Belgio-Contemporary Progressive Jazz And World Music
Every so often at DPRP, we like to take you on a journey to the outer edges of progressive music. Our Special Editions are usually themed to a specific musical style or to artists from a particular country. This time we are doing both!
DPRP's Owen Davies takes you on a trip to discover five new releases from Belgian bands that incorporate contemporary progressive jazz and world music.
Some unexpected delights await your ears...
Azmari — Samā'ī
It's not often that when I hear a new instrumental album I immediately want to play it again. Ever since I first heard Samā'ī earlier this year, it has been consistently on my musical playlist.
After some six months it still sounds as interesting and fresh as when I first heard it. I am smitten by its blend of afro-jazz, psychedelia, funk, dub and Turkish and Middle Eastern melodies.
Somehow, the band manages to blend so many divergent influences into something that sounds familiar, yet is refreshingly unique. The album contains a succession of wonderfully-catchy themes and melodies. A pulsating rhythmic groove runs through many of the tracks and it is easy to be lost in the intricate patterns that the band skilfully weaves. Samā'ī is by turns coy, mysterious, brash, sensual and frantic. It never disappoints, in its ability to create a series of soundscapes that compels the head to roll, and enables the imagination to soar.
Despite being superficially-accessible and consequently very easy to listen to, the album has a complex rhythmic core and also possesses great depth. The excellence of the playing and high standard of the arrangements ensures that there is always something different or interesting to hear and identify.
Azmari are a six-piece band. They were formed in 2015 and are based in Brussels. Samā'ī is the group's first full-length release. It marks an identifiable progression and gratifying development of their style, when compared with their enjoyable debut EP Ekera released in 2020. The members of the ensemble are Arthur Ancion ond rums, Basile Bourtembourg behind the keyboards, saaz and percussion, Jojo Demeijer on percussion, Niels D'haegeleer on bass, Mattéo Badet with the saxophone and kaval, and Ambroos De Schepper on saxophone and flute.
There are a number of standout points and tracks. Many of the compositions possess a relentless drive and are adorned with an adrenaline-inducing energy. However, the slow-paced beginning and the predominant use of the Saaz (a Turkish stringed instrument) during Azalaï changes the mood of the album, and provides a lighter touch and a momentary, unplugged resonance.
This piece is notable for its swirling rhythms and delightful melody that dances and swirls like a flickering wick set against an impenetrable, ink-black sky. Later, when the deep emotive resonance of the saxophones illuminate proceedings, the dynamic of the tune changes. It becomes a forceful, buttock-swaying extravaganza where light and shade and the clever use of volume have a clear part to play.
The album has many prominent keyboard parts, but for the most-part the melodies are carried by the single or dual use of saxophones, and on occasions some finely-fluttered flute lines. Nevertheless it is perhaps the intriguing organ tone (utilised on many occasions) that stays in the memory long after the album has ended. It rises from deep within tunes such as Kamilari, Kugler and Azalaï.
Its quirky tonal qualities ensure that it quickly breaks free of its shackles and any expected aural constraints, to envelop the listener in a strangely-fitting cloak of twisted Wurlitzer sounds. The compelling flavour and unique voice of the keyboard/organ on these tracks certainly gives the album a unique flavour. Its use in conjunction with pulsating percussion sections, shifting rhythms and a variety of instruments, underlines the band's use of an exciting mixture of ethnic and unusual sounds.
The use of the keyboard in this manner, and the tones employed, remind me of the way that the Hoodna Orchestra have utilised a similar sound to great effect in their excellent Alem Alem release. If you are familiar with their work in tracks such as Yasalefnew Zemen, Tey Gedyeleshem and Ashkaru, then you will probably understand the comparison.
Keyboard player Bourtembourg also excels during the lengthy Kadiköy. During a solo section, his skilful keyboard work explores a number of directions in an exciting and inventive way that at times led me to draw comparisons with the style and tones sometimes employed by Mike Rat ledge. The length of the tune gives an opportunity for many members of the band to step into the spotlight and improvise. The saxophone solo that occurs in the first half of the piece is absolutely delightful and is one of the standout occasions where one of the performers is given an extended opportunity to fully express themselves.
Kadiköy contains many of the ingredients that makes Samā'ī such a satisfying experience. Its final minutes are particularly powerful. The tune centres around the relentless chugging effect of two saxophones playing a series of repeated phrases in unison. As the volume and dynamic attack of this duo of reeds reaches a crescendo, the accompanying drums and bass fade to nothing, creating a haunting conclusion. It's a great way to end a composition.
