Microtonal piano chart hits meet portentous percussion and electronics in the magnificent Belgian city of Gent | Jazzwise

Martin Longley adjusts his seating position, as el Negocito Records explores bewitching depths of alternative approaches, hosting a pair of album release shows at Gent’s hallowed music venue Handelsbeurs…

The roots of Gent record label el Negocito writhe and wriggle deep down into that city’s jazz and improvised music bedrock. The creation of Rogé Verstraete, Negocito has been prolifically releasing out-there albums since 2009. Verstraete also runs the annual Citadelic festival, as well as promoting regular gigs at the SMAK visual arts museum. In the old days he also operated a bar called Negocito, specialising in pisco sours, Chilean food and spikily free-form music sessions. Following the Brussels Jazz Festival, Jazzwise took the train to this magnificent Flemish city, to witness a pair of album release shows at the Handelsbeurs venue. Its name meaning something like ‘stock exchange’, this august joint has recently attempted a switch to ‘HA Concerts’, but that surely won’t catch on, as all the locals appear set on using the old name. Branding, huh? Multifunction Socket

Microtonal piano chart hits meet portentous percussion and electronics in the magnificent Belgian city of Gent | Jazzwise

It’s one of the major venues on the semi-alternative European touring circuit, presenting many musical styles in a dignified old edifice that’s been tweaked by a pristine-bass sound system, attention to subtle lighting, and a performing space that’s clearly malleable, without fixed chairs, and having an ability to react to the desires of the music itself. There’s also a permeable relationship between the bar and the stage-space, even during classical gigs.

The Belgian pianist Seppe Gebruers appeared at the Citadelic festival in 2019, as part of a freely improvising trio. He specialises in simultaneously fingering a pair of antique pianos, tuned a quarter tone apart to facilitate a microtonal resonance. His new album, Playing With Standards, is a three disc set that finds Gebruers mulling over a songbook of jazz and Broadway material, the grist of which is not always immediately recognisable.

He perches with the keyboards forming two sides of a triangle, one hand on each instrument. The audience sits on a surrounding circle of chairs, concentrating intently. The lighting is dim. There’s a sense of the bathyspheric lowering heard in ‘The Sinking Of The Titanic’, by Gavin Bryars, as Gebruers favours one piano (which we could consider the primary), before answering his own questions on the other (perhaps the sympathetic drone, or the secret embellisher). A thematic phrase might begin on one, then continue across the way, the relationship invariably becoming more complex as the number progresses.

The Gebruers approach is one that will doubtless divide his listeners. When we’re roaming free, microtonal activity can be a blessing, but when we have (sometimes) a hundred years of song-history at play, there is a certain ingrained expectation of how a tune develops and resolves. Microtonal music often sounds in its prime when located in a jazz or folk music context, or blues, or rock, utilising some kind of bottleneck equivalent. The piano is that most conservative of instruments, more solidly rooted than any in conventional systems. Gebruers is completely aware of this, of course. This presents a challenge, even to those of us who risk surfing the violent waters of extreme sonics. 

Your scribe could swear that he was being immersed in ‘Singin’ In The Rain’, at one stage (even though it’s not on the disc-set). Here, the drops are acid. We could call this ‘slide piano’, as Gebruers gently shakes his head from side-to-side, as if deciding which instrument to favour. Standards reverberated in the veil of dreams, or in an addled, stoned state, through a filter, a fragment, a crack of light, harmony crushed together. Gebruers certainly wants to bend the perceptions. One of his best effects is when he courts stasis, maintaining a repeat trilling on both instruments, sustained as the hammers form a growing lattice of near-sympathetic resonance.

A few days earlier, the Belgian composer Heleen van Haegenborgh premiered her ‘Squaring The Circle’, also newly released on Negocito. Although innovative, this extended work for her own electronics and four percussionists holds a more direct appeal, descended from the powerful and atmospheric narratives created by Varèse, Xenakis and Stockhausen. Haegenborgh’s methods are strongly influenced by mathematics, but there’s not room to untangle those numerics here, and anyway, without such advance knowledge her piece will sound deeply organic, wild, dark and pagan. 

There are large gongs, timpani and bass drums, with electronics that carry an earthquake rumble during certain climactic points. Although doubtless influenced by academic electroacoustic practices, it’s clear to hear that Haegenborgh is intimate with modern dancefloor dub strategies. There are thick sheets of metal, and a rainstick on a metal stand, easy to tip. There is also a set of lone tubular bells, one for each player. Sometimes the percussionists bow lightly, at others they boom with a combined kick. The composer stands at the back of the room, next to the mixing engineer, issuing instructions in his ear,  all the way. Her precise intentions are translated immediately into diverse sonic rupturings and oscillations, from brutal bass up to tingling triangles.

Besides these two recent releases, Negocito is also looking forward to a soon-coming album featuring saxophonist John Dikeman, bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake, recorded live at Café Oto…

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Microtonal piano chart hits meet portentous percussion and electronics in the magnificent Belgian city of Gent | Jazzwise

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