My Benelux jazz trip




Pascal Dorban's tour of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands lets him experience four weekends packed with jazz played by musicians from around the globe

Attending four jazz festivals in a row might seem a bit crazy to many people but not necessarily for a genuine jazz aficionado. Being already familiar with the selected festivals, the decision was easily taken (further supported by the relatively short distance between each festival and my home town in Luxembourg).

My first stop was Liège, a major Walloon city. Among other things, it is famous for its vibrant centre, the so-called Carré (square) which in the evening fills with hundreds of local university students and partygoers of all ages. Three years ago, the Mithra Jazz Festival left the old Palais des Congrès to relocate to the city centre, where its concerts are spread across six major venues, all very close together. The 28th of its kind, this year’s edition was so popular that for the first time in the history of the festival a few gigs were even sold out. The reason for this success lies in the ability of the organisers to bring together top international players, like the highly distinctive trumpet players Avishai Cohen, Ambrose Akinmusire (pictured below left by Brian Payne) and Tom Harrell, as well as soul singer Selah Sue and Mélanie de Biasio, Belgium’s most famous vocalist.

After four intensive days in Liège, the time had come to rest a bit and prepare for my second stop, less than 20 km from home. Even though the seventh edition of the Like A Jazz Machine Festival in Dudelange, a small city in the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg, was not as glamorous as last year’s, there were still a few delightful surprises, especially from the Luxembourg jazz scene.

Further to an improvised off-stage collaboration by Luxembourg saxophone player Maxime Bender and Joachim Kühn the year before, it was decided that the famous German pianist would join Bender’s band for an artist in residence project at Kühn’s villa in Ibiza. The results were excellent and drew many jazz fans to the Opderschmelz venue on the third day of the festival. A second great surprise came on Friday, from another artist in residence: indeed, Luxembourg drummer Michel Meis’s quartet (his first-ever project as a leader) was equal in quality to Enrico Pieranunzi’s US quartet that followed. With 15 concerts (originally 16, but Nasheet Waits’s gig had to be cancelled at the last minute) spread over four days, the performance of the Michel Reis double quartet on Sunday was another highlight of this year’s festival.

The third festival on my list was held in the Netherlands. The beautiful mid-sized city of Den Bosch was the capital of Brabant during the lifetime of its most famous inhabitant, Hieronymus Bosch, whose statue stands on the main square. For 45 years in a row during the long Whitsun weekend, the main square and a few outdoor venues nearby have been transformed by Jazz In Duketown, the place to be for more than 150,000 attendees of all ages, jazz experts and lay people alike. All gigs are free of charge and the event is a great opportunity to hear and see international stars play for a packed audience: musicians like John Scofield or Roberto Fonseca, or Phronesis teamed up with the New Rotterdam Jazz Orchestra. Dutch players had their time to shine as well, including veterans Han Bennink (pictured right by Gianfranco Rota) and Ack van Rooyen, and one of the most famous Dutch saxophone players on the current scene, Yuri Honing. Last but not least, trumpet player Itamar Borochov and guitarist Yotam Silberstein, each leaders of their own quartet, proved once again how uniquely talented they are.

For my fourth and last stop, I drove to Brussels, where another free festival is held each year, generally in late May. Formerly the Brussels Jazz Marathon, it was renamed the Brussels Jazz Weekend last year. The three-day festival, with open-air venues and packed bars and restaurants, is spread across four districts. The biggest and nicest stage has always been Brussels’ Grand-Place, graced on Sundays by the Lundis d’Hortense, an organisation whose musician members work hard to promote Belgian jazz. Unlike Jazz In Duketown, which offers a good mix of international and Dutch names, the Brussels Jazz Weekend focuses mainly on Belgian jazz projects. Philip Catherine has always been an obvious choice for the organisers, who probably couldn’t imagine not granting Belgium’s most famous guitar player at least one gig on the Grand-Place. Among other highlights of the weekend, of particular note were Stéphane Mercier’s brand-new project with a CD release planned for the end of the year, as well as the young band Delvita.

Sadly, time does fly and before the upcoming summer festivals I can only rest and listen to the few CDs picked up here and there during those four long weekends jam-packed with jazz.

More information on these festivals can be found on the relevant websites:

Mithra Jazz Festival
Like A Jazz Machine
Jazz In Duketown
Brussels Jazz Weekend


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