North Sea Jazz Festival
Ahoy, Rotterdam
July 11-13, 2008

The 33rd North Sea Jazz Festival was a showcase of epic proportions. Fifteen different stages in the Ahoy Centre played host to 200 artists; venues varied in size from large concert halls like the Amazon, Darling and Hudson to smaller, more intimate spaces and stadiumesque acoustic settings. With so much talent and variety on offer, it was very difficult deciding what to see: intriguing as it was to scout out obscure names on small stages, the lure of the jazz A-List often proved a little too tempting.

A festival day typically ran from between 4-5pm until around 2am, with an earlier start and finish on Sunday. Perhaps one improvement would be to have fewer performance spaces and always begin a little earlier, thus lessening the potential for agenda clashes and needing to leave gigs early. Nevertheless, the event was a sublime feat of organisational professionalism. Nearly everything ran on time–a trait almost unheard of in the jazz world–and, with 70,000 visitors over three days, there obviously weren’t many other complaints.

The key to drawing such a large attendance was undoubtedly the choice of several blatantly non-jazz headliners for prime slots on the biggest stages: Gnarls Barkley, Paul Simon and Chaka Khan stand as cases in point. However, one can bear no grudges as this pop factor was heavily saturated in the majority of the programme’s content. Also, any strategy that can entice mainstream music fans into this metaphorical dark den of underground jazz demons cannot be faulted–it was awesome to see so many people at a festival of this nature.

Day 1 – Friday, July 11

In retrospect, the festival’s opening day was a relaxed prelude for things to come. First up was Charles Lloyd and his exciting quartet featuring Jason Moran (piano), Reuben Rogers (bass) and Eric Harland (drums). Now 70, the saxophonist was sporting a snappy ensemble with shaded glasses and his trademark beret. His performance, however, was unexpectedly disjointed: while Moran, Harland and Rogers were very much locked in together, Lloyd’s playing was strangely disconnected, almost as if he were operating on a different level from his rhythm section. This disparity could have been due to evident teething problems for the sound crew on the Hudson stage–it all seemed much too quiet, with snatches of other gigs drifting in quite audibly.

David S. Ware’s performance in the atmospheric Missouri tent was another matter. Despite the music’s obviously more open nature, a band consisting of iconic improviser William Parker on bass, impressive drummer Nasheet Waits and guitarist Joe Morris conveyed a greater sense of unity and understanding–with the occasional exception of uncertain contributions (or simple lack thereof) from the slightly confused-looking Morris. Ware’s penetrating style was at its most potent, switching from textured, breathy phrases to full-on squawks, screams and extended streams of notes. Casual festival-goers wandering in received a shocking blast of the contemporary avant garde; many looked rather perplexed, if not equally fascinated, by the raw, edgy tonal quality of this skull-capped elderly gentleman who sat down for the show’s entirety. In spite of slightly frail appearances, Ware and Parker remain at the forefront of the free jazz movement. Collaboration with younger players like Waits has clearly given them a new lease of life and opened a fresh streak of creativity.

Next to perform on the same stage was London’s Led Bib, a free improv group spearheaded by Zorn disciple Mark Holub. The dynamic quintet of two alto saxophones, organ/piano, drums and bass catalyses an infectious sense of energy which fills the room–as does the manic, twisted punk-jazz freeform fusion sound of the band. Holub’s hyperactive drumming is the motor, supported by solid bass work from Liran Donin. This hard base of noise allows the keys player and the saxes to break out with wild solos, often working in twos or all at once. Most remarkable, however, is the way they can snap back together as a tight unit, in the blink of an eye, after riotous passages of collective improvisation; tunes are typically built around sax-led melodic ideas that act as reference points. Led Bib has a small cult following back in London town and it was great to see the music export so well: a full house of absorbed onlookers emitted frequent shrieks of encouragement. This loud, passionate and unpredictable band will surely turn a few heads at many more festivals in the not-so-distant future.

