North Sea Jazz Festival 2008, Day 1-3
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 audiencewhat 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 overrunthus 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 3Sunday, July 13