North Sea Jazz Festival 2008, Day 1-3
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 appearits 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.
Bassist 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 onit'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 Dutchafter 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 approachtied in with an occasional minimalist aesthetichas placed Mehldau firmly in the vanguard of modern pianists.