Unfortunately there was no time for the full Led Bib enlightenment, as people were flocking to see Herbie Hancock and his elite quintet on the Hudson stage. Dave Holland (bass), Chris Potter (sax), Lionel Loueke (guitar) and Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) joined the legendary keysman for a thorough workout of the standard funk repertoire. It was highly enjoyable to behold Potter tearing through solos on a selection of familiar tunes, with the exception of Loueke’s complicated composition “17” (yes, it has 17 beats), but one couldn’t help thinking Hancock might have been more ambitious in his choices. The capacity crowd went mad for the likes of “Cantaloupe Island,” “Watermelon Man” and “Chameleon,” which were delivered in expected fine style, but many will have been disappointed not to see something more exploratory from a man with such a rich history of innovation. The closest they got to post-bop was Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints.” Holland stood out with a long, lyrical introduction on his own, and Hancock’s harmonically cryptic solo was somewhat spoiled by heavy-handed clumsiness from Colaiuta, who is an incredible funk drummer but seems to lack a subtler side. Hancock was also guilty of indulging in keytar duels with Loueke and Potter (the latter of which he most certainly lost) and didn’t seem able to keep hands off his rather cheap-sounding synth. But it definitely wasn’t a bad gig by any means and, bearing in mind Hancock’s recent slant towards the mainstream market, it probably wasn’t a great surprise either.

Another father figure of funk, bassist Bootsy Collins, was due to finish the night in the Nile arena–a vast standing space with tiered seating at the sides. The gig was an extremely bizarre experience for several reasons. First of all, before Collins even got on stage, the audience was treated to lengthy semantics from a series of sideshow acts which hadn’t been listed on the festival itinerary. A dancing three-piece singing skewed mashups of James Brown tunes was followed by an indiscernible rapper and a relatively decent instrumental funk group. It emerged that the whole event was conceived as a tribute to the Godfather of Soul himself–a credible notion in principle. However, a woefully dire performance from a lady named Vicki Anderson (apparently a former JB backing singer), whose voice sounded like fingernails scraping down a chalkboard, pushed patience to its limit. Collins had still not materialised, and there was a feeling that only his appearance could restore a semblance of dignity to proceedings.

It didn’t. Collins finally came out but, rather than stepping forward to lead a storming set of original material, stood back as an impostor James Brown took the spotlight. Indeed, someone pretending to be the deceased King of Funk. He wasn’t a bad singer, but anyone trying to imitate Brown’s towering talent and unique stage presence is bound to fail. And, as if it couldn’t have got any weirder, Brown’s controversial widow, Tomi Rae Hynie, was next on stage to deliver a couple more horribly out-of-tune covers. It was time to leave.

Admirable as it is to honour James Brown the musical legend, questions must be raised about the way it was attempted. The whole spectacle was, quite frankly, a crass parody. It seemed like a bad dream. As a man who was famed for high standards and relentless pursuit of musical perfection, Brown must be turning in his grave. It looked like a cheap shot on the part of former colleagues to make as much money as possible from his legacy. But, even so, why did it have to be done in such a tactless, unethical manner? Perhaps the most disturbing, lamentable fact is that Collins and trombonist Fred Wesley, who also performed, have compromised their own values and integrity in associating with such a terrible production. It really was an insult to the memory of the great JB: he deserves better.

Day 2 – Saturday, July 12

After the extraordinary anti-climax of Friday night, something to heal the faith was certainly needed. It came in the form of Pat Metheny and his superb trio with drummer Antonio Sanchez and Christian McBride on bass. Playing to a sell-out crowd in the Amazon hall (tickets for concerts there had been sold separately to festival day passes), he emerged on his own for a couple of solo numbers to start the show. The first was largely chordal and had a little country twang, played with a powerful empathy that disguised its relative simplicity. Relative, that is, to what Metheny was about to play on his custom-made 42-string guitar. Somehow managing to hold a bassline with his left hand and a varying series of chords and motifs on the other three sections of the instrument, it was a mesmerising display. It set the scene for what was to follow; Sanchez and McBride came out to join and were perfect partners. The drummer’s skittering, busy, polyrhythmic style was complemented by McBride’s knack for always finding the right balance: he didn’t use too many notes and played brilliantly within himself, clearly below the limits of his virtuoso technique.

Dropping in to catch a few minutes of Victor Wooten on the Maas stage–a huge, echoing space also used for a tennis tournament–was not the shrewdest decision. Of Flecktones fame, Wooten is an electric bass player par excellence. Countless videos of him performing ridiculously difficult technical stunts exist on YouTube. However, it is a shame to report that his band’s music comes nowhere near this level of instrumental proficiency: tacky, cheesy and soulless, it is often geared towards generating showmanship opportunities for Victor and his guitarist brother Regi. There was no coherence. The only moment worth seeing was when the band went off stage entirely, leaving Victor alone to perform a few neat little tricks with his bass and a loop pedal.

