Summer Jazz Cycling Tour 25: Groningen, The Netherlands, August 26-27, 2011
August 26-27, 2011
Only in the Netherlands. Where else would anyone think to create such a harmonious conjugation of jazz and cycling? Now in its 25th year, the annual ZomerJazzFietsTour (Summer Jazz Cycling Tour) takes place in the bucolic countryside just outside Groningen in the northern Netherlands. In some ways its existence is only to be expected, as almost everything else in Groningen involves a bicycle. Over 57% of urban journeys in the city are conducted by bike , and the railway station has over 10,000 cycle parking places.
Multi-venue festivals are nothing new, but the special Dutch twist was that the audience traveled from one to another along a network of cycle paths. With 27 acts in one day it was not possible to see everything, so sometimes hard choices had to be made. And it was not only a decision guided by taste, as the distance to be traveled and the time available to do so also needed to be taken into account. Each act performed two 45-minute sets with a half hour intermission, sufficient to allow transit to the next event if desired. Performances took place in rural medieval churches, barns and a specially erected tent in the central village of Garnwerd.
Something in the mix obviously appealed, as in each venue the congregation spilled from the pews into the aisles of the churches and even onto the steps leading up to the pulpit. Not only was the support plentiful, but it spread across the generations with families and youngsters alongside those more grizzled jazz lovers.
But like all good cycle tours, first we must consider the Prologue. Held in the Theater de Machinefabriek in Groningen, the evening before the festival proper, the Prologue gave an opportunity to hear three of the acts from the next day in a more central setting, which avoided the need for pedaling.
Swiss-American vocalist/accordionist Erika Stucky was as much comedienne as musician in a one-woman opening set, which started with her dragging a shovel on stage and finished with her encouraging the crowd to boo her performance. In-between, she accompanied surreal films of herself wearing a dog mask and throwing a baby (!) with songs and accordion. Communicating in a mixture of English and Schweizer Deutsch, she had the audience in fits of laughter, Her Swiss side manifesting itself in some semi-ironic yodeling, but it was the encore where her singing was most unaffected, channeling country singer Patsy Cline in a beautiful cover of "Crazy." Not typical jazz, but improvised and strangely captivating.
De Jongens Driest Allstars
Next up was Dutch band De Jongen Driest in an Allstar version, augmented with international guests. The hometown core of trombonist Joop van der Linden, saxophonist Janfie van Strien and sousaphone player Arno Bakker has appeared many times over the years on the Tour. Guest drummer Michael Vatcher added syncopated wit to the tight horn vamps, mournful brass dirges, and driving klezmer. His duet with the electronic samples of C-mon (from Dutch band Kypski) was a highlight. Vatcher played with the appearance of someone puzzled by what he was being asked to do, the Dutch sense of humor evident at the same time as the dashing musicianship. Sicilian trumpeter Roy Paci joined for the last three numbers, adding bite and illuminating "Looking For Work," the outstanding selection of the set, in a rambunctious mano a mano with alto saxophonist Matt Darriau, out of Brooklyn, over tumbling drums.
The Ex & Brass Unbound
The final concert of the evening produced a complete change of pace, combining the Dutch punk band The Ex with the multinational horn section of The Ex & Brass Unbound, in a high energy collision. At first the horns were lost in the mix, but later adjustments meant their boisterous interjections cut through the interlocking guitar and drum riffs. Chicago reedman Ken Vandermark took a squalling tenor saxophone solo on the second piece, while the three-way horn explosionwith the baritone saxophone outpouring of Mats Gustafsson and trumpet incisions of Roy Paciwhich ended another number, was one of the highlights. While the band's loud volume and declamatory vocals weren't to everyone's liking, calls for an encore still ensued.
From left: Mats Gustafsson, Ken Vandermark
One of the attractions in a star-studded lineup was the number of groups from Berlin invited to participate, in honor of that city's jazz scene. Helpfully programmed together on a Berlin-themed route, it was possible to catch at least one set from each band, demonstrating the broad range of music associated with the German capital. One of the prevailing characteristics was the easy fluency between atonal chaos and tuneful order, which helped make potentially difficult presentations more readily accessible. What follows was this writer's experience of the festival, but there were surely many others, with the artists left un-sampled, including New York reedman Ned Rothenberg, the strings of Okkyung Lee and Wilbert de Joode, British duo Trevor Watts and Veryan Weston, and Belgian big band Flat Earth Society.