North Sea Jazz Festival
July 11-13, 2008Introduction
The 33rd North Sea Jazz Festival was a showcase of epic proportions. 15 different stages in the Ahoy Centre played host to 200 artists; venues varied in size from large concert halls like the Amazon, Darling and Hudson to smaller, more intimate spaces and cavernous stadiumesque acoustic settings. With so much talent and variety on offer, it was very difficult deciding what to see: intriguing as it was to scout out obscure names on small stages, the lure of the jazz A-List often proved a little too tempting.
A festival day typically ran from between 4-5 pm until around 2 am, with an earlier start and finish on Sunday. Perhaps one improvement would be to have fewer performance spaces and always begin a little earlier, thus lessening the potential for agenda clashes and needing to leave gigs early. Nevertheless, the event was a sublime feat of organisational professionalism. Nearly everything ran on timea trait almost unheard of in the jazz worldand, with 70,000 visitors over three days, there obviously weren't many other complaints.
The key to drawing such a large attendance was undoubtedly the choice of several blatantly non-jazz headliners for prime slots on the biggest stages: Gnarls Barkley, Paul Simon and Chaka Khan stand as cases in point. However, one can bear no grudges as this pop factor was heavily saturated in the majority of the programme's content. Also, any strategy that can entice mainstream music fans into this metaphorical dark den of underground jazz demons cannot be faultedit was awesome to see so many people at a festival of this nature.
Day 1Friday, July 11
In retrospect, the festival's opening day was a relaxed prelude for things to come. First up was Charles Lloyd and his exciting quartet featuring Jason Moran (piano), Reuben Rogers (bass) and Eric Harland (drums). Now 70, the saxophonist was sporting a snappy ensemble with shaded glasses and his trademark beret. His performance, however, was unexpectedly disjointed: while Moran, Harland and Rogers were very much locked in together, Lloyd's playing was strangely disconnected, almost as if he were operating on a different level from his rhythm section. This disparity could have been due to evident teething problems for the sound crew on the Hudson stageit all seemed much too quiet, with snatches of other gigs drifting in quite audibly.
David S. Ware's performance in the atmospheric Missouri tent was another matter. Despite the music's obviously more open nature, a band consisting of iconic improviser William Parker on bass, impressive drummer Nasheet Waits and guitarist Joe Morris conveyed a greater sense of unity and understandingwith the occasional exception of uncertain contributions (or simple lack thereof) from the slightly confused-looking Morris. Ware's penetrating style was at its most potent, switching from textured, breathy phrases to full-on squawks, screams and extended streams of notes. Casual festival-goers wandering in received a shocking blast of the contemporary avant-garde; many looked rather perplexed, if not equally fascinated, by the raw, edgy tonal quality of this skull-capped elderly gentleman who sat down for the show's entirety. In spite of slightly frail appearances, Ware and Parker remain at the forefront of the free jazz movement. Collaboration with younger players like Waits has clearly given them a new lease of life and opened a fresh streak of creativity.
Next to perform on the same stage was London's Led Bib, a free improv group spearheaded by Zorn disciple Mark Holub. The dynamic quintet of two alto saxophones, organ/piano, drums and bass catalyses an infectious sense of energy which fills the roomas does the manic, twisted punk-jazz freeform fusion sound of the band. Holub's hyperactive drumming is the motor, supported by solid bass work from Liran Donin. This hard base of noise allows the keys player and the saxophones to break out with wild solos, often working in twos or all at once. Most remarkable, however, is the way they can snap back together as a tight unit, in the blink of an eye, after riotous passages of collective improvisation; tunes are typically built around sax-led melodic ideas that act as reference points. Led Bib has a small cult following back in London town and it was great to see the music export so well: a full house of absorbed onlookers emitted frequent shrieks of encouragement. This loud, passionate and unpredictable band will surely turn a few heads at many more festivals in the not-so-distant future.