The Bad Plus is one of the big jazz success stories of recent years. A young, eager standing audience had assembled in the Yukon tent and provided a rapturous welcome. From the start of the gig, it was clear the progressive trio go for a lot more when they play live. Drummer David King was exemplary in his scuttling crossrhythmic approach, throwing random accents onto different beats with joyous animated energy–he looked like a man possessed by the sheer exuberance of making music. The first few tunes, including “Big Eater,” were as expected: crunchy, hard-hitting piano riffs combined with moments of delicate dynamic interaction as the three musicians rose and fell as one. Things took a turn for the worse, however, when kooky singer Wendy Lewis was presented. Billed as a new feature of upcoming album For All I Care, her wailing, moany vocals were off key at times–perhaps intentionally? She didn’t add a great deal to the band’s signature sound. One wonders about the reasoning for getting her involved in a group that has done so well with its instrumental concepts. In any case, maybe it is too early to pass judgement: it will be very interesting to hear the new CD when it appears.

Then it was a quick call on saxophonist David Sanchez. The Puerto Rican tenorman played in the Yenisei venue, a pleasant little room reminiscent of inner city jazz clubs. Sadly his set was drawing to a close, but there was enough time to see that Sanchez is very much back on the scene. This year he released Cultural Survival (Concord, 2008), a long-awaited disc to follow the Grammy-nominated Coral (Columbia, 2004). Backed by an able group of Lage Lund (guitar), Orlando Le Fleming (bass) and Henry Cole (drums), his lean, heavy tone was given ample space to live and breathe.

British saxophonist/flautist Finn Peters was on stage in the Murray tent, and there was time to catch a couple of tunes before going back to the Amazon for Wayne Shorter’s headline show. Peters, who recently released his second album Butterflies (Accidental, 2008), was joined by stellar sidemen from the London circuit–including bassist Tom Herbert and pianist Tom Cawley, both of Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear fame. The result was an ambitious mix of crossover music drawing on influences as broad as Indonesian Gamelan and pulsating Afrobeat grooves, with a jazz undercurrent running through. It was pleasing to note these original concepts translate better into a live show than they appear on the record, which comes across as rather airy and lacking punch. Peters clearly possesses a high degree of musical knowledge; it would have been great to see him really let go with solos, but he is perhaps more a thinker than a showman. Nevertheless, this was a valuable contribution to the festival, a strong representation of the vibrant new UK jazz scene which is constantly growing in stature.

It was difficult knowing what to expect from Wayne Shorter. The only certain fact was that his quartet would be performing with the Imani Winds, a contemporary ensemble of flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and French horn. Imani opened proceedings, playing a complex Shorter original and a delightfully layered arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango.” Shorter then emerged with his all-star band featuring Danilo Perez (piano), John Patitucci (bass) and Brian Blade (drums). Each of these musicians has an outstanding track record, so to see them congregate with a legend such as Shorter sends any informed jazz fan into spasms of excitement.

They did not disappoint. The long opening piece built up through gentle movements, with Blade texturising and Patitucci alternating between arco and pizzicato. It was easy to detect a large improvised element in this dense exploration of the traditional jazz quartet’s orchestral possibilities. They were listening to each other and communicating through their instruments. As the spontaneous composition gained magnitude, Shorter’s wailing interjections would occasionally bring him to the front of the mix without detracting from the collective emphasis. He has become a master exponent of the less is more approach. When the Imani Winds joined later, a stronger aspect of organisation surfaced. Passages of improvisation were separated by arching arabesque melodies and coloured with nuanced harmonies in a thoroughly entrancing, vividly captivating artistic soundscape.

Fascinatingly, many onlookers seemed puzzled and bewildered; some even walked out. Shorter’s new brand of structureless creation is not designed for casual listeners. It is a mark of his significance to jazz that, at the age of 74, he is still pushing boundaries and making music as advanced and challenging as any of the young avant garde. To compare this with the overtly crowd-pleasing performance of Herbie Hancock is intriguing; despite their longstanding friendship, the two could not be much further apart in terms of artistic philosophy. Hancock was spotted in the audience–what could he have been thinking?

