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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.

A far more successful formula came from popular Scottish singer-songwriter Emeli Sande, who strutted out with the volume up and fronted a much harder edge than her radio-friendly Brit-pop catalogue might suggest. The show of strength inspired many variously aged groups of women to make a noticeable push forward and dance at the front of the stage in apparent sisterhood during hits like "It Hurts," "Heaven" and "Free." Sande brought along a large backup band that matched her big vocals, with singers Adeola Shyllon and Subrina McCalla, Kenji Fenton on sax, Mike Davis on trumpet, Paul Burton on trombone, Dale Davis on bass, Nathan Allen on drums, Junior Alli-Balogun on percussion and Xantone Fayeton-Blaca on keys. Sande has garnished a slew of British accolades in recent years. This show demonstrated why.

Judging from an overflow crowd that looked to be more than 15,000 strong, The Roots were one of the weekend's most popular acts. The Philadelphia crew gained widespread mainstream recognition as the house band for Jimmy Kimmel Live but by then they had already built a sterling reputation through word of mouth concert reaction.

They opened with an extended jam based around War's 1970s AM radio staple "Me and Baby Brother," adding a typical mix of nuggets or hinting at riffs from a pleasantly surprising stew of both street dancing and political action. Every band member is a jamming grandmaster at teasing tip of the tongue pop tidbits then switching gears into multiple grooves. A "Sweet Child O' Mine" refrain morphed into a cheerful sing-along with "Hootchie Cootchie Man" overtures.

Founding members, vocalist Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter and drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson led the way while Damon "Tuba Gooding" Bryson, bassist Mark Kelly and guitarist "Captain" Kirk Douglas proved they were all-stars themselves. Douglas might have wielded his six string best of all in a wide-ranging weekend of unparalleled axmen. "UNIverse @ War" showed that commercial success has not diluted Black Thought's freestyle potency.

There were special guests like Cory Henry and Gary Clark, Jr. The singer Bilal testified in the soulful "It Ain't Fair," a powerful, unfortunately accurate present-day US anthem. His emotional phrasing at the ballad's climax was one of the very top vocals of the night, and the song itself was a sure contender for best single performance of the festival. A small, unidentified horn section deserved recognition in the program guide.

You don't have to look any further for a definition of good time music or consummate showmanship than the set by Niles Rogers and Chic. Rogers set the mile-high standard by appearing alone on stage ten minutes before scheduled start time, for a "fake" sound check. "I know this is super unprofessional," said Rogers as he strummed his guitar. It was actually quite the opposite, considering how poor the overall sound can be during the beginning of many festival sets.

This was a highly polished show, about as brilliant as they come; with a great video background that evolved from '70s pop graphics to hologram type imagery. There was more than enough solid bass slapping by Jerry Barnes and leads from the horn duo (Bill Holloman, sax and Curt Ramm, trumpet) to qualify as a jazzy gig. A run of "I'm Coming Out" "Upside Down" "Greatest Dancer" included back to back to back peaks that probably match up well with anybody touring.

Throw in "Everybody Dance" and "Let's Dance," and there was no chance of missing the message. Almost the entire crowd responded accordingly, as Rogers joked during a singalong, "You better get it right, there's only one word." Even the dated hit "Like a Virgin" was well executed, no pun intended. It's hard to legitimately maintain the mass momentum to keep a huge crowd actively animated throughout a show, and few acts are capable of it. Chic, for the most part, did it from start to finish.

Rogers offered an often repeated narrative about his feelings as a cancer survivor that was sincere enough to make even more of a connection to the audience. "It's a family affair, with all of you, in an auditorium called Nile?" he reflected with a personalized touch before "Get Lucky." Those who saw this exceptional show were pretty lucky too. The band (Folami Ankoanda Thomson and Kimberly Davis on vocals Russell Graham and Richard Hilton on keys, Ralph Rolle on drums) deserved every bit of the massive reception they received. It was one of the rare times happy strangers could be tightly squeezed, then squeezed some more, among many thousands of their peers and still feel great about it. Watching the pulsing parade of people who danced their way in to the fully packed hall during "We Are Family," you could see there was still high hope for humanity.

