Music inspired by UFOs: Free Desmyter debuts new project at Jazz Brugge


A startling admission from long-time Flemish jazz pianist Free Desmyter explains his preoccupation with ancient Japanese texts that have led to a new cross-cultural ensemble

New take on Takenouchi

Jazz musicians will be invited to shake it up this month at Jazz Brugge, where the theme Crossing Cultures means looking across borders and mixing jazz with other musical styles. A prime example is Armenian piano player Tigran Hamasyan, who combines his lyrical phrases with the folk tradition of his country.

Or Dutch cello player Ernst Reijseger and pianist Harmen Fraanje, who will team up with the Senegalese singer and percussionist Omar Sylla for this eighth edition of the festival. If you like your jazz more avant-garde, turn to the James Brandon Lewis Trio, a fuelled fusion of gospel, hip-hop and blistering post-bop.

The first night of the three-day event is dedicated to W.E.R.F., the Bruges-based jazz label that has always offered shelter for adventurous musicians. It celebrates its 25th anniversary with concerts that bring together new well-established acts.

Someone who, in a sense, fits in both categories is Antwerp-based pianist Free Desmyter (pictured above). Granted, at 51 he’s been playing jazz for more than three decades. But he’s always been a back-up musician, reluctant to put himself out front.

‘Forced’ to make an album

Desmyter was 40 when he released his first album as frontman, Something to Share by the Free Desmyter Quartet. “If you don’t have an album, it’s a lot harder to score shows,” he says. “So, in a sense I was forced to make that album. But I admit I was afraid to do it.”

Now he’s happy he did. “I used to have stage fright. Playing with that quartet gave me more confidence.”

His fear, he thinks, stems from disappointing his fellow musicians. “A jazz musician has to master a lot of parameters. I’m always worried that I’m not serving my co-musicians well enough.”

Uncertainty keeps me young but sometimes a bit unhappy. When will I finally find some peace?

- Jazz musician Free Desmyter

His work schedule suggests bands are more than happy to put him on the bill. He smiles: “I don’t seem to be able to think that through. On the other hand, that uncertainty keeps me young. Sometimes a bit unhappy, too. When will I finally find some peace?”

Maybe Desmyter’s new project, The Takenouchi Documents, will be the key. He presents it on 16 November at Jazz Brugge, as well as the night before in Antwerp.

It’s by far his most ambitious endeavour. Eleven musicians from Flanders and the Middle East play a fusion of jazz, Arabic sounds and contemporary classical music. This kind of mix produces some interesting stories.

Playing for Hussein

One of the ensemble’s musicians, for instance, is Bassem Hawar, a refugee from Iraq who now lives in Germany. He plays the djoze, a small Iraqi vielle and one of the oldest instruments in the world.

“One day he had to perform at Saddam Hussein’s palace,” says Desmyter. “He made eye contact with a woman in the crowd, Hussein’s sister or maybe it was his niece. During the break a bodyguard confronted him: ‘You like this woman? Then after the concert, I’m going to kill you.’ So Bassem decided to flee the country.”

The Takenouchi Documents is a combination of compositions and improvisation. “I love improvising on stage,” he says. “But this is music that shows a different Free. I’m curious to see how this will change my professional life.”

In 1994, I had contact with extra-terrestrial life

- Free Desmyter

It’s the largest ensemble the jazz pianist has ever led, and the two nights will be recorded for an album release next year. “So I’ve been stressing out a lot,” he says with a smile. “It’s cost me blood, sweat and tears.”

The project is inspired by ancient Japanese texts that describe pre-history and a set of heavenly gods. Desmyter, lighting another cigarette: “They describe life on earth 20,000 years ago, when people who came from other galaxies were living on earth. It talks about the blue race and contains maps with airports of that era.”

Desmyter cannot be stopped when he’s talking about the Takenouchi manuscripts or cosmology. With good reason it seems. “In 1994 I had contact with extra-terrestrial life, which was confirmed afterwards by the Dutch UFO centre.”

I see in his eyes that he’s not pulling my leg. But surely this story is met with much scepticism? “Absolutely. And rightfully so. But a recent opinion poll showed that 40% of Germans, for instance, believe in UFOs. The times are changing.”

Jazz Brugge, 16-18 November, Concertgebouw, ’t Zand 34, Bruges

Photo: Jan Verschooten