A number of other things define the album. The bass is always at the centre of things and its gruff, forceful power in tunes like Kamilari underpins some of the album's most-infectious moments. D'haegeleer's ability to hold a gripping groove is undeniable. When this is accompanied by the dexterous kit work of Ancion and the cacophonous range of sounds of percussionist Demeijer, the result is simply mesmerising. Nowhere is this seen to greater effect, than in the joyous Ethiopian/afro-beat groove of the excellent Kugler. It's an uplifting tune that displays some excellent interplay between the two sax players.
There is a satisfying flute break in the excellent Cosmic Masadāni, but any assessment of this album would not be complete without some mention of the satisfying way in which the flute takes a prominent role in tunes such as Tariq Al Sahara, Fat Ari and Doni.
De Schepper has a lovely tone, and its warming effect provides the album with a different texture and an invigorating flurry of flowing, melodic effects. Fat Ari is probably the most satisfying tune that features the flute. During an atmospheric dub section the use of the flute in combination with echo effects, creates a mystic vibe where flickering-flute lines flutter like air bubbles through the spacious soundscape, to break upon the surface in a series of sparkling notes.
Of course, I could ramble on and on about why I find Samā'ī so interesting and satisfying. I am tempted to do so, but don't worry, I won't!
Suffice to say, Samā'ī connects with me in every way. It's fresh and invigorating and it satisfies most of my musical preferences. It's one of the most satisfying and interesting debut albums that I have ever heard. Needless to say, I am reasonably confident that it will feature to some degree in my 2021 'best of' list for DPRP.
I hope that my enthusiasm for what it offers has made you curious. If you like instrumental music that is progressive in its outlook and draws upon a wide array of influences, I am sure that you will find this interesting, at the very least.
Watch out though! It might just grab you and take you by surprise. Who knows, you might even find yourself smitten by its recurring motifs, twisting rhythms, and other numerous charms.
Don Kapot — Hooligan
These are the sentiments which Don Kapot throws out with gusto with every belch and burp of the sax, strike of the kit and pull of the bottom string.
Oh I forgot to add two other words: Frantic and Relentless.
No doubt you have got an impression of the ruthless aural violence that awaits an unsuspecting listener.
Don't worry. I will take the full force of the music on your behalf.
It's not often that I feel that the title 'power trio' is justified to a line-up of sax, bass and drums, but on this occasion Don Kapot fully deserves that rather hackneyed description. Over the course of the aptly-titled Hooligan, the band subjects you to the aural equivalent of shattered windows, turned-over refuge bins and in-your-face confrontational abuse.
All of these unsettling acts are delivered (of course) with a sweet smile, a knowing wink, and a defiant thrust of the hips.
The band consists of Giotis Damianidis (bass), Viktor Perdieus (baritone saxophone) and Jakob Warmenbol (drums). The choice of using a baritone sax as the chief weapon for the assault is an inspired one. Its deep gruff, grabs you by the collar. Muscular tones are well-suited for the belligerent style of music which the trio brews up.
The music is, for the most part, characterised by a foot-to-floor push of the accelerator. Strangely, apart from the delightful, melodic beginning of Softly As In A Morning Pancake, one of the other rare occasions when sweet melody takes over from dissonance and bellowing aggression, is in the middle section of the title track. It's only a momentary lull though, as the accelerator is pushed to its limits once again to rattle the roof tiles. It concludes things in a mind-numbing burst of blurring over drive.
The Youtube clip features Whononogono. The spiralling, swirling energy created by the band is palpable. If you watch the clip you will doubtless gain an insight into the sort of reaction that the trio think their energy creates. Luckily, for the good of everyone near me, whilst listening to this rhythmic, eyebrow-twitching, buttock-shifting extravaganza, I managed to restrain myself. I did not dance and felt no desire to bare my wrinkled chest.
Not surprisingly, the band describes themselves as a lifeboat of free-jazz, afro beat and kraut-punk. On the evidence of Hooligan, it's an apt description! However, to my ears the free-jazz description is certainly not particularly prevalent nor relevant. Hooligan is not an album of avant noises, wails and shrieks. The saxophone leads follow a logical pattern. Although a lot of innovation, invention and improvisation occurs, the music is not impenetrable. On the contrary, it is often very accessible.
