North Sea Jazz Festival 2008, Day 1-3

Frederick Bernas By

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The Bad Plus is one of the big jazz success stories of recent years. A young, eager standing audience had assembled in the Yukon tent and provided a rapturous welcome. From the start of the gig, it was clear the progressive trio go for a lot more when they play live. Drummer David King was exemplary in his scuttling crossrhythmic approach, throwing random accents onto different beats with joyous animated energy—he looked like a man possessed by the sheer exuberance of making music. The first few tunes, including "Big Eater," were as expected: crunchy, hard-hitting piano riffs combined with moments of delicate dynamic interaction as the three musicians rose and fell as one. Things took a turn for the worse, however, when kooky singer Wendy Lewis was presented. Billed as a new feature of upcoming album For All I Care, her wailing, moany vocals were off key at times—perhaps intentionally? She didn't add a great deal to the band's signature sound. One wonders about the reasoning for getting her involved in a group that has done so well with its instrumental concepts. In any case, maybe it is too early to pass judgement: it will be very interesting to hear the new CD when it appears.

Then it was a quick call on saxophonist David Sanchez. The Puerto Rican tenor man played in the Yenisei venue, a pleasant little room reminiscent of inner city jazz clubs. Sadly his set was drawing to a close, but there was enough time to see that Sanchez is very much back on the scene. This year he released Cultural Survival (Concord, 2008), a long-awaited disc to follow the Grammy-nominated Coral (Columbia, 2004). Backed by an able group of Lage Lund (guitar), Orlando Le Fleming (bass) and Henry Cole (drums), his lean, heavy tone was given ample space to live and breathe.

British saxophonist/flautist Finn Peters was on stage in the Murray tent, and there was time to catch a couple of tunes before going back to the Amazon for Wayne Shorter's headline show. Peters, who recently released his second album Butterflies (Accidental, 2008), was joined by stellar sidemen from the London circuit—including bassist Tom Herbert and pianist Tom Cawley, both of Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear fame. The result was an ambitious mix of crossover music drawing on influences as broad as Indonesian Gamelan and pulsating Afrobeat grooves, with a jazz undercurrent running through. It was pleasing to note these original concepts translate better into a live show than they appear on the record, which comes across as rather airy and lacking punch. Peters clearly possesses a high degree of musical knowledge; it would have been great to see him really let go with solos, but he is perhaps more a thinker than a showman. Nevertheless, this was a valuable contribution to the festival, a strong representation of the vibrant new UK jazz scene which is constantly growing in stature.

It was difficult knowing what to expect from Wayne Shorter. The only certain fact was that his quartet would be performing with the Imani Winds, a contemporary ensemble of flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and French horn. Imani opened proceedings, playing a complex Shorter original and a delightfully layered arrangement of Astor Piazzolla's "Libertango." Shorter then emerged with his all-star band featuring Danilo Perez (piano), John Patitucci (bass) and Brian Blade (drums). Each of these musicians has an outstanding track record, so to see them congregate with a legend such as Shorter sends any informed jazz fan into spasms of excitement.

They did not disappoint. The long opening piece built up through gentle movements, with Blade texturising and Patitucci alternating between arco and pizzicato. It was easy to detect a large improvised element in this dense exploration of the traditional jazz quartet's orchestral possibilities. They were listening to each other and communicating through their instruments. As the spontaneous composition gained magnitude, Shorter's wailing interjections would occasionally bring him to the front of the mix without detracting from the collective emphasis. He has become a master exponent of the less is more approach. When the Imani Winds joined later, a stronger aspect of organisation surfaced. Passages of improvisation were separated by arching arabesque melodies and coloured with nuanced harmonies in a thoroughly entrancing, vividly captivating artistic soundscape.

Fascinatingly, many onlookers seemed puzzled and bewildered; some even walked out. Shorter's new brand of structureless creation is not designed for casual listeners. It is a mark of his significance to jazz that, at the age of 74, he is still pushing boundaries and making music as advanced and challenging as any of the young avant-garde. To compare this with the overtly crowd-pleasing performance of Herbie Hancock is intriguing; despite their longstanding friendship, the two could not be much further apart in terms of artistic philosophy. Hancock was spotted in the audience—what could he have been thinking?

Acoustic Ladyland

A break was needed to digest this mind-bending musical experience. Due to a late start on the Amazon, Shorter's gig had overrun—thus jeopardising plans to return to the Yukon for Acoustic Ladyland (pictured). However, reliable sources confirm the talismanic trailblazers of the UK scene's recent revival had indeed taken the festival by storm. Agents on the same stage also report that the infamous Soil & "Pimp" Sessions, a Japanese group questionably labelled "death jazz" by music mogul Gilles Peterson, garnered a wave of encores as they made a similarly resounding impact.

