Karl Van Deun & Ruben Machtelinckx: Ask Me - Don't Ask Me
El Negocito Records

Linus: Linus + Skarbø / Leroux
El Negocito Records

Linus + Økland / Van Heertum: Felt Like Old Folk

Machtelinckx / Jensson / Badenhorst / Wouters: Faerge
El Negocito Records

Machtelinckx / Jensson / Badenhorst / Wouters: Flock
El Negocito Records

The common denominator on these five recordings is Belgium guitarist Ruben Machtelinckx (b. 1986), who plays with mentor Karl Van Deun on Ask Me - Don't Ask Me and a host of others on the remaining four. Two of them feature Machtelinckx and Thomas Jillings operating under the Linus name and collaborating, respectively, with Øyvind Skarbø and Frederik Leroux on one and Nils Økland and Nils Van Heertum on the other; the final two, Faerge and Flock, are quartet recordings featuring Machtelinckx with Joachim Badenhorst, Hilmar Jensson, and Nathan Wouters.

In liner notes accompanying Felt Like Old Folk, Guy Stevens writes something that in a sense clarifies the sensibility the musicians bring to all five releases. Of the four pieces on that album (three improvisations), Stevens characterizes them as “instances of social interaction that have quite a bit in common with discussions among old friends. The tempo, tone, and volume can change, just like the individual roles, but spontaneously so, in a spirit of comprehension.” It's the observation about social interaction that's key, as all five of the recordings evidence a shared commitment to sensitive interplay. Obviously there are fundamental differences between the releases, in accordance with the different personnel and instrumentation, yet all share a relaxed, explorative vibe, the emphasis on texture and understatement as opposed to bombast and posturing. A contemplative approach that grants music time to breathe is always welcome in these parts.

Highly illustrative of the approach is the April 2014 set with Van Deun, which features both musicians on acoustic guitar and banjo. Though the forty-minute release is credited to both, in one sense it's more Van Deun's, given that all eleven pieces were composed by him. It's telling that with both players credited with the same instrumentation it's not immediately clear who is producing a particular sound at any given moment; in keeping with musicians who emphasize music over ego, the emphasis is on the collective tapestry the two generate. The duo ranges across multiple styles, folk, country, blues, classical, and jazz among them, and the guitarists show themselves to be finger-pickers with the best of them. Not that they're out to dazzle the listener with virtuosity, but it's hard not to be impressed by the technical facility shown during “Inspiration.” The breezy “Wokitah” swings with a joyous, jazz-inflected exuberance that's well-nigh irresistible; on a prettier tip is the lilting “Daisy,” and there are moments when the combination of banjo and acoustic guitar calls to mind Bill Frisell's 1990 album Is That You?, never more so than when Machtelinckx and Van Deun pay tribute to their inspirational colleague in “One for Bill Frisell.” The relaxed feel of the recording makes the listener feel as if he/she is a privileged guest, someone granted the rare opportunity to witness two friends in action as they methodically work through a collection of tunes.

Recorded in 2012 in Denmark, Faerge, the first of the two Machtelinckx/Jensson/Badenhorst/Wouters recordings (it's also, in fact, Machtelinckx's debut recording), perpetuates the two-guitar concept of the Van Deun outing, though this time augments Machtelinckx's and Hilmar Jensson's guitars with Joachim Badenhorst's woodwinds and Nathan Wouters' double bass. The recording's aesthetic calls to mind ECM and Rune Grammofon in equal measure, and the empathy of the musicians and lyrical tone of the material (all compositions credited to Machtelinckx) are both evident. Drums, of course, are absent, but momentum isn't. Prodded by Badenhorst's winding melodic lines and insistent rhythm guitar patterns, the strong scene-setter “Ladakh” moves at a brisk pace, as does the even more breezy “It Could Be Beautiful.” As hushed as the music often is, there are moments when a raw guitar flourish nudges the music in an aggressive direction, and Badenhorst, alternating between clarinet and saxophone, is in places so forlorn his playing begins to resemble Arve Henriksen's trumpet. Best of all are the delicately rendered “Hymne” and “Prayer” for the artful nuance with which the four weave their respective parts. In keeping with Machtelinckx's persona, the guitars often provide textural accompaniment to Badenhorst's melodic voicings, and Frisell's compositional influence and playing style are felt on occasion, most audibly during “Almost Gypsy,” whose electric guitar phrases and treatments hark back to Frisell's own debut, In Line. Ten sensitively wrought pieces (a couple more experimental in design, too) compose Faerge, which presents collective improvisation at a high level.