The opening piece Chinese Cows is particularly ferocious. It begins proceedings with fiery intent. It is one of the most impressive tracks on the album. It has a funky core which enables the sax and thunderous bass lines to joust and interact with freedom and viscous intent, until the piece suddenly ends.
Whilst listening to Pentatonitis B, I found my head inadvertently swaying to its insistent groove. When the pace slackened and a slow sax solo slowly uncoiled, to spurt its disconcerting tones in all directions, I uttered loudly to myself: "'Wow this is bloody ugly beautiful music!"
It's energetic, enthusiastic, frantic and relentless.
I don't think I have got anything else to add!
Echoes Of Zoo — Breakout
Raucous energy, combined with an ability to excite, and the skill to create a refreshing and often unpredictable sound, are probably the principal ingredients that come to mind when experiencing the frothing cauldron of sounds associated with Breakout.
It is an album that wears an unusual patchwork coat of many colours. Its outward appearance might be raw and torn, but the stitching is complex and delicately sewn. Its brazen design and abrasive collar might chaff and aggressively rub, but its finely-crafted cuffs gently embrace with a soothing caress.
Nevertheless, Breakout fits comfortably once you have adapted to its idiosyncratic styling and design. So much so, that I suspect its satisfying fit and unique cut will ward-off any thoughts of it being consigned to the recycle bin for many years to come.
So what is it about this instrumental album that marks it so hard to categorise and put down?
Stylistically, Breakout is a wonderful combination of punchy progressive jazz, played with a frenzied punk attitude with a rasping edge. Alongside elements of indie-styled rock, a number of different influences can also be identified. These include Afro and Arabic rhythms, psychedelia, dub and elements of expansive space rock.
The band cite Rage Against The Machine as one of their major influences, therefore, it is not surprising that Echoes of Zoo's music is often highly-charged.
In Breakout the emphasis is upon providing a series of fist-pumping riffs, leg-shaking grooves and boisterous sax blasts that bellow and bulge. For good measure, there is also a satisfying serving of face-gurning guitar solos.
However, despite some inspired soloing (just check out the cheek-puffing, whisker-twitching, sax spotlight during Lab Mouse Mayhem, or the sharp-fanged guitar pyrotechnics that feature in Rilke's Panther) each composition is tightly crafted and arranged. Nevertheless, the band somehow manages to exude and convey an infectious feeling of fresh-faced excitement and enthusiasm in each piece.
The album uses volume to great effect and the wonderful, well-defined recording quality of the release makes a full use of dynamics. This creates an atmosphere, where precise instrumental passages succumb and morph into a frenzied cacophony, and where a concluding crescendo of tumultuous sounds, all have a part to play.
Echoes of Zoo are based in Belgium and the band consists of Nathan Daems (saxophone), Bart Vervaeck (electric guitar), Lieven Van Pée (electric bass) & Falk Schrauwen (drums). The musicians are very active in the ever-expanding progressive jazz movement in Belgium.
Band leader and principal composer Daems is also a member of Black Flower. Van Pée is also a member of De Beren Gieren. Drummer Schrauwen has also featured in ethio-jazz band Compro Oro.
Breakout is the band's first full-length album. They previously released a self-produced EP in 2019 called Provocations. Breakout marks a significant refinement and development of their style.
The opener gives a clear indication of the type of unfettered playing and visceral aggression that is liberally scattered throughout the release. It is a track that really swings. Its all-out belligerence and strident use of the sax led me to compare it with the work of Aku in their excellent debut album Blind Fury .
Similarly, the title track's ability to tear-up the jazz rule book and infuse it with an unrefined punk-like energy, had me reaching for comparisons with the ground-breaking work of World Service Project.
Nonetheless, the album is not all about unrestrained, aggressive vigour. On rare occasions, it does project some calmer contrasting moods. For example, Bull Blood Boiling offers a change of pace and begins in a languid manner. It meanders gently and cascades in a lolling way, to create a lily pad scene of bobbing leaves drifting on a breeze-rippled pond. Inevitably, any feelings of calming subtlety are soon lost as the volume increases. Ear drums wobble when the tune encounters rocky outcrops and exhibits a chest-shaking saxophone crescendo of sinewy sounds.
My favourite track is probably the aptly-titled Adrenaline Run, although in all honesty Rilke's Panther is equally compelling.
