29th North Sea Jazz Festival
The Hague, The Netherlands
July 9-11, 2004
The North Sea Jazz Festival is not for the weak or the meek. More than 200 concerts in the sprawling Congress Centre featured top jazz musicians as well as blues, soul, R&B, crossover and world-music artists, plus numerous student ensembles. Navigating routes to 16 stages of simultaneous performances amid a crowd of 23,000 daily, I was body-slammed often enough to empathize with lady wrestlers.
The 29th annual festival offered 23 hours of music played by 1,200 musicians on three afternoons and evenings, followed by jam sessions until daybreak at a nearby hotel. My most memorable experiences were in smaller venues of several hundred listeners, compared to thousands in larger halls where the best views were via gigantic video screens. A three-decade era will end next year, the festival scheduled to move to Rotterdam in 2006.
Friday, July 9
By pre-planning and staying on the move, I heard segments of eleven performances in eight hours, plus three hours of the jam. I started out in a subterranean venue with the mainstream mode of the Los Angeles-based Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. The set launched the band's European tour and featured John Clayton's luscious arco bass, his brother Jeff's luminous alto and riffs from octogenarian trumpeter Snooky Young, The 75th birthday of Horace Silver was commemorated in an original titled "Silver Celebration," propelled by drummer Jeff Hamilton.
After an ear-peek of pop star Elvis Costello fronting a philharmonic orchestra, I entered a small hall that was SRO for an intense McCoy Tyner Trio set. A more intimate setting showcased Benny Green and Russell Malone entrancing with contrapuntal duo readings of American standards.
Needing to assure a place for the Dave Brubeck Quartet concert, I had to skip Buddy Guy, Pat Martino, John Scofield, Gary Burton-Makoto Ozone, Santana, Martial Solel and even Roy Ayers. The octogenarian time-traveler rewarded strongly on both bop and stride styles. I had to leave before it ended to catch balladeer Andy Bey's mesmerizing renditions of evergreen ballads.
Segueing to Lee Konitz's set, I attained jazz nirvana when he called "Moon Dreams" from Miles' seminal Birth of the Cool album. The nonet later seared through "Cherokee" before I shifted to the artful duo of trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and pianist Fred Hersch.
Joining another full house for the Joe Lovano Quartet, I was treated to piano icon Hank Jones and a bevy of enduring ballads. Too soon my self-imposed schedule found me climbing six flights to the roof-terrace for the New Cool Collective, a big band from The Netherlands playing film classics such as Lalo Schifrin's charts from "Mission Impossible and "Dirty Harry." The set was one of today's themed stages, including duo settings, an all-piano venue and an electro-fusion locale dedicated to Jaco Pastorius.
Closing the day in the main theater, Michael Brecker's Uzi-speed tenor fronted an exciting quindectet (15 including strings), although I felt better satisfied in his later combo settings. As this year's artist-in-residence, Brecker was scheduled for multiple concerts throughout the weekend, from solo and quartet to quindectet and orchestra, plus several clinics.
At 2 a.m., scores hurried down the street to the BelAir Hotel jam where mostly locals and aspirants performed, although Jeff Hamilton graciously took a turn on drums before I left three hours later at daybreak.
Saturday, July 10
Although I hoped not to run myself as hard as the first day, I still heard major parts of nine performances, beginning with the incredible Ahmad Jamal. The hall was at capacity an hour before the music started, with 100+ waiting outside, but I gained entry with my media badge. Jamal rewarded with a masterful mix of fluid runs and muscular attacks as he inventively explored perennials and introduced charts from his new CD, In Search Of.
Most of us stayed for the James Carter Quintet, an exuberant combo playing velvety ballads and super-charged swing, the leader a dapper figure in pin-stripes. On the move again, I caught a portion of guitarist Larry Carlton's set on the courtyard big screen before I again climbed to the roof terrace to hear Chris Potter handle the diversity of Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom" and Beck's "Little One."
