Live Review \\ Le Guess Who? Festival: Curating Diversity

For over 11 years now, at the final stretch of autumn, Utrecht opens its doors to some of the world’s most luminary musical talent. Le Guess Who? Festival comprises over 30 venues playing host to everything from Jazz to experimental to punk to drone.

The festival’s main venue is the colossal Tivoli Vredenburg, a complex of escalators and conference rooms, which make an engaging if eclectic space to enjoy music. The proximity of the rooms provides one of Le Guess Who’s? unique charms. Like being dunked into a plunge pool, your musical sensibilities have to adapt quickly as they transition from Siberian throat singers Yat-Kha to the industrial world of Prurient, and then to the choral bliss of Julianna Barwick. These abrupt transitions can shock the senses at first but soon become a pleasure as a common thread of musical curiosity reveals itself. This curiosity is also reflected in the neighbouring Mega Records & CD Fair which is the largest of its kind in the world, holding records from Catalonian metal to Andean prog rock.

Spiritual Jazz pioneer Pharoah Sanders was the festival’s headliner, and to be in the main hall with such a rapturous crowd was contagious. At 77, Sanders still exuded a powerful message of love, culminating in a collective singalong to his masterpiece The Creator Has a Master Plan.  The level of curatorial attention was impeccable as the festival also showcased many of Pharoah Sanders’ spiritual Jazz counterparts and contemporaries. Alice Coltrane’s spirit was brought to life by the Sai Anantam Ashram Singers, including Merril Garbus from tUne-yArDs joining the choir for a few numbers. Meanwhile, vocalist and Sanders collaborator Linda Sharrock showcased a raw performance of free jazz compositions.

While Pharoah Sanders and the Sai Anantam Ashram Singers gave a much-needed reminder for communion, the contemporary jazz vanguard updated this message for today’s times.  Shabaka and the Ancestors bridged the spiritualism of Sanders with a fresh individuality in frontman Shabaka Hutching’s alto sax solos.

Matana Roberts similarly reinvoked the past to reflect on the present at a more literal level.  Bringing to life her Coin Coin series, Roberts layered field recordings of black voices, distant saxophone wails, scraps of lullabies and re-possessed anthems ‘with liberty and justice… for some’ to force the lens back on America’s troubled past with its black citizens, exposing what still hasn’t changed today. In the same vein as the Ancestors, Roberts’ final message was ‘don’t stop protesting’.

Perhaps the greatest joy of having a music festival in one of the darkest months of the year is that any superfluous factors fade away and the music is pushed to the forefront. Le Guess Who’s? overwhelming success is its music curation where each act informs the other to create the message of a harmony of difference, as Kamasi Washington states.  As its name suggests, Le Guess Who? leaves its followers with a curiosity to constantly see music in a different and expanding light, making it one of Europe’s leading city festivals.

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EZH | Oliver White