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North Sea Jazz 2018

North Sea Jazz 2018
Phillip Woolever By

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North Sea Jazz
Rotterdam, Netherlands
July 13-15, 2018

Amidst the cornucopia of summertime festivals, there sits a juggernaut. That's North Sea Jazz, where a dozen performance spaces named after rivers around the world offer a sound garden of global delights. The full-tilt feast flows gloriously during the second full weekend of July in a wild spectrum of musical royalty, rare improvisation and precise calculation.

The festival's relocation from The Hague in 2006 proved to be a prescient move, as the constantly upgrading city of Rotterdam has grown out of nearby Amsterdam's shadow. It's no exaggeration to claim that in relative terms of powerful performances or artistic quality over a 72-hour period, few other gatherings in the jazz genre come close. This year's edition kept that impressive tradition intact.

The Ahoy complex, which sits approximately five miles from center city, adapts a vibrant, pulsing personality all it's own. As tens of thousands of visitors inhabit multiple halls in a structure that's generally a conference and concert hub, it wouldn't be inaccurate to annex the setting into a Dutch suburb called Jazz Town.

The program is always massive. There are usually at least ten performances during the same time frame, so it's impossible for someone to witness every treat individually.

What follows are some of the acts AAJ was lucky enough to catch, for varying intervals, throughout the weekend. Every one of them was worth sticking around for an entire set. Musical abundance, thy name is North Sea.

Robert Glasper's R+R project featured a stellar line-up that included Terrace Martin (keyboards, vocoder, saxophone), Christian Scott (trumpet), Taylor McFerrin (keys, vocoder electronics), Derrick Hodge (bass) and Justin Tyson (drums). Despite high temperatures inside the packed, humid tent-like structure deemed Congo, everyone stayed relatively cool. There was lots of lighthearted banter exchanged between Glasper's crew and the enthusiastic crowd. "We're very deep jazz musicians up here," he joked as they began a modified introduction to "Butterfly" by Herbie Hancock which opened a cocoon of switched pacing.

Martin keyed up warped vocal effects that encircled the steamy, tentlike venue deemed Congo. When Scott stepped up to center stage phone cameras appeared en masse to record his exquisite explorations. Glasper's thematic groove was exemplary but his first extended solo was a bit too loudly repetitive, stuck somewhere sticky between worthwhile improvisation and art for art's sake. It was deep, maybe too deep but most of the interplay between keys was just fine. Scott unwound any tangled overkill with sticky staccato breaks while Tyson and and Hodge held things down like a submarine beneath the surface.

Regardless of some minor snags, this band produced some of the festival's most unique experimentation. Few groups could match their unquestionable skills.

Marcus Miller has been around North Sea enough times that he can play the crowd almost as well as he can play the bass. His set featured a series of superb solos in a sixty minute highlight reel that kept a good percentage in a crowd of well over 5,000 people dancing throughout. Miller was accompanied by Alex Han on sax, Russell Gunn on trumpet, Brett Williams on keys and Alex Bailey on drums. As good as it gets.

In case Miller's funkathon wasn't enough of a showcase in the art of precision bass, Stanley Clarke offered a master class of his own with a pleasingly unusual lineup featuring Beka Gochiashvili and Beka Gochiashvili on dual keyboards, Shariq Tucker on drums and Nader Salar on tabla. As technicians, it's apples and oranges between Clarke and Miller, both offer equally sweet nectar for the ears.

Every year, the Paul Acket Award, named after the festival's founder, goes to an artist that according to the press release is "deserving wider recognition for their extraordinary musicianship." This year's prizewinner was pianist Kaja Draksler, who relocated to the Netherlands from Slovenia when she was eighteen, finding both a new home and some unusual musical pathways. She appeared with her octet (including Lennart Heyndels on bass and Onno Govaert on drums), but the project was obviously a newer taste that not enough listeners acquired.

Interaction between violinist George Dumitriu and the reeds of Ab Baars and Ada Rave wove textures distinctly different from other acts while vocalists Bjork Nielsdottir and Laura Polence aligned in pleasantly abstract harmonies, but the ensemble couldn't hold even a small crowd's interest for very long. Most observers came in and caught a glimpse of the hall that was only about one-quarter filled, gave a perfunctory listen, then quickly skedaddled to more lively parameters.

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