Spaced-out performance is easier in a park expanse. Pandemic people-separation was observed, as the annual Citadelic festival persevered, even if it eventually happened a month later than its accustomed May–June dates. Presenting sounds that are on the improvising edge of jazz, or even completely free-form, the concept of not flooding the park with folks was manageable, given that the Citadelic musical stance is somewhat esoteric. It magnetized a crowd that would not be too far beyond virus-era number-limits anyway, even if the festival was presented in its accustomed scale. There were, of course, changes beyond the month’s delay. Citadelic would usually spread over five days in the Flemish city of Gent’s much bigger Citadelpark, but for 2020 it mostly inhabited the smaller, more manageable Astridpark, on three separate single weekend days, plus one added afternoon set in the Pierkespark. Also, the acts were indigenous to Belgium, whereas in any other year there would be a significant proportion of artists from other Euro-lands, as well as the USA and perhaps Japan.
Citadelic has been organized for 13 years by the adventurous Gent promoter Rogé Verstraete. He used to run one of the city’s best music bars, El Negocito, with its Chilean cuisine and pisco sour orientation. Verstraete also formed a record label, el Negocito Records, which is now celebrating a full decade of adventure. He’s central to the alternative Gent music scene, regularly presenting the area’s finest players, such as trumpeter Bart Maris, drummer Giovanni Barcella, and bassist/sculptor Peter Jacquemyn.
Coming up from Brussels, the Mâäk Quintet seized a prime early afternoon placement, the sun beaming strong, especially pleasing since the previous few days had been a tad turbulent. This outfit recently celebrated 20 years together, and they now exist in several size-and-concept versions. This five-piece is the burning core, featuring founder Laurent Blondiau (trumpet), old hand Michel Massot (sousaphone), medium-duration hand Jeroen Van Herzeele (tenor saxophone), along with more recent inductees Grégoire Tirtiaux (alto saxophone) and Samuel Ber (drums). Working with skewed, shifting atonality, the quintet slung their horn patterns onto a mostly pneumatic rhythm bed, maintaining a street parade band nature, even though (this time) rooted to the stage.
Unison statements allowed odd individual splinterings, as a hornman might feel like a shot of personal expression, winding almost to the nether regions, then springing back full-force. At each of these junctures, the remaining front-line pair would keep up the riffing pulse, supplemented by the angular base antics of drums and sousaphone. This latter body-wrapping horn has an existence of its own within Mâäk, consistently soloing at the subterranean end, restless yet articulate, pointedly flatulent. Massot was constantly burrowing into a fresh hole, huffing out the deep dirt, winding around a new tunnel of groove, making carefully placed low smudges on his way. The quintet’s romping complexity is reminiscent of the great Arthur Blythe’s best works, also suggesting some of the melodic themes employed by Don Cherry’s Nu, or The Leaders, incorporating marked African, New Orleans, and global-eastern elements.
In the evening, prime position was given to the Artan Buleshkaj Quartet, led by the locally-based composer/baritone guitarist, and also featuring Rob Banken, Steven Delannoye (saxophones), and Mathias De Waele (drums). Prog jazz criss-crossing established a nimble grinding motion, alto and tenor horns tussling, the leader roughed up via abrasive effects and general amplifier scurf, building a devilish, riffing mass. As it’s his quartet, Buleshkaj adopted the dominant presence, the saxophones meshing in a supporting role, their players switching to clarinet and bass clarinet for the second number. Buleshkaj waded through a thick pedal sustain, his vocals harmonized, the dark reeds sombre in scope, coolly articulated.
Finally, mid-set, clarinet took the lead, supported by an alto-saxophone-and-drums argument. Then Delannoye, by now the most neglected presence in this band, got to take a tenor solo, again as part of an inflamed discussion with the drums. The toughened rock nerviness returned on “Solenoid Creatures,” as Buleshkaj performed metal ballet pirouettes with his axe, coaxing out a variegated show of moods, from cracked-leathery to chiffon-licked.
Earlier, Steven De bruyn had opened up the evening, playing large-beast chromatic harmonica alongside bassist Jasper Hautekiet, making much use of live-looped harp-parts to form foundations for improvisation. Slow and graceful, De bruyn formed a new kind of orchestral breadth, often sounding like a harmonium, or a bank of analog synthesizers. The duo managed to infiltrate shades of soundtracking, hip-hop, jazz, and blues, the music never quite latching onto a dominant identity.
Citadelic provided an exemplary observation of virus regulations, assisted by an audience who knew how to navigate the situation, that would doubtless be harder to achieve during a day festival of more populist musics. Everyone had room to contemplate, and the park scenery added to the aura, with the rarely observed, tastily potent Lousberg organic beer shipped in all the way from the Het Hinkelspel cheese-maker market next door. It’s specially brewed for them in nearby Lochristi, just to keep everything at a close distance.