Artist in Residence Michael League was at the helm of a different new project each night, starting with fresh rearrangements of gems from Snarky Puppy (in which League plays bass) and the Metropole Orchestra, conducted by Jules Buckley. A similarly fruitful collaboration earned a Grammy for the album Sylva (Impulse 2015). Their closing blockbuster nearly brought the house down, during what sounded like a re-imagined medley of "Palermo" and "Sleeper."

The next night, League alternated between keys and bass in the dynamic trio project Elipsis, combining traditional basics and tomorrow's abstractions. League partnered with drummer Antonio Sanchez drums and multi-percussionist Pedrito Martinez, who added vocals to the mix. There were great, rotating layers of polyrhythms while League milked magic from a rack of synths. "This is called Nine, I think, we're still trying to figure out what the titles should be," mused Martinez introducing one extended jam.

Even as a work in progress, Elipsis is a complete package. Sanchez employed many of the trademark rolls he uses with Pat Metheny, but there were also untypical twists and tom-tom turns. It looked like the three players had a blast during every song. The crowd looked that way too.

A short stroll from the gigantic Chic extravaganza to this much more intimate set less than 100 meters away was a perfect example of North Sea's greatest strength, a close proximity, infinite range of acts with jazz foundations. For the last leg of his varied three-day program, League shifted to guitar and appeared with Bokante, a global formation that featured singer Malika Tirolien from Guadeloupe. The band's debut album arrived via League's label, Ground Up, which he founded.

Impeccable Gregory Porter also appeared with The Metropole Orchestra, conducted by Vince Mendoza. They partnered to create a temple of bliss, with much of the material derived from Porter's Nat "King" Cole tribute and brought out the best of Porter's originals like "When Love was King." There was plenty of top tier swinging on gems such as "But Beautiful" though the most sublime moments came from soaring ballads like "Nature Boy," which nearly hypnotized the masses. Porter's show demonstrated that slower tempos can easily pump people up just as much as the fast ones.

If North Sea has a fault, it's only because there are so many popular performers that hundreds of fans have to schedule and attend their choices so early they miss out on other great shows. Such was the case with modern bluesman Gary Clark, Jr.'s set, where thousands of listeners came early to ensure themselves a standing room only space.

The pre-packed arena was a true sign of the still growing recognition Clark has gained since his version of The Beatles' "Come Together" from the Justice League movie soundtrack started trending. Clark brought a superhero band of his own with Eric Zapata on guitar, Johnny Bradley on bass and Johnny Radelat on drums. They lit the place up with full power blues on "Don't Owe You a Thing" and "When My Train Pulls In." Zapata showed some stinging licks of his own in "Next Door Neighbor Blues" with Clark's superb slide work on a bright blue Gibson.

It was just one of the shows in which an already over-packed hall couldn't discourage hundreds more from squeezing in. The heated mass of humanity made for unavoidably intense intimacy on a gargantuan scale, while music shook the walls like reveling ghosts at the fabled crossroads. During a climactic frenzy that ended "Bright Lights" it seemed like both the crowd and the amps might melt down in bayou ecstasy.

For all of Clark's amazing licks, there was yet another testament of the festival's depth just a couple hundred meters away on an outdoor stage, where Dutch guitarist Jerome Hol and his trio with bassist Boudewijn Lucas and drummer Erik Kooger shredded at a similar level. Hol brought the Rotterdam conservatory serious street cred with raunchy riffs that heated up an already blazing afternoon.