A break was needed to digest this mind-bending musical experience. Due to a late start on the Amazon, Shorter’s gig had overrun–thus jeopardising plans to return to the Yukon for Acoustic Ladyland (pictured). However, reliable sources confirm the talismanic trailblazers of the UK scene’s recent revival had indeed taken the festival by storm. Agents on the same stage also report that the infamous Soil & “Pimp” Sessions, a Japanese group questionably labelled “death jazz” by music mogul Gilles Peterson, garnered a wave of encores as they made a similarly resounding impact.

Like David Sanchez, James Carter cuts a mysterious figure to jazz insiders. Another unquestionably gifted player, the multi-instrumentalist suffered from the breakdown of Atlantic Records’ jazz department in 2000. Present Tense (Emarcy, 2008) marked a welcome return to disc after three years, and he showcased material from the album during his late set on the Madeira stage. Carter captivated the audience with cheerful charisma in the opening moments, before launching into a Sidney Bechet tune on which his vivacious soprano wove an intricate web of dazzling ideas. He quickly established a penchant for volatile, expressive howls and honks that were perfectly placed within the context of every solo alongside many more innovative sonic devices. Tracks from the album such as “Bossa JC,” “Bro. Dolphy” (a leading feature on bass clarinet) and the gut-busting “Hymn of the Orient” were all given similar treatment. Apart from the startling degree of virtuosic control on each instrument he picked up, Carter’s magnanimity also shone. All members of the band were given unlimited opportunity to display their considerable skills, with the saxophonist even sitting out on a ballad so young trumpeter Curtis Taylor could take the lead. With this triumphant return to touring, James Carter has reminded the jazz world of his place at the zenith of leading saxophonists.

As if that wasn’t enough music for one day, word was spreading about an after-hours jam session on the Hudson stage. Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez had finished early and invited Roy Hargrove, Bobby McFerrin and others to join an impromptu Latin jazz free-for-all which was highly entertaining to watch. McFerrin, the festival’s Artist in Residence for 2008, stepped forward on the melodica and piano, and a constant interchange of musicians from different bands kept things moving til the very end.

Day 3 – Sunday, July 13

The final day was always going to be busy, with a couple of tricky schedule clashes to work around (Alisha Keys not being one of them). On the outdoor Harlem stage, situated at the front of the Ahoy centre, Dutch funk group Lefties Soul Connection was warming people up for things to come. Tight, compact and precise, it was music to generate a good mood. A couple of local brass bands also played a series of guerrilla corridor gigs at random times throughout the festival, always pleasing to encounter.

US saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa opened the afternoon in the Yenisei room. As Mahanthappa and abstract pianist Vijay Iyer are stalwart collaborators, it was a shame not to see the latter on stage. Instead, the role was filled by a more than able deputy: Craig Taborn. It was only possible to stay for the first couple of tunes, but the band appeared to be simmering nicely and poised to take off. Mahanthappa’s leathery, sinuous alto slithered effusively through convoluted compositions; the opening number featured a meditative sax intro before cranking up the gears into fizzing post-bop. Irregular manipulations from drummer Dan Weiss provoked a gushing, frenzied solo from the saxophonist before Taborn took over with a torrent of challenging ideas, pulling and distorting the concept of rhythmic conformity into blurry shapes of his own creation.

The reason for leaving was a very good one. Gary Burton, Steve Swallow, Pat Metheny and Antonio Sanchez were performing together, under the auspices of revisiting the 1970s quartet which produced thoughtful, cinematic music often specially composed by outside sources. Burton’s employment of electric guitar and bass had been a new phenomenon in the ’60s, helping to break down barriers between jazz and rock. These striking features became entrenched in his fruitful collaboration with Metheny and bassist Swallow, which is evidently as alive today as it was 40 years ago. There was a strong sense of group understanding on stage as they played their own material and pieces by Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Carla Bley. Burton’s pioneering four-stick vibes technique was hypnotic, and Swallow was outstanding with short, sweet solos that always hit the mark. Metheny made sparing use of his signature guitar tone, entailing a greater impact when it did appear–its effervescent, shimmering quality cut through the complex harmonic backdrop provided by vibes and bass and Sanchez’s trademark hustle. Hopefully its current European tour will not be the last time this enthralling quartet reunites.

