarence Penn (drums). The trio played with a lot of dynamism, although the virtuosity of the pianist should be alternated more often with more subdued play. The Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba played an impressive set a day later. He is also a grandmaster of the piano and also has that Caribbean rhythm that more musicians from that island have in their genes. This concert offered both virtuosity and intimacy.

Saturday, July 6th was a real “jazz day”. The famous WDR Big Band played compositions by Fred Hersch. The American sat behind the piano. Vince Mendoza is one of the most renowned arrangers in the world. He had edited the music pieces of Fred Hersch into beautiful music for piano and orchestra. It was the perfect closure of a remarkable day.

I saw trumpeter Terence Blanchard for the first time in the ’80s. He was the successor of Wynton Marsalis in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. On Saturday night he paid tribute to the great American drummer and bandleader. The legendary jazz musician was born 100 years ago. With pianist Gerald Clayton, tenor saxophonist Jean Toussaint and drummer Jeff ‘ Tain ‘ Watts, among others, songs from the Blakey repertoire were played in a contemporary setting. Blanchard played brighter than the last times I saw him. The encore was the well-known tune “Moanin”, which pianist Bonny Timmons wrote when he was a Jazz Messenger.

Sunday 7 July I did not go to Ghent: it was my wives birthday. José James and Gregory Porter were on the mainstage that day. Jacques Nightingale of Cultuurpodium.nl told me enthusiastically about the two singers.  José James sang songs written by Bill Withers. With songs like “Ain’t No Sunshine“, “Just the two of us” and “Lovely Day” this was a more than a convincing homage to the now 81-year-old Bill Withers. The band played fantastically.’’

Gregory Porter was in great shape. Perhaps this was the best concert of the whole festival. He has written so many beautiful songs. His performance is more than a concert, it’s an experience.’’ Also, the band of Gregory Porter deserves praise, says the music journalist.

The last day of the festival was devoted to the so-called Bagatelles of John Zorn. Bagatelles are small compositions, of which the New Yorker has written 300. Fourteen musicians and bands populated the main stage during the day, announced by Zorn. Jazz, punk, klezmer, Classical (modern) music, pop; all had a place in the avant-garde train that drove according to the timetable of the American.

I was particularly interested in the solo performance of pianist Craig Taborn. He played an impressive set. John Zorn is a great admirer of him and rightly so. The pianist improvised on the three works of Zorn which was exceptional. Here and there were excerpts to hear from Thelonious Monk-like Zorn a composer who explored new ways.

A quick return to the first day of the festival, the new Scandinavian trio Rymden was the musical highlight. In the ’90s of the last century, pianist Esbjörn Svensson made jazz more popular. After the Swede founded E.S.T. (Talal Svensson Trio), he developed with bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Öström a sound that appealed to a large audience. E.S.T. came to an abrupt end in 2008 when Esbjörn Svensson died in a diving accident.

His buddies of the first hour have now found a new companion: the well-known Norwegian pianist Bugge Wesseltoft. The concert at Ghent Jazz Festival was a continuation of
the European jazz style that E.S.T. co-shaped. The musical legacy of Esbjörn Svensson is assured. Thanks!

Text: Peter Beije
Photos Maurits van Hout, Bruno Bollaert

Last modified: July 19, 2019