Charles Lloyd and The Marvels were, indeed, marvelous featuring Bill Frisell on a recognizable, light blue Fender he's employed with remarkable effect at North Sea on previous occasions. Frisell merited plenty of slick solo time as the band offered subtle support before Lloyd stepped into the understated spotlight and reminded a vocally appreciative crowd why his name topped the marquee. Lloyd dispersed melancholy magic as Frisell picked through sparse background on classics like "Ballad of the Sad Young Men." When the rhythm section with Reuben Rogers (bass) and Eric Harland (drums) slid in it was a perfect example of how, while offering plenty of variety, NSJ continues to front the best pure jazz one could ever hope to hear. This was one of the better shows in the medium-sized venues, with a rotating audience of around five hundred in the Hudson hall.

If you had to pick a name for their sound, STUG probably comes as close as anything. The Amsterdam based band led by drummer Gerri Jager delivered an unconventional set . There were omnious but upbeat themes as various group electronics merged with droning bass lines by Laurens Smet, while Joachim Badenhorst lurked around the reeds. Sofia Jernberg 's generally sweet vocals added even more mystery and a hint of danger. Guitarist Raphael Vanoli blew and hummed on what must have been some pretty loose strings. Actually, between and zany effects, the group was interesting and pretty tight. On "Funky One," Jernberg shrieked like Yoko Ono as if it were progressive days of the plastic band but it all led to another situation of unusual music leading to empty seats and an audience that didn't stick around long.

After well-schooled Israeli guitarist Oz Noy relocated to New York City decades ago, he jammed with some of the top technicians around. The advanced education shows. The current quartet Noy appeared with are a very strong unit, and their NSJ gig featured fine, bluesrock traditions with excellent rotating solos by all. Jimmy Haslip stood out on a bombastic bass while drummer Gary Novak maintained his own flawless bottom lines. There was a humorous visual as organist Scott Kinsey loomed over his tiny keyboard and belted out huge runs, with his chart sheets on a diminutive reading tablet. Whatever scales applied, this was a concert of substantial proportion. There was more room to stand near the Congo stage than during some of the other evening sets, so between excellent sounds and more comfortable sight lines it was hard for a listener to tear themself away and return to the crunching confines of much larger, more enclosed sardine cans like Maas or Nile. One of many highlights was an extended jam on a Thelonius Monk theme.

Delgres is a thundering trio that frontman Pascal Danae (vocals, guitar) described as a "journey from Guadeloupe to New Zealand," but they seemed to know no bounds. Whatever the mileposts, Delgres are a wonderful trip along zesty latitudes. The band is named for a freedom fighter and political passions are evident, even when sung in Creole. With Baptiste Brondy's drums shaking the floorboards and Raf Gee in the clouds on sousaphone/tuba they cooked up a New Orleans type gumbo of funk that drew in otherwise preoccupied passersby like instagram insects to everglades fire. Delgres were one of the tightest groups to appear on a smaller platform. That midway stage, Congo Square, was relatively tiny, but these powerful pundits made it a very substantial space.

Youthful UK crooner J P Cooper got a shot at Nile, the festival's biggest venue, and while there was nothing really faulty, his performance never scaled the heights of most other acts in the huge, modified exhibition hall. "September Song" showed promise, while John Lennon's "Jealous Guy" caught the essence, but not much more. For the most part, Cooper and his band played a set that stalled in the middle of the road. Some of the audience looked delighted while others seemed to completely ignore what emanated from the stage. Standing out at NSJ requires a solid "A" game. Cooper scored a "C."

The outdoor space Mississippi is a bit of a quandary. The scheduled there are generally talented enough to excel on their own, but due to the preponderance of international headliners, the less renown are relegated to NSJ's biggest open-air stage, situated at an always busy pedestrian thoroughfare leading from one big hall to another. Accurate assessments on relative popularity can be made based on the number of people who stop on their way to see the stars.