Bass player Mark Helias has been a busy figure on the New York improv scene since joining Anthony Braxton’s group in 1977. His current project, “Open Loose,” is a trio with drums and sax that does exactly what you would expect from its name. The music is understatedly progressive in that no instrument leaps to the front and you have to listen carefully to appreciate what’s going on–it’s nothing like the zealous free jazz of Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane. In the words of Helias, the music represents a “constant state of flux.” The bassist and Tom Rainey on drums operate almost telepathically; Helias often fills the absent role of a chordal instrument with texturising harmonies high up the fingerboard. Dep saxophonist Ellery Eskin’s tenor was a good match, blowing coolly and melodically; his approach placed clarity of thought above the notion of a piercing sound.

Next stop was the Darling Concert Hall for Brad Mehldau, who surprised everyone by piping up in Dutch–after which he would have endeared himself to the audience no matter how he’d played. Opening with a serene ballad, it got steadily more interesting: the next tune featured a light drum’n’bass beat from Jeff Ballard and a left-hand piano riff held in unison with bassist Larry Grenadier while Mehldau elaborated a cunning solo. Hard bop, Monk and Irving Berlin were all on the agenda, but the definite highlight was a gently lilting Latin number by Chico Buarque. It seemed to go on and on, with Mehldau giving a virtuoso display of calculated pianism in a solo which told a real story, taking each segment to harmonic exhaustion and holding spectators rapt with awe. This steadfastly unflashy, patient approach–tied in with an occasional minimalist aesthetic–has placed Mehldau firmly in the vanguard of modern pianists.

The danger of information overload was high after the sequence of Mahanthappa, Burton et al, Open Loose and Mehldau in quick succession. Luckily, there is no better person to avert one of those head-exploding moments than Maceo Parker–the legend of funk sax was playing the Nile stage with Germany’s brutally efficient WDR Big Band. In a far classier show than Friday evening’s disastrous James Brown tribute, they rattled through favourites like “Pass the Peas,” “Shake Everything You’ve Got” and “To Be Or Not To Be,” Parker’s alto leading the way with fiery, funky licks and a razor sharp tone. It is a pertinent sign of his influence that, when another saxist came down from the bandstand to trade phrases with the master, her playing was eerily similar to the man himself. Parker also demonstrated a richly soulful singing voice as he crooned a couple of suave covers to honour the late, great Ray Charles.

On the Amazon stage, scene of some of the festival’s brightest moments, Branford Marsalis and his excellent quartet brought the curtain down in fitting fashion. As an intermittently underrated contributor to the post-bop idiom, Marsalis has been working solidly with Joey Calderazzo (piano), Jeff “Tain” Watts (drums) and Eric Revis (bass), racking up thousands of air miles on the international tour circuit. The saxophonist is distinctive as a stylist who speaks with highly contrasting tonal voices on tenor and soprano: in the first place brawny and muscular, but with a delicate quavering vibrato as the hallmark of his sound on the smaller horn. Tain’s composition “Return of the Jitney Man” was a forceful opening statement. Marsalis’s tenor spewed out a cascade of blistering runs, and Calderazzo’s burning lyrical lines bounced off the keys with verve and zest. A free-time ballad calmed things down as the drummer’s rubato shading afforded space for a mournful, emotional soprano solo that evoked the essence of a funeral song. The group’s variety of moods and ease in handling sophisticated compositional ideas is testament to Marsalis’s skill as a leader. While his trumpeter brother Wynton remains a staunch protagonist of the old school modus operandi, it is wonderful to see Branford pushing the music forward with this terrific array of sidemen. He needs to hold onto them as long as he can.

A quick wander revealed the ultimate festival finale was in fact taking place back at the Nile arena, where veteran bluesman Buddy Guy was playing out to a boisterous pack of ecstatic revellers. Although most of the serious music seemed to have been and gone, Guy was in his element, shouting, singing, showboating on guitar and even leaving the stage to enter the crowd. He is an old expert at instigating a strong rapport with the audience so, when he finally exited to a mountainous cheer, there could have been no better way to finish the weekend.

Photo Credit
Andrew Hayes

Published @ allaboutjazz, 31/7/08 – click here for original.