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North Sea Jazz 2018

Phillip Woolever By

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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.

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