On entering the intimacy of one of London’s premier jazz venues, Vortex, it was clear to me that this was going to be a cosy gig. The place was packed out and the 15 members of Belgium’s Flat Earth Society squeezed onto the stage, filling a quarter of the room.
Opening with their equivalent of a hit single ‘Psychoscout’, and its signature descending vamp which is almost impossible to get out of one’s head, FES immediately impressed with its quirky big band sound.
The ensemble diligently delivered pieces from their 8 albums released since banding in Bruges in 1999 including ‘Cheer me, Perverts!’ (2009) (the title being an anagram of the band’s leader, composer and clarinetist Peter Vermeersch), ‘Psychoscout’ (2006), Isms (2004) and ‘The Armstrong Mutations’ (2002).
Self described as ‘wonky screwball jazz that wears its trousers proudly around its ankles’ barely touches on the FES experience. Best conveyed as a broken down carnival ride vaguely hinting at gypsy debauchery, with ‘Caravan’-esque phrygian soundscapes and brief moments of heavy metal jazz FES is reminiscent of Can, early Moondog and more lately John Zorn. Then everything stops like something is stuck that can’t get out followed by a burst of audacious release. FES’s sound plays very much as a soundtrack, to what I don’t know. But really this is no surprise as the group has collaborated on film, theatre and opera projects and with the likes of American composer Uri Caine and impresario Mike Patton (Faith No More, Fantômas and co-founder of Ipecac Records).
One of the most refreshing elements of this jazz gig was the sense of play and humour throughout the evening whether is was Vermeersch’s links or balloon squeakings, which brought on a bad case of the giggles, FES don’t take themselves too seriously despite every member clearly demonstrating their individual virtuosity and flare only produced by the best jazz musicians.
I won’t say too much more because this show was recorded and with be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 18 June 23.00 – 00.30. If somehow you miss that, do catch them live if you can. You won’t regret it, though you may have strange dreams.