On the sunlit uplands that surround our publication’s multi-billion dollar premises, the Editorial Board of Green Man Review and their cronies swan about, eating chocolate sent in by artists hoping to bribe their way to good reviews, then flit from Charles de Lint’s newest champagne-lubricated book launch to cocktails to mark the start of Fairport Convention’s latest North American tour, before finally repairing to the luxurious editorial suite and listening to the finest music sent in by the mega-recording companies while plying each other with mead, cider and other delights. Meanwhile, down in the infernal bowels of the GMR complex, the hacks are grinding away to churn out reviews of the bizarre material spurned by the toffs upstairs. Thus it is that I find myself listening to these two oddities. And very odd they are!
The Charlie Moorland Trio describes its own recording thus: “A collection of swing/French/Gypsy/trad and original material, including some French musette transcribed from disc, jazz from the real book, a Romanian Gypsy tune ‘Doda’ from a trad score and Macedonian tunes from Linsey Pollak’s collection.”
As an accurate description, this is not a bad start, although if the writer wanted to be exhaustive he or she might have mentioned torch songs, klezmer and bebop too – and all that in only 12 tracks! It’s the opening number that first recalls bebop, for it is nothing other than an extremely odd version of Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud.” You would not normally expect to hear this piece begin with solo violin, soon joined by clarinet, both of them soaring off into some decidedly avant garde realms while the acoustic guitarist lays down a Django Reinhardt rhythm track and the band then starts swinging more conventionally, with the first of many nods to the Reinhardt/Grapelli/Hot Club of France sound. Well, that’s the surprising start to a CD that packs a lot more surprises.
The three instruments already mentioned are the chosen vehicles of the trio’s members: there is Seamus Kirkpatrick on clarinets and vocals, Jan Van Dijk on violin and Jevan Cole on guitar. In addition, the booklet lists the special guests: there is Dominic Hede, who plays drums on some tracks, and also, confusingly, Jan Van Dijk and Jevan Cole on banjo, although how two members of the trio can also be special guests is not the least of the mysteries about this record. Attentive readers will already have spotted another mystery: if this is the Charlie Moorland Trio, where is Mr (it seems not to be Ms) Moorland? Well, he is also listed among the special guests, with “spiritual guidance” attributed to him, and the tombstones drawn in the booklet rather imply that poor Charles is no longer of this world (along with Miles Davis and Stéphane Grappelli, who are most certainly dead). I hoped to find enlightenment on the record company’s Web site, but the link didn’t work. A little websurfing informed me that this band hails from Brisbane in Australia, but I could find out little else.
The jazz is mainly in the first part of the CD, with more beboppish sounds in track 2, a Seamus Kirkpatrick composition entitled “Destroy All Nature,” a drum-driven piece on which the composer treats us to some comical scat singing in addition to his clarinet-playing. He has rather mixed vocal ambitions, since track 3, “Traditionnel Musette,” which is a good description of the music, even if the French is ungrammatical, also includes some la-la-la-ing. This music is alleged to be the theme from “The Gilbert Principal,” although a Web search failed to turn up any work of that name, just as Van Dijk’s jazzy composition “Pardon My Hat” purports to be the theme from “Pickering’s Folly,” another work that is equally unknown to search engines. Later on the disc, Kirkpatrick performs – dead straight – the torch song “Angel Eyes,” which I last heard performed by Frank Sinatra about 40 years ago. Jazz pops up again in a swinging version of McCoy Tyner’s “Blues On The Corner” – here unfortunately attributed to McCoy Turner – and there is also a Miles Davis tune, “Dig,” which brings out more Reinhardt/Grapelli echoes and gradually degenerates into “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
As the CD progresses it gradually seems to move towards a fascination with central European/Gypsy/Balkan style music, which this instrumentation frankly suits better than it does modern jazz. Apart from the Romanian and Macedonian pieces mentioned in the liner notes, there is also what looks like a Hungarian tune.
The eclectic choice of material suggests that this is one of those small-town bands that has to be able to turn its hand to any style of music in order to satisfy the various publics to which it is obliged to play. OK, I know Brisbane is not really a small town, but you know what I mean. All in all, Excentrique is an extremely strange collection of music by three musicians (plus occasional drummer) who really seem to be having a whale of a time and probably don’t care too much who is listening, which may be just as well if, as the persistent inaccessibility of Treeskin’s website implies, the record company no longer exists. In any case, this CD is in the category of those that you buy after a gig because you had a great evening, and probably not one that you would search out unless this eclectic and unusual music particularly appeals to your curiosity. Nonetheless, it has to be said that the musicianship is of an extremely high standard, with a display of technique on both violin and clarinet that suggests classical training to my (possibly inexpert) ears.
