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Various Artists: Utopic Cities: Progressive Jazz in Belgium 1968-1979 (Sdban)

Review of a compilation that casts light on a largely forgotten time and place in European jazz

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Cover of the compilation album Utopic Cities
Cover of the compilation album Utopic Cities

The creation and rise of fusion. The continued expansion of the free idiom. Utopic Cities, a new compilation on Sdban Records, an independent label out of Belgium, shows how musicians in that stretch of European countryside both absorbed and diverged from American sources at these crucial inflection points of 1970s jazz.

Perhaps surprisingly, the sounds of fusion heard on Utopic Cities don’t call to mind the big names of the time: Miles, the Headhunters, Weather Report, or the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Rather, their influences seem to come from groups like the first iteration of Return to Forever with Flora Purim, Airto Moreira, and Joe Farrell; Gary Burton’s captivating touch on the vibraphone; the simmering spiritual jazz of Gene Russell’s Black Jazz Records as well as Pharoah Sanders; and the progressive funk of Sly and the Family Stone.

Open Sky Unit’s “Open Sky” sounds lifted from one of those early RTF albums, while Koen De Bruyne’s “Pathetic Dreams” reimagines that sound for noir. Kenny Clarke’s big band with Belgian pianist and arranger Francy Boland snakes through a soundscape out of Thembi on “Sakara” before an atonal crescendo that echoes the Art Ensemble of Chicago. (Yes, that Kenny Clarke, the great bop drummer and expat.) Marc Moulin, a leader on the then-scene, offers a prelude to the reverb-washed jazz of the 1980s—and the production style of J Dilla and his ilk—with “Tohubohu pt. 1” (another of his groups, Placebo, opens the compilation).

Look up the original albums these tracks come from and many seem like dusty tomes in ancient libraries: out of print for decades, seemingly forgotten. Utopic Cities is, then, not just an act of archaeology but a resurrection, giving these artists’ works a chance at second life. That is a tremendous achievement and gift. 

Jackson Sinnenberg

Jackson Sinnenberg is a broadcast journalist and writer based in Washington, D.C. He serves as an editor for Capitalbop, a non-profit that focuses on presenting live jazz and covering the D.C. jazz scene through grassroots journalism. He’s covered the city’s local jazz scene since 2015 but has covered national and international jazz, rock and pop artists for a variety of publications. He will gladly argue why Kendrick Lamar is a jazz musician. Follow him @sinnenbergmusic.