Adrenaline Run (as the name suggest) is not for the faint-hearted. In this piece, the band goes into overdrive and throws out a succession of frantic riffs in all directions. It's hard-hitting energy and relentless foot-stomping appeal is hard to be indifferent to. Repetition is used to great effect, but in the course of this pulse-quickening the track never falls into the trap of being too predictable. The finishing line is reached in fine style. The satisfying manner in which this track ends is an indication of the thought that the band has put into all aspects of this release.
Monkey Burns Lab is one of the most interesting pieces on offer. It includes frantic saxophone outbursts, wound around an Arabic rhythmic melody. There is also an interesting excursion towards space prog with lots of distorted guitars and psychedelic effects. This results in an evocative sense-shaping, time-blurring atmosphere that is moon-lit and mushroom red.
It would be amiss of me not to mention in more detail the shining contribution of Daems and Vervaeck to the album's overall success. As I have intimated, the lung-bursting, explosive interjections of Daems' saxophone are at the heart of much of the release's explosive aggression. His tone, phrasing and imposing puffing-presence adds so much to many of the tracks. His overall contribution transforms what would be a very good album, into an excellent one.
Similarly, there is much to admire in the chunky guitar lines of Vervaeck. His distorted tones, that rage and fire during the middle section of Monkey Burns Lab, are excellent. His choice of effects is very evocative and in some ways the textures employed remind me of the retro-guitar feel of Grovjobb's's debut album. Elsewhere jangly guitar embellishments give an extra layer to the music. It is perhaps this understated and skilful contribution that really gives the ensemble's sound an extra-special something and a satisfying depth.
If I were to be ultra-critical of Breakout there is one point I would make. When the band thrusts the throttle to full, as they frequently do, the onslaught to the senses is a tad too relentless for my taste. Because of this, the unsettling effect of their energetic, gut-wobbling style leaves a prominent impression. Consequently, it is easy to overlook that there is a lot of variety to be found on the album as a whole. Some pieces are just so insistent and powerful that the memory of any changes of mood or moments of subtlety, soon fade to grey.
Any criticism though is perhaps harsh given the fact that Breakout's coat of many aural and unusual colours, fits as snugly as it does.
I certainly won't be parting with mine for many years to come.
I hope their style also suits and fits you!
ECHT! — Inwane
ECHT! are another fine example of the diversity, creativity and vibrancy of the progressive jazz movement in Belgium. Genre descriptions are almost irrelevant as ECHT! draw upon so many diverse influences in pursuit of their art.
The band's music is influenced by electro and hip hop. As a consequence, the album is littered with an abundance of electro swirling and droning keyboard effects, booming bass-lines and treated drum strikes. When the occasion arises however, the group are not afraid to display their jazz roots and credentials, such as in the concluding section of Permanent.
This piece begins with a beautiful piano section that flows effortlessly and creates a harmonious impression. This languid piece is not entirely typical of the mood of many of the other compositions.
The band is made up of bassist Federico Pecoraro, keyboardist Dorian Dumont, drummer Martin Méreau and guitarist Florent Jeunieaux.
The compositions appear to be tightly-spun and there are no obvious sections where improvisation takes place. Despite this, the music is fresh and inventive.
I found the nature of some bulging rhythms and bouncy bulging bass-lines in tunes such as Champi, Kiekebiche, and Drache a little bit too overpowering and lacking subtlety for my taste. In fairness though, the low-end parts are frequently made palatable, or are offset by an assortment of higher-toned keyboard flurries and melodic effects.
However, there is no denying that on occasions the low-end intensity of the album, exemplified by the rattling rumbling of Drache has the potential to vibrate even the heaviest of ornaments from the top shelf.
The bass-line of Charlier is particularly punchy. In this piece, Pecoraro drives things along with a thick tone that is just a perfect accompaniment for the tune's quirky melody, keyboard swells, guitar sweeps and low-end, funky energy. It is a fine track, and its unusual style will ensure that I will return to it often.
500 gr. is an intriguing piece. The band manages to meld a pseudo, big band jazz-style with a raft of electro influences. The result is at the very least unusual and is at times often stunning.
I did not think I was going to enjoy much of Inwane. It's a style of progressive jazz that I am not too familiar with. I am not normally attracted to albums that have an electro feel and which draw heavily upon the influence of electronic textures and effects.
I much prefer jazz-fusion that has aspects of prog or rock as an underlying influence. However, I must admit that I found the whole experience quite refreshing, and overall I was left with lots of admiration for what the band has achieved. In the end, I was glad that I had a relatively receptive attitude to what this album offers.
