The Brussels Jazz Orchestra Sells Out Lincoln Center with Their Edgy, Historically Rich Multimedia Program

by delarue

The Brussels Jazz Orchestra wound up their stand at Jazz at Lincoln Center Sunday night with their sixth consecutive sold-out show. There’s a reason why European big bands are so popular and highly regarded: because they’re funded with government money, they can rehearse rigorously and as a result tend to be extraordinarily tight. What differentiates this blazing, hard-swinging group from their fellow large ensembles in, say, Copenhagen or Berlin? A sense of humor and outside-the-box creativity, just for starters. Their program  for this stand was titled Graphicology, an enterprising and wildly successful attempt at integrating a graphic novel into a concert, the band playing seamlessly and boisterously along with projections of text and illustrations by Philippe Paquet, bringing some pretty crazy stories from throughout the history of jazz to life with fire and verve and sardonic humor. Paquet, a jazz bassist himself, is well suited to this group, his stark black-and-white images providing context and storylines that the ensemble matched with split-second precision. The group’s fondness for playing live scores to silent films probably has a lot to do with how smoothly the production went: one would assume as well that the projectionists were doing double duty reading from a score. And beyond the visuals, the music was lush, and stormy, and often exhilarating.

The orchestra opened with Italian composer Enrico Pieranunzi’s bustling, uneasy shuffle It Speaks for Itself, from the group’s recent Pieranunzi tribute album. Pianist Vincent Bruyninckx ambled through the outskirts of bop, after which bassist Jos Machtel stalked through a brooding modal solo, dredging the piece’s murky, Monk-inspired undercurrents. They followed with Bert Joris’ brass-fueled clave theme Signs & Signatures, a vamping vehicle for trumpeter Jeroen Van Malderen, who chose his spots judiciously, followed by a smokily animated solo by baritone saxophonist Bo Van der Werf.

The Graphicology numbers were choreographed down to the second, whether that meant a chase scene, several whiz-bang gangland sequences (Harlem in the 1930s through the 50s plays big here) or slowly simmering crescendos rising to either sheer terror, exhilaration or triumph. Alto saxophonist Dieter Lembourg’s cinematic Bird As Told to Miles the Cat traced the doomed trajectory of Charlie Parker’s up-and-down final years dynamically and energetically via Miles Davis autobiographical narrative , with frequent allusions to Bird repertoire. Likewise, trumpeter Pierre Drevet’s Louis mashed up a sequence of Satchmo riffs and themes against a backdrop of Louis Armstrong’s hardscrabble New Orleans upbringing and eventual rise to star status in New York. Trumpeter Nico Schepers made the most of one opportunity after another to voice both the vaudevillian and soulfully plaintive sides of Armstrong’s music. The group concluded with Bert Joris’ sweeping noir suite The Portrait, in tandem with a rollercoast ride of a script illustrating the confluence of mob violence and avant garde art in late Renaissance era Harlem.

Those lucky enough to be in Brussels at the beginning of next month can see the Brussels Jazz Orchestra playing live scores to silent films starring Mary Pickford and Harold Lloyd on April 1 at 8:15 PM at Flagey at 27/5 Belvédèrestraat; cover is €20.