Festival Review: Jazz Brugge 2023

Written by | Festivals, News

Once again, “Jazz Brugge,” one of Belgium’s most prominent jazz events on the calendar, was held from the 17th to the 19th of November at the Concertgebouw on the edge of the city’s historical center. This year’s event marked the ninth edition of the festival with the theme “Crossing Cultures” once again as the starting point. This year, more than ever, the organization went out of its way to present new voices and artistic environments where adventurous jazz takes on a surprising form and gains contemporary significance.

The festival presented three days filled with adventure on the front line of jazz and improvised music. With (among others) Sélène Saint-Aimé, Naissam Jalal, James Brandon Lewis, and Theo Croker, Jazz Brugge excelled in representing the most interesting directions of jazz. Besides the international program, the festival also celebrated 30 years of both W.E.R.F. Records (a KAAP activity) and, for the first time, a collaboration with the Belgian Jazz Meeting and the Belgium Booms program. The Belgian Jazz Meeting used to take place every two years as a stand-alone event; however, the organization is now giving the concept a new look where each year, the international visitors program and Belgium Booms will collaborate with an existing jazz event in Belgium. Belgium Booms, a collaboration between VI.BE, JazzLab, and KAAP, presented 5 Belgian bands during the festival, all selected by an international jury. Each of these bands was deemed to have international potential and had the opportunity to showcase themselves to the audience and (international) professionals present during the festival.

I arrived in Brugge on Friday somewhat later than planned; the train service in the Netherlands fully lived up to its reputation. So, once I had finally checked into the hotel, I arrived at the venue too late to catch the opening act, Bassist Anneleen Boehme’s new project “Grand Picture Palace.” This project features a unique ensemble that combines a jazz quintet and a string quartet and was at the top of my must-catch list. Even though I missed all but the last piece, it still left a strong impact. Following Grand Picture Palace were two performances running concurrently: Berlin-based percussionist Bex Burch and the trio “Going.” This is not your everyday trio; Going is comprised of Pak Yan Lau on synths and electronics, Giovanni Di Domenico on keyboards and additional electronics, and held together by drummer Joao Lobo. This concert was truly captivating. The music loosely aligns with post-jazz rock, and I mean loosely; their sonic realm is intriguing with elements of EDM and at times reminiscent of the early electronic music experimentation within the classical world yet all layered over a strong groove. It’s hard to put your finger on this; however, there’s no doubt it’s an expansive exploration of the contemporary urban environment.

After a well-deserved break to catch my breath, I headed to the main hall ready for the performance from percussionist, composer, and pianist Chris Joris. Joris has penned one of the most vibrant chapters in the narrative of Belgian jazz. Having traversed diverse genres for many years, he has earned acclaim primarily as the percussionist perpetually dismantling boundaries—not just within constraining genre confines like pop, experiment, theater, world music, and jazz but also bridging entire musical universes. In Brugge, Joris, together with Cécile Broché on violin and Sigrid Vandenbogaerde on cello, the trio delivered an amazing performance highlighting material from his latest album “Until the Darkness Fades.” The music mixes through-composed passages with improvisation and impressively the transition between these two aspects is seamless. Both Broché and Vandenbogaerde added a vital aspect to Joris’ playing, and I almost dare to say that Sigrid Vandenbogaerde’s solo piece left such an impact that I would almost say it was the highlight of the set.

Closing out day one of the festival was the performance from Bassist and vocalist Sélène Saint-Aimé and her quartet. Sélène is a French based Bassist, vocalist and composer with Caribbean and African roots. In 2022 she released the remarkably powerful album “Potomitan”, named after the central pillar symbolizing the connection between the celestial and earthly realms in Haitian Vodou temples. She crafted the album during the lockdown when she departed her Parisian habitat, opting to temporarily reside with her family in Martinique. Her set in Brugge drew largely from this repertoire. Joining her onstage was Boris Reine-Adélaide on drums and percussion, Irving Acao on sax, and Hermon Mehari on trumpet. The quartet had me riveted to my seat from the first to the last note. The music is undoubtedly rooted in her Caribbean cultural heritage yet the addition of the trumpet and saxophone blended these traditional rhythms with the language of jazz adding at times a créole flavor. Saint-Aimé’s voice is truly something to behold and quickly becomes central to the musical story being told. This is certainly an artist to keep an eye on, and if you see her programmed at a venue near you, do yourself a favor and get front row tickets.

With the weather taking a decided turn for the worse on Saturday, I decided to skip a trip to discover the historical center of Brugge and camp in a small bar near the hotel and research some of Belgium’s finest brews before heading to the Concertgebouw for the Sector Day. Organized by KAAP with support from VI.BE, Sabam For Culture, Amplo, JazzLab, and Concertgebouw Brugge, this day is an integral part of Belgium Booms, aiming to integrate the sector into the operations of the festival. The Sector Day serves as a unique platform for networking and collaboration, fostering connections between the international delegation and the talents featured in Jazz Brugge. The goal was to provide a dynamic space for engagement and interaction, reinforcing the festival’s commitment to the growth and development of the jazz sector and this it did. The highlight was undoubtedly the Keynote speech by Kim Macari (trumpet player, programmer for the London venue Vortex, and activist) focusing on the current UK scene and dealing with the gentrification of jazz and its impact.