The four reconvened two years later at the Rabbitfield in Belgium to record Flock, the instrumentation the same as before except for the addition of baritone guitar and banjo to Machtelinckx's arsenal. The delicate warmth of the earlier release carries over onto the new one in the opening track and “The Hunter,” and the six others exemplify a similarly advanced level of interplay. Like Faerge, the guitars generate a textural web alongside of which Badenhorst's free-floating horn solos languorously; the follow-up does differ from its predecessor, however, in being occasionally more raw. The intensity level increases, for example, during “McMurdo” when heavy guitar smears punctuate the banjo picking, and, with Wouters and Badenhorst entwining their lines, “Cumulus” begins to exude an Eastern flavour until the guitarists' high-volume textures add another layer to the dense tapestry. As much as such pieces make one sit up and take notice, it's the softer settings (e.g., the sleepy closer “Gaap”) that are most affecting. Though Machtelinckx is again credited as the sole composer, the material sometimes assumes a searching, improv-like feel without losing its fragile quality in the process.

With Linus + Skarbø / Leroux, Machtelinckx (guitar, acoustic baritone guitar) and Jillings (saxophones, alto clarinet, synthesizers) pair up with Frederik Leroux (banjo, guitar, baritone guitar) and Øyvind Skarbø (drums, Hammond organ) on the first of two Linus collaborative ventures. Recorded in February 2015 at La Chapelle in Belgium, the recording is both a Linus and group affair: six of the nine pieces are individually credited to Machtelinckx and Jillings, the remainder group improvisations. Though drums appear for the first time on these five recordings, the instrument's inclusion doesn't effect a major change in approach (even if Skarbø's playing does give a track like “Finco” a strong rhythmic push); Linus + Skarbø / Leroux is ultimately as quietly explorative and restrained as the other recordings. That said, the involvement of Skarbø, who plays in 1982 (with Nils Økland and Sigbjørn Apeland) and Bly de Blyant (with Shahzad Ismaily and Hilmar Jensson), lends the recording a rather Hubro-esque character. A folk-blues spirit often animates the material, with a representative track such as Machtelinckx's “Down” undertaking its jaunty journey armed with multi-layered banjo picking, tom-toms, and the snarl of Jillings' bleating horn. Gentler by comparison, the aptly titled “Porch” is a lovely stripped-down reverie for banjo whose relaxed folk vibe conveys the general spirit of the outing; also memorable is “LaBoeuf” for the delicious purr of the saxophone. Hearing Machtelinckx's and Leroux's banjos and guitars alongside Jillings's woodwinds and Skarbø's percussive colour makes for a thoroughly satisfying forty-minute set.

What differentiates Felt Like Old Folk from the other recordings is the largely improvised spirit of the release. As earlier mentioned, on this set Machtelinckx (acoustic baritone guitar, banjo) and Jillings (saxophones, alto clarinet) team up with Niels Van Heertum and Nils Økland on four pieces, only one of them, Machtelinckx's low-key meditation “Felt,” formally composed. Recorded on a February afternoon in 2015 at The Rabbitfield in Belgium, the forty-minute recording documents intimate interactions between the participants, all of them equally committed to their common undertaking. In spite of that democratic approach, the rustic, vocal-like cry of Økland's hardanger fiddle is so powerful, it's difficult not to hear it as the lead instrument, especially when Van Heertum's euphonium and Machtelinckx's guitar shadings function as a backdrop against which the fiddle and Jillings' woodwinds appear. Still, such a description is admittedly a tad reductionist, as the four instruments don't group themselves so simply into background and foreground roles. In the seventeen-minute opener “A,” for example, the initial focus might be on Økland, but over time Jillings and Machtelinckx assert themselves forcefully, the hardanger fiddle during those moments retreating to the background. “B” sees all four contributing at an equally forceful level, the focus consistently shifting between the banjo, fiddle, alto clarinet, and euphonium. The material unfolds slowly, the musicians clearly content to let the music develop in natural, unforced manner. In allowing each musician ample space to contribute, Felt Like Old Folk offers both a vehicle for personal expression and a means by which intimate conversations are entered into by the artists involved.

April 2016