Jaune Toujours, which translates from French as “always yellow” or perhaps “still yellow” is a totally different experience, but scores a similarly high mark in the eccentricity department. Here I have to declare an interest: for me this is a neighbourhood band that regularly performs here in downtown Brussels at the most diverse events, often out-of-doors. The group is part of the loose circle of musicians who make up the “Choux de Bruxelles” collective – the name means Brussels sprouts, and this is aggressively Bruxellois music. Choux de Bruxelles have a Web site. This CD reflects the multi-cultural character of the city, which doesn’t just date from its post-1958 status as home to the major institutions of the European Community and its successor the European Union, or to large immigrant communities from the Maghreb, Turkey and the Congo. Brussels has always been a cosmopolitan and polyglot city that punched above its weight, despite a certain dogged provincialism in its inhabitants’ lifestyle.
This CD reflects this melting pot. The songs are sung mostly in French, and if you don’t master this language (if you do you’ll notice that the diction is admirably clear) you would probably not buy the CD just for the music, entertaining though this often is. One of the songs is performed in the Flemish variety of Dutch, the second language of Brussels, which was once a Flemish city until the superior power of neighbouring French culture (French-speaking Belgium begins a handful of miles away) turned its citizens into ex-Flemish speakers with a slightly shaky grasp of French. The resulting Brussels vernacular contains some interesting mixtures and literally translated expressions, and whichever of the two languages a Bruxellois is speaking, there will be words and whole phrases from the other.
The group is led by Piet Maris, who sings, plays piano and accordion, as well as something called a “piano punaise,” which is an intriguing concept, since a punaise in French can mean both a bug or louse and a thumb-tack or drawing pin. He also wrote all the lyrics and, sometimes with help from one or more of the other band-members, the melodies too. He is accompanied by a percussionist calling himself Théophane Raballand (one suspects that this is not his real name), while Mathieu Verkaeren (French forename, Flemish surname is the most usual combination around here) plays bass and guitar. The rest of the band’s members play wind instruments: Mattias Laga blows soprano sax and assorted clarinets, while Bart Maris, Yves Fernandez, Sam Versweyveld and Bert Bernaerts all play trumpet, as well as doubling on a variety of other brass instruments. This brass-heavy line-up enables the group to switch between brass band, soul horn section and Latin jazz sounds, depending on what the song requires. In addition, the band is joined in places by the Nouvelle Harmonie Bruxelloise d’Accordéons, made up of no less than 12 box-squeezers.
Piet Maris’s vocals are highly distinctive, since much of the time he not so much sings as speaks/intones the lyrics, rather as Bob Dylan does at times (but the comparison ends there!). The mood is well set by the opening number, “ici bxl” (all titles are in lower case). I should explain that Bxl is the usual local abbreviation for Bruxelles, or Brussels, so this title is actually pronounced “Ici Bruxelles”, which is the way the local radio studio used to announce itself; in other words, “This is Brussels,” and the song is an irreverent paean to the city, with echoes of one of Brussels’s greatest musical sons, Jacques Brel and containing so many arch allusions and references that it would take me a whole article to explain them.
The remaining songs are not so geographically linked to the band’s hometown. Indeed, one of them, “demain peut-être” (meaning “tomorrow maybe”) seems consciously intended to make the listener think of Paris, with its references to the Bastille and the Opera. The words of this song evoke a regretful postponement of the revolution – which we’ll return to maybe tomorrow. This is presumably an ironic cross-reference to the album’s title. The Flemish song, “mooi weer” (“fine weather”), which describes the effects of the first hot weather on the big city, may well be about Brussels, although it could be about any city. Most of the other songs express a certain cynicism and world-weariness, even disgust, together with a feeling of compassion for the world’s losers, such as the “réfugiés sans frontières” (“refugees without frontiers”) of track 4. Gypsies and migrants also crop up in Maris’s obliquely political lyrics, and there is even a throwaway line “meanwhile in Guantanamo” in the song “y mientras tanto.”
This is a recording whose irregular and tricky rhythms, jerky mixtures of Cuban jazz and Brussels café music and constantly surprising big-band arrangements deserve to be widely heard. Regrettably, the band is so closely tied to its local public – if you sing in both Brussels French and Brussels Flemish, you are consciously limiting your target audience – that the disc is unlikely to appeal to a wide public outside my hometown. If you want to get under the skin of Brussels, capital of the surreal, as Maris’s lyrics call it, this CD would be a good place to start.
(Treeskin Music, 2003)
(Choux de Bruxelles, 2004)