It isn't glum or buttoned up. It's warm, convivial, bohemian and hip, a happy place to be a musician or a music fan. For a nation of scarcely 11 million, Belgium has always produced an impressive array of jazz talent. We have the Belgians to thank for Django Reinhardt, Toots Thielemans and the saxophone. And, as the inaugural Brussels Jazz Weekend proved, the Belgian scene continues to thrive.
It's an old new festival, which ran for 21 years as the Brussels Jazz Marathon, and the concept remains the same despite the rebrand: three days, over two hundred gigs at venues across the city with a focus on the Belgian scene, and all for free. In fact, it's one of the biggest free jazz festivals in the world.
This year there were five outdoor stages, flanked by beer tents and street food stalls, on squares across town. Place Sainte-Catherine, at the centre of a scruffy, hip neighbourhood that feels a little like London's Soho, was the place to go for funk and ska-fueled party bands, including Saturday's headliners, a six-piece called Opmoc, who took the stage to the sound of blaring sirens and had the young, intoxicated crowd jumping up and down 30 seconds into the first number. Place du Grand Sablon, in front of the exquisite, 15th century Brabantine Gothic Église Notre-Dame du Sablon, and Place Fernand Cocq Plein, a leafy square 30 minutes walk from the centre, were more genteel. While Place du Luxembourg, by the European Parliament, was half way between the two – and ultra-relaxed when I pitched up on Friday evening, with children playing and couples lounging on the grass, enjoying a soundtrack of balmy jazz-pop.
The strongest sets took place on the absurdly handsome Grand Place, where the main stage was set up, overlooked by a magnificent 15th century town hall and the headquarters of the city's guilds, decorated with architectural flourishes and extravagant quantities of gold leaf. Promising bassist Theo Zipper and his quartet, winners of last year's XL-Jazz Contest (the festival's showcase for new talent) kicked things off, with music from forthcoming album Gorilla. It paired choppy, modal grooves with mellow hooks and explored some dark harmonic corners, calling to mind the writing of Tomasz Stańko. Impressive trumpeter Aristide d'Agostino, who took the lion's share of the solos, had a little of the Polish great about him too.
Tenor-player Nicolas Kummert's quartet, featuring sought-after Beninese vocalist/guitarist Lionel Loueke, provided a laid-back counterpoint. There's was a soft-focused set, drawn from new album la diversité, that brought ticking grooves, thrumming acoustic bass figures and wiry melodies, borne by the trade winds from West Africa. A haunting rendition of 'Gnossienne' by French avant-gardist Erik Satie varied the soundworld a little and was warmly received by the crowd filling the cafe tables on the square. My only gripe was with the hesitant, falsetto refrains Kummert sang on Cohen's 'Hallelujah' and elsewhere, which detracted from the set. He's an excellent tenor player: lyrical, with a rich sound similar to Tim Garland. Better to leave the singing to the honey-voiced Loueke, who sounded sublime on his own 'Veuve Malienne', weaving a percussive introduction from breaths, tongue clicks and filigree guitar. It was a masterclass in subtlety and the use of space.
There's a rich vein of jazz-alt rock fusion in the current Belgian scene. Kneebody was my reference point during a grungy set from Brandhaard, a quartet fronted by tenorist Steven Delannoye and outstanding young trumpeter Jean-Paul Estiévenart, who seemed to be playing in every second band. They were a little rough around the edges, but they more than made up for it with some bruising, overdriven originals, studded with bold hooks, stabs and skronking, anarchic solos. 'Small World' had a bluesy, country music feel about it, opening with bleary textures and drunken sustain-heavy smears played by guitarist Reiner Baas. It was the kind of thing you'd expect to hear if you woke up with a brutal hangover and a fist full of glass on the floor of a saloon bar in the midwest. Baas' own 'The Dance of Princess Discombobulatrix' was another highlight, bringing scribbled horn lines and a blazing, Gerard Presencer-esque solo from Estiévenart. Pianist Igor Gehenot's four-piece, Delta, featuring virtuosic French fluglehornist Alex Tassel, were mellower and a little more ECM, but with similar rock leanings. They played several pensive ballads, including Tassels' 'Johanna', and a beautifully tender arrangement of 'My Funny Valentine', then picked up the pace with flexing flugle lines, slamming piano chords and rhythmic leaps from rock to driving swing, on 'Starter Pack' and 'Step 2'.
