Curacao North Sea Jazz Festival: Curacao, August 31-September 1, 2012
Curacao North Sea Jazz Festival
World Trade Center
August 31-September 1
The Caribbean island of Curacao can claim, after three years, that its jazz festival is a success. It sells out tickets and brings people to the island, which depends so heavily on tourism. More music lovers should look into the festival, as much for its exotic ambiance as for the opportunity to see jazz, pop and R&B stars in a welcoming venue.
The event is produced by the same folks who run the amazing North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Curacao is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, hence the connection, and the North Sea name being kept for branding purposes. Over two nights, on three stages, people enjoy some fine music, even though it's far from a true "jazz" festival. There's always a lot of Latino flavoring in the acts and has as much pop and R&B as it does the art form of jazz. In the daytime hours, the incredible beauty of the beaches, the land, the attractionseven the peoplecan be relished. Hotels are lavish, the food varied, interesting and good.
In 2012, jazz fans could be satisfied with James Farm, the excellent cooperative band comprised of saxophonist Joshua Redman, bassist Matt Penman, drummer Eric Harland and pianist Aaron Parks. The group went straight to the heart of jazz, as did the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band. The wonderfully soulful India.Arie was a special artist, though not jazz. Pianist Joe Sample's trio straddled the line between jazz and pop, playing some straight-ahead stuff and accompanying singer Randy Crawford, who covered a variety of styles including pop and soul and some jazzy selections.
Guitar burner Carlos Santana provided enough fire for any music fan, while keeping fans of his popular side pleased as well. Clarinetist/saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera knocked people out with his musicianship and also his sense of humor during his banter with the audiencein two languages. Performers like Ruben Blades, Luis Salinas, Sergio George and Marc Anthony are wildly popular in the Caribbean, so a lot of the schedule was dedicated to that kind of music, which included salsa, Latin jazz and other influences, strongly injected with a barrage of varied rhythms. Stuff that moves the feet, for sure.
Also there was Allen Toussaint, the pianist/songwriter from New Orleans, where he is an R&B and blues icon. His first step was a rendition of "There's a Party Goin' On." There was, but this party wasn't R&B hits. In the band was saxophonist/clarinetist Don Braden and guitarist Marc Ribot, in addition to a rhythm section. Braden, a player with few peers, blew sharp, bluesy choruses over tunes that touched, at times, on bouncing pop, but more often than not were the blues. Ribot, for his part, played an old-looking acoustic and made it moan. Hunched over the guitar, holding it like it was his favorite child, Ribot's solo lines were scorching, each note ringing out clear and strong. Like Buddy Guy on those rare occasions when he picks up an acoustic guitar.
The band covered tunes like "St. James Infirmary" "Summertime" and "Blues in the Night," sometimes segueing one into another. Toussaint compositions were sprinkled in during a very pleasing and inspired show.
A special treat was the appearance of Joshua Redman, who came in from the wings to play a duet with Toussaint, "Day Dream." It was touching. Redman doesn't play many standard ballads, what with his searching and groundbreaking work with other bands. But what a reminder of how rich and expressive his tenor can be, with a sensual sound that touches people. Like his dad, the late Dewey Redman, could do. Delicious.
Toussaint, dressed in pants the color of the Blue Curacao liqueur, played the piano as hip and cool as ever. He's influenced many cats over the years and it was a pleasure to hear him still at it and strong in his seventies.
Santana's band was as high powered as ever. Plenty of rhythms crossing and driving the music, and two horns to accentuate various musical passages. The first part of his long set included covering some of his radio hits from years gone by, and some newer ones that younger people know. In some respects, it was Santana as entertainer, not as artist. That's his right. He has both qualities. But as the night wore on, he shifted gears and gave music lovers the right dose of his signature moaning, expressive voice on guitar. "Europa" was bliss, as he wrung all the emotion out of the well-known melody, but the arrangement then changedrefreshinglyto a more rhythmic style before coming back around.
From there, while arrangements were tight (and smoking), Santana went on more daring jaunts, improvising and showing why he's one of the more memorable guitarists in rock music. At one point he wailed over Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue," made famous by saxophonist John Coltrane. Entertainer and artist were both right on target during the show.
The Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band is a powerful group and was in good form. At first, it covered some of the great bebop compositions associated with trumpeter Gillespie, who was one of its main architects. The great Jimmy Heath directed, when he wasn't playing his tenor sax. On "Thing to Come," several soloistsincluding the entire trumpet sectionscreamed out solos of which Gillespie would have been proud. Following the brazen brass, alto saxophonist Sharel Cassity stepped up to the mic, blowing choruses that didn't take a back seat to the men for a seconddiving in, around and through the arrangement.
