North Sea Jazz Festival 2013
Rotterdam, the Netherlands
July 12-14, 2013
The North Sea Jazz Festival is firmly entrenched as one of the best events anywhere for jazz lovers, and also for the music-makers themselves, who relish the atmosphere and the appreciative audiences that typically jam the thirteen venues running simultaneously in the mammoth Ahoy building in Rotterdam. The 2013 edition did nothing but enhance its reputation, presenting a wide variety of jazz styles represented by musicians from a wide array of countries, and music and musicians spanning generations.
It's a festival where people can also see rock stars (Sting, Santana, Stevie Winwood this year), blues artists (Charlie Musslewhite, Ben Harper, Mud Morganfield, Gary Clark Jr.) and R&B musicians (John Legend, Larry Graham, Bobby Womack, Charlie Wilson). There's something for everyone. But mostly it's jazz, from new bands to tried-and-true jazz giants.
The city of Rotterdam is the perfect place: laid back, inviting, attractive. It has chic, funky neighborhoods, nice restaurants, great art and architecture. It's peaceful, and it opens it arms for the musicians and fans who flock to the city for the three-day music extravaganza.
It's impossible to see everything or everyone, so whittling down the list is important in order to get a full appreciation of an artist's offerings. Missing great talent is inevitable, but the talent one gets to see is extraordinary and fulfilling.
On Friday's opening night, the outstanding Medeski, Martin & Wood trio was among the highlights. Each is involved in his own projects on the side, but when these three get together, which is still often, its teamwork at its best. Playing on various vamps, the group is off and running. They know where each person is at, and with that knowledge they can play with the rhythm, take off on a slightly new, off-the-cuff tweaking of a composition, and they can lock into a groove and put the audience into a delightful trance. Medeski continues to show he's one of the finest keyboardists out there, on organ, acoustic and electric pianos and other electronica. He can be a mad scientist, twisting sounds, or swing like mad. Wood locks in on bass and makes the music groove and move, while Martin's rhythms, whether simple or ornate, always enhance and/or push the music.
Terence Blanchard runs one of the finest bands around, thanks in a large part to drummer Kendrick Scott, who makes music with the drum kitsubtle shifts, swirling cymbal sounds, odd meters, rock-steady swing. He always adds color and texture, not just percussion. Blanchard's horn is as strong and majestic as ever, cutting in, around and through the melodies. Most of the music came from the band's release Magnetic (Blue Note, 2013). "No Borders, Just Horizons," by Scott, "Jacob's Ladder," by young bassist Joshua Crumbly, and Blanchard's "Don't Run," were outstanding. Fabian Almazan on piano always cooks and is a bright composer, and saxophonist Brice Winston is sharp and inventive.
The Syndicate, an offshoot of the late Joe Zawinul's band, provided music very much in the mold of what Zawinul was up to in his latter yearsinfectious funk and bright melodies as a backdrop for improvisations. Bassist Alune Wade was funky and strong and guitarist Allegre Correa provided dashes of sizzle, as did Thierry Eliez on electric keyboards.
Reed player Anat Cohen received the Paul Acket Award, named in honor of the festival founder, for a jazz musician who is accomplishing much, yet is somewhat under the radar. Not sure Cohen fills the bill for being underrated, because she has been winning polls for her clarinet playing and is recognized as one of the fine young talents in the art form, but she deserved the award at any rate. And she proved what a fine player she is with her outstanding quartet. One can always feel the joy and genuine love for the art that Cohen has, in addition to being a musician with outstanding chops. She did herself proud again.
Saturday turned out to be the day for burning, kick-ass, no-holds-barred jazz at some of the stages, if one so chose. Kenny Barron, one of the elite pianists, brought with him George Mraz on bass and Lewis Nash on drums, and for trio music that's nirvana. Barron still plays with all the drive, bounce and elan one can be expected to muster. And he writes great tunes, from thoughtful, mid-tempo romps to sweet ballads. The band also played some of the classic numbers and burned like Georgia asphalt. Mraz was fleet-fingered with great tone, knowing every change, and Nash dashed and darted through each, coloring Barron's statements with rhythmic accoutrements that were always hip and often exciting. They went through some jazz chestnuts, as well as Barron's "The Question Is." A special thing was "Second Thoughts," by Barron's close friend pianist Mulgrew Miller, who died some weeks ago. It was a fine dedication.
Eliane Elias is known lately for her beautiful, soft singing voice in the samba genre and she excels at it. But it belies the fact that she is a superb pianist. In Rotterdam, she did both, but a lot of straight jazz cooking, as her band was augmented by Randy Brecker on trumpet and Joe Lovano on sax, who blew the roof off the place on some intensely swinging numbers. When she sang "Fotographia," Lovano was a perfect foil with a soft but creative solo, like Getz-Gilberto. Another twist to the band was the appearance of Amanda Brecker, daughter of Elias and Brecker from their previous marriage, who has a nice voice and presence. Mother and daughter sang a duet on "Rosa Morena" and it was blissful, including a gorgeous sax solo from Lovano.