James Carter

Like David Sanchez, James Carter cuts a mysterious figure to jazz insiders. Another unquestionably gifted player, the multi-instrumentalist suffered from the breakdown of Atlantic Records' jazz department in 2000. Present Tense (Emarcy, 2008) marked a welcome return to disc after three years, and he showcased material from the album during his late set on the Madeira stage. Carter captivated the audience with cheerful charisma in the opening moments, before launching into a Sidney Bechet tune on which his vivacious soprano wove an intricate web of dazzling ideas. He quickly established a penchant for volatile, expressive howls and honks that were perfectly placed within the context of every solo alongside many more innovative sonic devices. Tracks from the album such as "Bossa JC," "Bro. Dolphy" (a leading feature on bass clarinet) and the gut-busting "Hymn of the Orient" were all given similar treatment. Apart from the startling degree of virtuosic control on each instrument he picked up, Carter's magnanimity also shone. All members of the band were given unlimited opportunity to display their considerable skills, with the saxophonist even sitting out on a ballad so young trumpeter Curtis Taylor could take the lead. With this triumphant return to touring, James Carter has reminded the jazz world of his place at the zenith of leading saxophonists.

jam session

As if that wasn't enough music for one day, word was spreading about an after-hours jam session on the Hudson stage. Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez had finished early and invited Roy Hargrove, Bobby McFerrin and others to join an impromptu Latin jazz free-for-all which was highly entertaining to watch. McFerrin, the festival's Artist in Residence for 2008, stepped forward on the melodica and piano, and a constant interchange of musicians from different bands kept things moving til the very end.

Day 3—Sunday, July 13

Lefties Soul Connection

The final day was always going to be busy, with a couple of tricky schedule clashes to work around (Alisha Keys not being one of them). On the outdoor Harlem stage, situated at the front of the Ahoy centre, Dutch funk group Lefties Soul Connection was warming people up for things to come. Tight, compact and precise, it was music to generate a good mood. A couple of local brass bands also played a series of guerrilla corridor gigs at random times throughout the festival, always pleasing to encounter.

US saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa opened the afternoon in the Yenisei room. As Mahanthappa and abstract pianist Vijay Iyer are stalwart collaborators, it was a shame not to see the latter on stage. Instead, the role was filled by a more than able deputy: Craig Taborn. It was only possible to stay for the first couple of tunes, but the band appeared to be simmering nicely and poised to take off. Mahanthappa's leathery, sinuous alto slithered effusively through convoluted compositions; the opening number featured a meditative sax intro before cranking up the gears into fizzing post-bop. Irregular manipulations from drummer Dan Weiss provoked a gushing, frenzied solo from the saxophonist before Taborn took over with a torrent of challenging ideas, pulling and distorting the concept of rhythmic conformity into blurry shapes of his own creation.

The reason for leaving was a very good one. Gary Burton, Steve Swallow, Pat Metheny and Antonio Sanchez were performing together, under the auspices of revisiting the 1970s quartet which produced thoughtful, cinematic music often specially composed by outside sources. Burton's employment of electric guitar and bass had been a new phenomenon in the '60s, helping to break down barriers between jazz and rock. These striking features became entrenched in his fruitful collaboration with Metheny and bassist Swallow, which is evidently as alive today as it was 40 years ago. There was a strong sense of group understanding on stage as they played their own material and pieces by Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Carla Bley. Burton's pioneering four-stick vibes technique was hypnotic, and Swallow was outstanding with short, sweet solos that always hit the mark. Metheny made sparing use of his signature guitar tone, entailing a greater impact when it did appear—its effervescent, shimmering quality cut through the complex harmonic backdrop provided by vibes and bass and Sanchez's trademark hustle. Hopefully its current European tour will not be the last time this enthralling quartet reunites.

Bassist Mark Helias has been a busy figure on the New York improv scene since joining Anthony Braxton's group in 1977. His current project, "Open Loose," is a trio with drums and sax that does exactly what you would expect from its name. The music is understatedly progressive in that no instrument leaps to the front and you have to listen carefully to appreciate what's going on—it's nothing like the zealous free jazz of Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane. In the words of Helias, the music represents a "constant state of flux." The bassist and Tom Rainey on drums operate almost telepathically; Helias often fills the absent role of a chordal instrument with texturising harmonies high up the fingerboard. Dep saxophonist Ellery Eskin's tenor was a good match, blowing coolly and melodically; his approach placed clarity of thought above the notion of a piercing sound.


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