When guest leader D'Rivera came to the stage things changed somewhat, as the music was dominated by his compositions and had a more distinct Latin feel. Pernell Saturnino, a percussionist and native of Curacao, helped provide that emphasis. D'Rivera showed he's still a great technician on clarinet and sax, always playing with vigorous spirit. "I Remember Dizzy" was his tribute to the trumpet master, while"To Brenda With Love" was a bright, energetic number and perfect for the power of the band.
D'Rivera played with his septet the following night. The music included things from classical composers like Mozart and Chopin, arranged in a Latin jazz vein. The result was highly charged music, incorporating the telltale rhythms, supplied by Saturnino. It was heavily arranged and executed to perfection. The improvisations came from the soloists, like D'Rivera and Diego Urcola, who was blazing on both trumpet and valve trombone. Urcola also played the night before with the big band, but getting to hear him take off more on both of his instruments was a joy. Urcola is relatively unheralded, but a great player.
James Farm has been playing for a few years now, developing, tweaking and changing the tunes somewhat over time. Its self-titled 2011 Nonesuch debut is superb, but hearing the quartet live is a great journey. Its members know each other so well, they are in tune with every nuance and can follow one another if things extend or a direction changes. Redman is one of the true modern greats on his instrument, his sound so strong and his ideas so creative. Penman is solid as a rock and plays patterns that both augment and push the music. Harland has the ability to be incredibly intense or as soft as a floating butterfly. He's always musical and in touch with what's going on around him. Parks always digs in and provides a cascade of interesting lines and stories. Hard to say what he might come up with next in terms of color and texture, but it's always something good that sometimes even raises the brows of his mates.
They do all-original music, and blazed their way through Redman's "If By Air and "Polliwog," Parks' "Unravel" and "Chronos," Harland's "I-10" and Penman's "1981."
Joe Sample still plays fine piano, whether it's jazz or dipping into the pop stream that he occupies some of his time. The pianist and his group played jazz to warm up for the appearance of Randy Crawford, a singer who drew a huge crowd for the indoor stage (the other two are outdoors in the warm island air). She possessed a voice that was kind of soft and gentle, with a bright style and good timing. She got across a certain joy to her listeners, clearly knew how to negotiate the twists of a tune, and worked totally in synch with Sample. Swing, soul and pop, they handled it all with good taste.
"Happiness is a Thing Called Joe" was swinging, "Tell Me More" a sultry blues and "A Rainy Night in Georgia" a warm recollection. "One Day I'll Fly Away" was a crowd pleaser. Crawford is a good listen.
India.Arie invests herself into each and every song. She uses her strong, lush voice as an instrument of emotion. She writes some great songs that usually have a lesson or explain an experience. This woman isn't in it just to be on stage. As a result, her songs are touching. There's also a sense of power.
With only a quartet of musicians behind her, and two backup singers, she closed the festival with a convincing set of music. One gem was "Blackbird," a popular Beatles ballad which she performed alone, accompanying herself on guitar. Luscious. Her well-known "Video," was brief, but still right to the heart. The woman has one hell of a soulful voice and a great look on life.
It would be remiss to mention that the festival also had some individual concerts during the week to raise the buzz for the festival. Most important was a performance by singer Gregory Porter at the Brakkeput Mei Mei restaurant, where they also have a very nice concert venue.
Porter's standing as a jazz singer is rightfully rising. He turned in a fantastic performance in Curacao, with his outstanding band. Porter had a lot of soul in his delivery, but swung like mad, with great time and feeling, like on "Black Nile." He also sang a ballad like "Skylark" with convincing passion and uplifting reverence, his baritone voice ringing true with each phrase. He was a dynamic performer who grabbed the attention and held it.
"Be Good"also the title to his latest album on Motéma Recordswas a masterpiece of good musical taste. The melody and its appealing changes were stirring. The lyric was a delightful difference from what is usually heard in a waltz ballad. Add the charm of his voice and the result is something special. On the opposite end of that, but equally special, was "1960 What?" This was a very intense, driving account of racial unrest in Detroit (that could be easily applied to other cities) in the 1960s. It was spellbinding, as he sang with spirit and intensity. It is probably the best song of this type since Billie Holiday sang "Strange Fruit"and not all of the lyrics were something that remained behind in the 1960s, unfortunately).
Porter also had a fine touring band. Saxophonist Yosuke Sato was a real burner and his solos complimented the nature of each song. Bassist Aaron James may go unnoticed in a singer's band, but he had a great deep tone and fleet fingers that were remarkable. That's a name we could be hearing a lot more of in the future.
The North Sea Jazz people have forged a fine event in the land far away from their home base. It made for a delectable weekend.