One group that drew a large crowd was Vintage Future & Mell, an old school pop trio who represented homegrown Dutch talent well. Behind singer Melanie Jank, organist Nico Brandsen and drummer Ton Dijkman rocked beat machines and the people who paused to listen between concession stands. "Central Station" and "Alright" were cool, competent compositions. "Call My Name" verified a handle on slow blues. They held the fickle crowd's loyalty until Mell picked up an acoustic guitar to slow things down with a ballad, triggering a mass evacuation that showed the crowd's singular party demographic. Too bad. It was actually a pretty good song.

Another act that stopped traffic (much more than momentarily) was Knower, a trippy duo from Los Angeles made up of primary recording partners Genevieve Artadi and multi-tasking Louis Cole on drums and programming. They were joined on tour by shape-shifting keyboardists Jacob Mann and Rai Thistleway, with Sam Wilkes on a barometric bass. Knower may not break any new ground, but they cover digital territory very well on songs like "Hangin On," "Time Traveler" and "Overtime." Their writing is clever, and tunes like "Butts, Tits, Money" verified they know where the bread is buttered.

Artadi maintained a bouncy abundance of cheerful energy and displayed an attractive, spunky presence. She pranced around stage with engaging vocals while the band rocked along a twisting trail of hyper-hypnotic techno beats. The front-woman also displayed a sense of humor after taking a brief spill during "Pizza," confessing the fall was probably her karma coming due for laughing at other performers' similar mishaps.

GoGo Penguin (Chris Illingworth piano, Nick Blacka bass, Rob Turner drums) have recently garnished a lot of European exposure, often inaccurately billed as electro-type trance wunderkinds. Considering advance publicity, it was a little surprising to find the band's show less packed than some others in the same venue, but that could be due to the amount of recent touring Go Go Penguin has done in the region. To their credit, there were few artifical effects during much of their North Sea set, which was presented as a more traditional piano trio with hard, abstract edges. Doing so, they more than lived up to their hype.

The performer who seemed most likely to make the next step toward major stardom was British singer-songwriter Tom Misch. Misch is a guitarist who inspires comparisons to John Mayer's earlier days with tunes like "Colors of Freedom," "I Wish" and "It Runs Through Me" in a catchy catalog of upbeat romantic romps and heartfelt, bittersweet ballads. Misch and an excellent band (Tadgh Walsh-Peelo on guitar/violin, James Creswick on bass, Joseph Price on keys, Jamie Houghton on drums and MC Barnaba Ochora-Isukali) played a memorable set that hinted at major things to come. As they ran through his recent album Geography (2018, Beyond the Groove), standout numbers "Water Babies" and "Movie" certainly made it sound like those in attendance were witnessing a next big thing.

Prolific Chico Freeman offered another of the scintillating sets that proved whoever the headliners may be, North Sea remains atop the jazz food chain. No frills, just thrills. Freeman arrived with a first rate touring team and they immediately got down to highly satisfying business that inspired a noticeable reaction like the appetizer of a gourmet feast. Varied levels of precision percussion, from pianist Anthoney Wonsey plus Anthony Kerr on vibes and especially drummer Rudy Royston; were nearly worth the price of festival admission alone, expertly grounded by bassist Kenny Davis. With every layer of tenor Freeman laid down, tickets seemed like more and more of a bargain.

Contrary to many of the weekend's largest audiences, most people that got in before the rush didn't depart after a few songs in search of other green pastures. The result was a line that kept growing, like the cheers from the crowd and the forces of Freeman's set which included a riveting rendition of McCoy Tyner's "African Village." It was nice to see an elder, relatively unheralded jazz statesman like Freeman get the full house of enthusiastic accolades he deserved.

The only limitations at NSJ are an unavoidable lack of time and space. This year there were typical quandaries involving stellar attractions during identical time slots. Pharoah Sanders, Earth, Wind & Fire, or Sons of Kemet? The depth of daily programming means decisions, decisions and luxury problems. In fact, whatever the choice; one way or another, luxury listening remains the theme song of North Sea Jazz.

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