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North Sea Jazz 2018

Phillip Woolever By

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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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