Thrill festival to bring best of Brussels jazz to Edinburgh

I’m looking at a headless man playing a piano. Having spent the afternoon amid wall-to-wall Magritte in Brussels’ Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts, I may have overdosed on surrealism, but from where I’m sitting, the Belgian jazz pianist Martin Salemi, performing in Brussels’ Flagey centre, is intently stooped at the keyboard, head down, his back to me.
Esinam - just one of the many artists appearing in Thrill: Jazz From BrusselsEsinam - just one of the many artists appearing in Thrill: Jazz From Brussels
Esinam - just one of the many artists appearing in Thrill: Jazz From Brussels

Salemi’s headlessness may be mere illusion, but there’s nothing cryptic about his superb playing, accompanied by Fil Caporali on double bass and drummer Toine Cnockaert. And Edinburgh audiences have a chance to appreciate the trio for themselves when they play the Jazz Bar next weekend as part of Thrill: Jazz from Brussels, a three-day showcase presented by Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival.

With concerts at the Queen’s Hall, Jazz Bar and St Bride’s, as well as a street “mini-carnival,” Thrill will not only provide a vivid snapshot of the thriving Brussels jazz scene, but present visiting players alongside Scottish performers.

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Belgium, of course, was the birthplace of the Hot Club guitarist Django Reinhardt and home to both saxophone inventor Adolphe Sax and harmonica wizard Toots Thielemans but, as I discovered at last month’s Brussels Jazz Festival, the country’s jazz scene is eclectic in the extreme.

Among the Scotland-bound groups I heard, apart from the European jazz piano sounds of the Salemi trio, were the powerful Middle-Eastern accented saxophone of Nathan Daems and his band Echoes of Zoo. They both appear during the Edinburgh event, the latter in a double bill with Belgian-Moroccan pianist Marie Fikry’s Oriental Jazz.

Django Reinhardt’s sizzling gypsy jazz metier is echoed in Thrill’s Queen’s Hall opening concert on 7 February, featuring Les Violons de Bruxelles, led by the celebrated manouche violinist Tcha Limberger, sharing the programme with the Scots swing outfit Rose Room. Another Belgian visitor is Esinam, whose Ghanaian roots inform her electronica fusion, while further Belgian-Scots billings include Antoine Pierre’s Urbex quintet with fellow drummer Graham Costello’s STRATA, fusioneers Aja Moon and saxophonist Laura MacDonald, and the sax-organ-drums trio of Toine Thys Trio plus guitarist Hervé Samb, with trumpeter Colin Steele’s quintet.

Specially formed for the event is the Thrill Sextet, which will share a Jazz Bar programme with the unusual four-horns-and-percussion line-up of Mâäk. I had the pleasure of witnessing Thrill Sextet’s impressive debut in Brussels – after just three days of rehearsals. Led by Scots bassist Mark Hendry and Belgian saxophonist Tom Bourgeois, the young sextet further comprise Greek-born, Glasgow-based Irini Arabatzi and drummer Stephen Henderson, with saxophonist Sylvain Debaisieux and guitarist Lorenzo Di Maio. They more than won over the Flagey audience, from their persuasive opening flourish – a veritable jazz dawn chorus – and throughout a muscular set.

Brussels concert-goers seem to have an insatiable appetite for jazz. During my visit, not only was the Brussels Jazz Festival filling seats in Flagey, a former broadcasting studio resurrected as a premier cultural centre, but the concurrently running River Jazz Festival was hauling them into smaller venues, both festivals interacting with each other. Running simultaneously was Djangofolies, a Belgium-wide celebration of Reinhardt’s birthday on 23 January.

“The jazz scene here has never been so healthy,” Marten Van Rousselt, director of the jazz festival and Flagey’s artistic planning manager, told me. “Jazz has always been around Brussels, with icons such as the late Toots Thielemans or guitarist Philip Catherine.”

The burgeoning scene, he says, reflects a cosmopolitan city: “All the languages of the world are spoken here, you can eat all the food of the world here, but you also hear the music of the world, and if there’s one genre that’s really open to reproducing something new out of other influences, it’s jazz.”

Since she became one of Belgium’s first jazz manager-promoters 14 years ago, Maaike Wuyts has seen huge development in jazz and in its support and funding: “On an artistic level, I’ve seen that a lot of young musicians are very open-minded and experimental. Jazz is definitely having its moment in Brussels, and in Belgium.”

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And in Edinburgh, where, as Roger Spence, co-producer of Edinburgh Jazz Festival, puts it, “We’re delighted to showcase Scottish musicians as well, and hope to foster a long-term musical and cultural partnership with Brussels.”

Thrill: Jazz from Brussels takes place in various venues around Edinburgh, 7-9 February, and