Most impressive of all were flawless Russian trio LRK (one of a sprinkling of overseas guests), with Evgeny Lebedev on piano, Anton Revnyuk on bass and Ignat Kravtsov at the drums. They added a few Russian folk tunes to the contemporary jazz-rock blend and had the crowd on their feet, with non-stop fireworks, jaw-dropping virtuosity and riveting interplay. 'Nebylitsa', named after an out-of-control Russian fairytale, opened with a dizzying, cross-handed piano intro from Lebedev who kickstarted an algorithmic, math-rock groove. There were growling bass pedals, muscular wallops, folky asides and moments of pulsing ambience. 'No Tears' was an emotive ballad with a sweeping dynamic range and 'Plyasovaya', based on a traditional Russian dancing song, was sparkling, with Kravtsov and Revnyuk at full tilt leading fiendish switches of meter before a closing piano accordion feature for Lebedev. All three men have played with some big names (Lebedev's CV includes Jack DeJohnette, Marcus Miller and Terri Lyne Carrington), but they're relatively unknown as a trio. April's If You Have A Dream is their second release. Watch out.
As the sinking sun caught the tops of the buildings and made the gilding glow, I went exploring. Brussels has some excellent jazz clubs and they were all hosting free gigs as part of the festival. The bars around Place Saint-Géry were buzzing by 9pm, with music and punters spilling out into the street. An impromptu kick-around was taking place in the middle of Boulevard Anspach. It felt like you could go anywhere and have a good night.
I ended up in nearby Café Floréo: a boiling, airless room with some vaguely African art on the walls, sat at a table by the window, necking cold Maes Pils as bassist Everton Firmeza (Brazilian, but based in Brussels since 2015) and his multi-national trio stormed through some funked-up latin originals, with a few Hermeto Pascoal numbers thrown in. Firmeza's was one of the few gigs on the programme labelled avant-garde. It wasn't the free improv set I was hoping for, but the group were compelling to watch all the same: thrillingly reactive, totally in sync, switching between feels mid-song and mid-chorus. Firmeza and Italian keys player Piergiorgio Pirro teamed up on the melodies and Beninese drummer Christi Joza Orisha dropped halftime R&B, bossa nova, and rumba feels, stitching needle-sharp patterns on the rim of his snare with his shell-adorned dreads dancing about his shoulders. Towards the end of the set, they invited excellent flautist Sylvain Boisvert to join them and he added breathy multiphonics and snatches of fluttering counterpoint.
The following night, I squeezed into the jam packed Music Village, a characterful club done out in vermillion and gold, just behind the town hall. It's only been open since 2000 but it already feels like an institution. There I caught a set of sunshiney salsa and son from Rey Cabrera, a singer from Santiago de Cuba who moved to Brussels in 2003. Backed by his top flight septet, the Amigos, he span yarns about campesino life in a voice as rich as coffee, his tres dancing amid the hip-swinging grooves.
My last stop, and my favourite, was L'Archiduc, an art deco gem in a building that dates back to the 1930s, where pianist Jeremy Dumont and his trio of bassist Daniele Cappucci and drummer Fabio Zamagni were swinging hard enough to blow the coloured glass out of the windows, burning through 'Dolphin Dance' and Monk's 'Rhythm a Ning' amid whistles and cheers. It's a dream venue for small band jazz, a misshapen rotunda, no more than 10 metres across, painted a cheery, paddling pool blue. For Dumont's set there was a baby grand wedged between the two chrome-sheathed pillars in the centre of the room. You sit around the edges or lean over the railing of a small balcony, tucked just below the ceiling, and watch from above. Either that or you pick a spot by the bar, where I was, all but perched on Zamagni's shoulder, so close to the action I could feel the draft from the ride cymbal and see the sweat running down Cappucci's face as he dug in for one more sinew-stretching chorus.
Of the ones that got away, I was sorry to miss Belgian guitar great Philip Catherine, who was playing Sounds Jazz Club, as well as exciting young drummer Antoine Pierre. Pierre's Urbex, which came out last year, is exquisite – an album of engrossing, orchestral sound collages scored for octet. It's what you'd get if you paired Maria Schneider with Leafcutter John and Bad Bad Not Good – restlessly creative, thought-provoking and free. A lot like real world Brussels.
– Thomas Rees