Unfortunately there was no time for the full Led Bib enlightenment, as people were flocking to see Herbie Hancock and his elite quintet on the Hudson stage. Dave Holland (bass), Chris Potter (sax), Lionel Loueke (guitar) and Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) joined the legendary keysman for a thorough workout of the standard funk repertoire. It was highly enjoyable to behold Potter tearing through solos on a selection of familiar tunes, with the exception of Loueke's complicated composition "17" (yes, it has 17 beats), but one couldn't help thinking Hancock might have been more ambitious in his choices. The capacity crowd went mad for the likes of "Cantaloupe Island," "Watermelon Man" and "Chameleon," which were delivered in expected fine style, but many will have been disappointed not to see something more exploratory from a man with such a rich history of innovation. The closest they got to post-bop was Wayne Shorter's "Footprints." Holland stood out with a long, lyrical introduction on his own, and Hancock's harmonically cryptic solo was somewhat spoiled by heavy-handed clumsiness from Colaiuta, who is an incredible funk drummer but seems to lack a subtler side. Hancock was also guilty of indulging in keytar duels with Loueke and Potter (the latter of which he most certainly lost) and didn't seem able to keep hands off his rather cheap-sounding synth. But it definitely wasn't a bad gig by any means and, bearing in mind Hancock's recent slant towards the mainstream market, it probably wasn't a great surprise either.
Another father figure of funk, bassist Bootsy Collins, was due to finish the night in the Nile arenaa vast standing space with tiered seating at the sides. The gig was an extremely bizarre experience for several reasons. First of all, before Collins even got on stage, the audience was treated to lengthy semantics from a series of sideshow acts which hadn't been listed on the festival itinerary. A dancing three-piece singing skewed mashups of James Brown tunes was followed by an indiscernible rapper and a relatively decent instrumental funk group. It emerged that the whole event was conceived as a tribute to the Godfather of Soul himselfa credible notion in principle. However, a woefully dire performance from a lady named Vicki Anderson (apparently a former JB backing singer), whose voice sounded like fingernails scraping down a chalkboard, pushed patience to its limit. Collins had still not materialised, and there was a feeling that only his appearance could restore a semblance of dignity to proceedings.
It didn't. Collins finally came out but, rather than stepping forward to lead a storming set of original material, stood back as an impostor James Brown took the spotlight. Indeed, someone pretending to be the deceased King of Funk. He wasn't a bad singer, but anyone trying to imitate Brown's towering talent and unique stage presence is bound to fail. And, as if it couldn't have got any weirder, Brown's controversial widow, Tomi Rae Hynie, was next on stage to deliver a couple more horribly out-of-tune covers. It was time to leave.
Admirable as it is to honour James Brown the musical legend, questions must be raised about the way it was attempted. The whole spectacle was, quite frankly, a crass parody. It seemed like a bad dream. As a man who was famed for high standards and relentless pursuit of musical perfection, Brown must be turning in his grave. It looked like a cheap shot on the part of former colleagues to make as much money as possible from his legacy. But, even so, why did it have to be done in such a tactless, unethical manner? Perhaps the most disturbing, lamentable fact is that Collins and trombonist Fred Wesley, who also performed, have compromised their own values and integrity in associating with such a terrible production. It really was an insult to the memory of the great JB: he deserves better.
Day 2Saturday, July 12
After the extraordinary anti-climax of Friday night, something to heal the faith was certainly needed. It came in the form of Pat Metheny and his superb trio with drummer Antonio Sanchez and Christian McBride on bass. Playing to a sell-out crowd in the Amazon hall (tickets for concerts there had been sold separately to festival day passes), he emerged on his own for a couple of solo numbers to start the show. The first was largely chordal and had a little country twang, played with a powerful empathy that disguised its relative simplicity. Relative, that is, to what Metheny was about to play on his custom-made 42-string guitar. Somehow managing to hold a bass line with his left hand and a varying series of chords and motifs on the other three sections of the instrument, it was a mesmerising display. It set the scene for what was to follow; Sanchez and McBride came out to join and were perfect partners. The drummer's skittering, busy, polyrhythmic style was complemented by McBride's knack for always finding the right balance: he didn't use too many notes and played brilliantly within himself, clearly below the limits of his virtuoso technique.
Dropping in to catch a few minutes of Victor Wooten on the Maas stagea huge, echoing space also used for a tennis tournamentwas not the shrewdest decision. Of Flecktones fame, Wooten is an electric bassist par excellence. Countless videos of him performing ridiculously difficult technical stunts exist on YouTube. However, it is a shame to report that his band's music comes nowhere near this level of instrumental proficiency: tacky, cheesy and soulless, it is often geared towards generating showmanship opportunities for Victor and his guitarist brother Regi. There was no coherence. The only moment worth seeing was when the band went off stage entirely, leaving Victor alone to perform a few neat little tricks with his bass and a loop pedal.