Saturday’s concert schedule kicked off with a performance by guitarist Vitja Pauwels in the Kamermuziek Zaal. Brussels native, Vitja Pauwels has made quite a name for himself as a sideman and not to overlook his role as Bombataz’s frontman, has also proved himself as a leader. At the festival, Pauwels managed to unveil a stunning set beautifully melding tradition and experimentation, blending jazz, Americana, roots, and electronic music creating a unique soundscape.

Flutist Naïssam Jalal followed in the Concertzaal together with a quartet comprising Clément Petit: cello, Claude Tchamitchian: bass, and drummer Zaza Desiderio. The set comprised a series of compositions, each crafted as a ritual. As the set progressed, you could feel the music captivating the audience’s imagination in a way I’ve rarely seen before. Jalal’s combination of vocals and flute blended seamlessly from a melodic point of view with Clément Petit’s cello, creating an engaging soundscape. I also found it impressive how Claude Tchamitchian was able to cross lanes, adding extra melodic input while holding down the rhythm with drummer Zaza Desiderio. This was really an amazing set.

The following concert on Saturday featured the London-based Bahraini trumpet player Yazz Ahmed who presented largely material from her 2019 album “Polyhymnia.” Named after the Greek muse of music, poetry, and dance—a character Ahmed describes as “a goddess for the arts”—it is a six-part suite dedicated to “six women of exceptional qualities, role models with whom [she] felt a strong connection”. Joining Yazz on stage was drummer Martin France, bassist David Manington, and Ralph Wyld on vibraphone. The set was, on a whole, very enjoyable; however, at times I felt it lacked the energy I’ve seen the band bring to other recent performances I’ve seen.

Later that evening, American tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis presented a high-powered set rooted in the post-Coltrane style, and closing out the night in the Kamermuziek Zaal was Echoes of Zoo, a Belgium-based band featuring Nathan Daems (saxophone), Bart Vervaeck (guitar), Lieven Van Pée (bass), and Falk Schrauwen (drums). Described as “Afro Oriental sufi rock/jazz,” the energy coming from the stage was electric. It’s almost impossible to put your finger on the music Echoes of Zoo presented; however, it’s fair to say the influences from the Middle East and the Balkans driven by African-derived rhythms combined for a highly impressive set.

The third and final day kicked off with the new project from trombonist Nabou Claerhout, no less than five trombones with a rhythm section comprised of guitar, bass, and drums. This performance was also the presentation of the ensemble’s new CD, also titled “Trombone Ensemble Nabou Claerhout,” now out on WERF Records. There’s no doubt that this is a unique project and an ensemble with this line-up is not something you will see every day. I was quite amazed at the range of soundscapes that emerged, and the quality of the playing was first class; all in all, a great start to the day. Hot on the heels of this performance was a set by funk/fusion ensemble Lucid Lucia in the Kamermuziek Zaal who presented their new album “Ever Changing Light” followed by the German-based vocalist and composer Sophie Tassignon. Tassignon is known for her unique vocal timbre and sophisticated compositions and arrangements. In Brugge, she presented a set of compositions inspired by her work with Syrian refugees in Berlin; Sophie Tassignon began learning the Arabic language in 2017 and decided to seek a deeper understanding of Arab culture. This endeavor, in turn, led to the development of her project KHYAL, blending Arabic poems with jazz traditions from Europe and North America. This was a highly impressive performance that without a doubt touched the audience based on the reaction I witnessed in the hall.

Closing off the concerts in the main Hall was a performance from American Trumpeter Theo Croker. Theo is no stranger to the European festival stages of late, delivering strong performances and generating a string of rave live reviews from the press. The performance in Brugge was no exception. Croker, the grandson of jazz trumpeter Doc Cheatham, presented an exhilarating show combining a traditional quartet setting with electronic effects, loops, and samples and projected visual effects to close out the main program of the festival.

After Croker’s performance as the crowd filed into the foyer, they were met with the six performers of the group Dans Kapot who grabbed the crowd’s attention and like the pied piper lured them to Studio 1 for a unique performance to cap off the festival. For this performance, Don Kapot teamed up with three dancers for a spectacular interdisciplinary performance called A Small World, guided by Alexandros “Greco” Anastasiadis. This captivating avant-garde event not only held the captive audience’s attention but culminated with the majority of the audience joining the group on the dance floor. Amazing and a highly memorable end to a great weekend of inspiring music.

Last modified: January 31, 2024