Nice to see the unsung and immensely talented Willie Jones II fronting a quintet that could have burned up a cornfield. They wailed, propelled by his forceful drumming and super-quick stick work. His rhythm section mates Danny Grissett and bassist Daryl Hall were right in step. Each Grissett solo was dazzling. Put Eddie Henderson's trumpet and Justin Robinson's sax on top of that and you had nuclear fission. Henderson is as strong and inventive as ever, with a sweet clean sound. Robinson burned and fit right in with this wild bunch.
Henderson pulled double duty a bit later with the Cookers, another mainstream jazz unit that takes no prisoners. Drummer Billy Hart is the glue that holds this music together, with polyrhythms aplenty. He laid down the cushion with Cecil McBee on bass, over which the others could blow freely. Pianist George Cables was wonderful, gliding the keys expertly, and everything done with swing and great taste. Saxophonist Donald Harrison filled in terrifically in Craig Handy's absence. Saxophonist Billy Harper and trumpeter/leader Dave Weiss also brought the heat. The band is aptly named.
Brecker left the Elias set to star in his Brecker Brothers Reunion band, his wife Ada Rovati taking the saxophone spot once held by his brother, the late Michael Brecker. The band had great energy and rhythmic drive and the horns were in fine form, playing music for an album to be released later in the year, which the leader said would be called Brecker Brothers Reunion Band.
Sunday was a day for larger ensembles. Both Herbie Hancock and Lovano did sets with the fantastic Metropole Orkest based in the Netherlands, the renowned big band complete with a huge string section and conducted by Vince Mendoza. Ron Carter did a scintillating set with the other fine European big band, Germany's WDR Big Band, conducted by the fine American drummer Dennis McKrell.
Hancock's set featured some of his classic's like "Maiden Voyage" and "Eye of the Hurricane," as well as some things associated with his tenure with Miles Davis, like a very intriguing redesign of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints." The hero of that set was the music itself, its wonderful original design and then the re-imaginations of the various arrangements. In selected spots, Hancock would play but never unleash. He played certain improvisations in the windows of the arrangement, but was somewhat restrained. Not Lovano. His set was a tribute to the well loved John Coltrane album Ballads (Impulse!, 1963). The arrangements of those tunes, "What's New," "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)," "It's Easy to Remember," "Say It (Over and Over Again)" and so on, were lush and grand, as they should be for those memorable ballads. But when it was time to solo, Lovano was out front, injecting his personality, his bold and probing style. Each statement he made was beautiful, alternating a fat, sweet ballad tone with his characteristic serpentine bursts of joy, bursts of exploration. The songs had Lovano's fingerprints all overa very good thing.
Carter's set was arrangements by his friend Bob Freedman, featured on Ron Carter's Great Big Band (High Hat, 2013). And the WDR unit tore it up, swinging to the rafters, with good soloists on each tune. Carter himself was wonderful, his fingers fast, his ideas always moving and, as he says, always bringing the right notes. Not to mention that big sound that says "Ron Carter," which has graced countless bands and albums over decades. He also played an unaccompanied piece, "You Are My Sunshine," which turned the trite novelty song into an improvisational opus. Creativity of the highest order.
Meanwhile Ahoy was also getting its share of the blues, with Bonnie Raitt performing as well as ever. Her voice is still powerful and deeply soulful, and when she segues from the blues, she can still rock the house. Her band was tight and displayed her talents in a great light. Ben Harper (guitar) and Charlie Musselwhite (harmonica) played old-fashioned blues that took that music back to earlier days. Harper is a fine blues singer and his guitar style keeps things simple, but scorching and extremely effective at the same time. Musselwhite has the feel and the groove for the music he's been playing for decades with a myriad of blues greats.
The Swallow QuintetSteve Swallow on bass, Carla Bley on organ, Chris Speed on sax, Steve Cardenas on guitar and Jorge Rossy on drums, was exquisite. Interesting compositions, superb interplay and fine solos by all. They were having fun and it showed, which added to the grand set of music.
Marcus Miller's music isn't in the jazz pocket (he doesn't intend it to be), but there are intricacies to the soul, funk, and fusion he brings, and his thundering bass is always nice to hear. He had the crowd dancing. In a very intimate, nightclub-like room inside Ahoy, alto saxophonist Will Vinson played good music with two mates, guitarist Lage Lund and bassist Orlando la Flemming. Vinson, a British-born musician who's been part of the fine Brooklyn jazz scene for a few years, has a great sound and worked well with Lund, with whom he collaborates frequently. The music fit the room, intricate and thoughtful as opposed to bombastic. Nice stuff.
A pleasurable find was Jazz Juvenocracy, a group of very young musicians who were extremely tight, playing mainstream jazz including a very cool twist on "Caravan" that was hip and popping. Bit Risner played good trumpet solos and she knew how to moan and bray with a plunger. Mario Santana played some hot violin licks and saxophonist Thomas Shepard had a nice sound and groove. The New Collective, a Dutch group fronted by trumpet and sax, played a combination of Dave Grusin and Spro Gyra style that sounded much better than the latter and had a nice, but not cloying groove with decent solos.
All photos: R.J. DeLuke