I remained for a full set by Kenny Barron, including Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" and excerpts from the pianist's new CD, Images. The quartet featured assertive vibraphonist Stefon Harris and the debut of two recent graduates of the Manhattan School of Music where Barron teaches: flutist Anne Drummond performed with fluid grace, and female drummer Kim Thompson played with authoritative force, although sometimes too loud for a piano-flute-vibes configuration.
Four sets on a "Let Freedom Ring" theme referred to the message works of Coltrane and Mingus, the legacy continued by four bands including L.A.-based Build An Ark with a salute to the life work of SoCal activist-musician Horace Tapscott.
By 11 p.m., I had visited Zap Mama (Afro-beat) and heard Michel Camilo's crisp melody lines and crashing chords abetted by fiery drummer Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez. But I missed Stanley Clarke, Miroslav Vitous, Tuck and Patti, Uri Caine and Danilo Perez in order to get to highly touted The Bad Plus (innovative, if not pure jazz) and Pat Metheny (always fresh and exciting).
'Round midnight brought me to a pair of headliners. Captivating Al Jarreau turned his set into sing-along, and Patti LaBelle was generous with dazzling retrospects from her 40-year-career. Again, big screens offered the best views in these huge halls.
Then it was back to serious jazz with Branford Marsalis exploring neo-classical turf before a sharp shift into jazz-as-entertainment by 24-year-old pianist-vocalist Jamie Cullum (feet on keys, fingers on strings, drumming the underbelly while lying on his back). Again, it was jam time at the hotel in a town where no one sleeps during this happily exhausting jazz weekend.
Sunday, July 11
Today's selected agenda of nine sessions began with Alicia Keys, a regrettable choice. Beauteous and talented, she was totally unrecognizable from her Grammy-winning work of a few years ago, having morphed into a pop diva with the strut and choreography of Michael Jackson (hat tipped over the eyes) and Britney Spears (but more clothing).
My jazz soul was quickly revived by the Danish Radio Big Band, directed by Maria Schneider and featuring gifted Ivan Lins on keys-vocals and the legendary Dutchman "Toots" Thielemans on harmonica. Soon after, Charlie Haden's New Liberation Music Orchestra featuring pianist Carla Bley delivered power-plus, the leader's resonant post-bop bass soaring above horn sections.
Festival favorite Dee Dee Bridgewater further replenished my jazz spirit with a commanding set that featured eloquent Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sanchez, whose "Prayer for Peace" was so gracefully beautiful and moving it should be added to standard repertoires.
A memorable Franco-American merger teamed Pete Christlieb (described in the bio-book as "the most famous anonymous tenor player in the world") and Ferdinand Povel, the stylish sax-masters burning with bop-classics interplay. I boogied by a big-screen James Brown en route to the sizzling alto summit of Bud Shank and Phil Woods, then heard altoist Jackie McLean exchange fissionized improvisation with his son Rene on multiple reeds.
Making it to those performances meant missing sets by many others: Eddie Palmieri, Hugh Masekela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Ben Allison and Medicine Wheel, Bill Frisell, Bill Mays, Brad Meldau-Joshua Redman with Kurt Rosenwinkel. That's just the way it had to be at this gigantic festival.
Then it was time for the big finale, the brilliant quartet of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland and Brian Blade. When I heard them earlier at the Playboy festival in Hollywood, their set was uneven and disjointed. This time, the interplay was more cohesive, especially on Shorter's renowned "Footprints"; this quartet is becoming as memorable as those of Miles and Blakey.
The festival's three-day admission was 145 euros (approximately $175), including performances by Jarreau, Carlton, Guy, Brown, Clarke, LaBelle, Gray and Santana in a huge hall fitted with three big screens plus another in an outdoor food court.
Ten additional concerts cost 15 euros each ($20), including those by Brubeck, Costello, Bridgewater, Hancock-Shorter, Metheny, Marsalis, Keys. There also were daily performances by student bands, clinics and workshops, photo exhibits, blindfold tests, live radio interviews, instrument displays and merchandise booths.
Food and drink coolers were permitted, although refreshment stands were in abundance indoors and outside, the longest lines at the popular "lekkerbek" whole fried-fish counter.
Visit the North Sea Jazz Festival on the web at www.northseajazz.com .