I found many things about the album interesting and there were a number of occasions when the direction of a tune took me by surprise. For example, Champi contains an unexpected, toe-curling, distorted guitar part to end proceedings.
On the evidence of Inwane, ECHT! have been very successful in their quest to create and develop their own idiosyncratic style. They are able to successfully deliver a sound that has many unique characteristics. The ensemble's ability to meld seemingly incompatible influences into an innovative and inventive mix is very impressive.
Although many aspects of Inwane were not particularly to my taste, I can say with some certainty that when I wish to experience something outside my musical comfort zone, I will no doubt play Inwane again.
ESINAM — Shapes In Twilights Of Infinity
I have always enjoyed hearing the flute in progressive music and some years ago I had the pleasure of creating a three-part special on flute-prog for DPRP (click for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). If I were to add to the feature now, I would probably consider including ESINAM's interesting and engaging Shapes In Twilights Of Infinity album.
The music is composed by ESINAM. She provides flute, vocals, percussion, keyboards, effects, loops, and samples on the album. She is accompanied by Pablo Casella guitars, bassist Axel Gillain and drummer/percussionist Martin Méreau.
It includes a diverse mix of styles across its eleven tracks. These include elements of jazz, fusion, a touch of the blues and tints of all colours in-between, including rhythmic poetry, hip hop and bulging beats.
Much of the release is driven by hip-moving rhythms, and the rhythmic basis of the music can be traced to ESINAMS Ghanaian roots. The album is not afraid to combine soulful jazz ballads like Deep In My Soul with more experimental elements. This satisfying release contains some great jazz-inspired grooves and many fine ensemble workouts.
The album is bound and book-ended by a Prologue and Epilogue. These two tracks, although different, have a number of identifiable similarities sharing similar riffs and melodies. The use of this ploy gives the album a rounded appeal and concludes matters in a satisfying way.
The collective energy and sense of empathy that the band are able to generate in outstanding tunes such as Infinity and Birds Fly is particularly notable and showcases the band's abilities to great effect. Similarly, the wonderful introduction of Lost Dimension is simply a great piece of jazz-fusion. The blustering flute solo which follows is equally impressive.
The flute is the principal instrument and the release contains a plethora of outstanding solos. These are by-turns exciting and meditative. Her flute work perfectly fits the context of the composition. Consequently, her fluttering trills are sometimes subtle and sometimes brash. However, ESINAM's great sense of timing and choice of tones, always displays a large amount of skill.
The most aggressive flute playing probably occurs in the opening sections of the impressive New Dawn. It includes some delightful, overblown flurries that work perfectly when set against the twisting rhythmic background of the piece. Despite the fine flute work, the tune is not a personal favourite. The spoken poetry of Nadeem Din-Gabisi is without doubt an atmospheric addition to the composition, but over time I found that I would skip this portion of the track.
There is no doubt that ESINAM's performance as a vocalist adds an extra dimension to the album. Her beautifully phrased contribution to the melodically-rich and quite outstanding Let It Be, is simply wonderful.
However, I could not help but compare Shapes In Twilights Of Infinity with Naïssam Jalal's outstanding Un autre monde. Both albums wear a vast array of influences. Both albums are rich in rhythms taken from across the globe.
There were times when I wished that ESINAM would blow the silver tube with greater gusto, and force-out the notes with the emotive, spiteful aggression that Naissam Jallal sometimes does. Similarly, Jalal's wordless vocals during Un autre monde portray a large range of emotions. Her innovative scatting, interspersed by rapid flute interjections during the magnificent Buleria Sarkhat Al Ard, is one of the most mesmerising features of that release.
With hindsight, the comparison is rather unfair as Shapes In Twilights Of Infinity conveys a totally different set of moods. Indeed, ESINAM's delightful vocal accompaniments, work fantastically well in tunes such as Lost Dimensions, and in the context of the album as a whole. Similarly, her finely-blown and precisely-sculpted flute lines work perfectly and garland the percussive elements of many of the compositions with a delightful flourish.
There are many enchanting moments during the release. Although the majority of the compositions have a great melodic appeal, there are many occasions when an unexpected shift in direction occurs or another rhythmic interlude develops. Over the course of the album this keeps things fresh and interesting.
I enjoyed many aspects of Shapes In Twilights Of Infinity, and it is certainly an album that I will return to on many occasions.
I hope that my observations have made you curious about what this album has to offer. In broader terms I hope that this set of reviews has persuaded you to check out some wonderful progressive jazz that is originating from Belgium at the moment.