North Sea Jazz Festival 2008, Day 1-3

Frederick Bernas By

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Next stop was the Darling Concert Hall for Brad Mehldau, who surprised everyone by piping up in Dutch—after which he would have endeared himself to the audience no matter how he'd played. Opening with a serene ballad, it got steadily more interesting: the next tune featured a light drum'n'bass beat from Jeff Ballard and a left-hand piano riff held in unison with bassist Larry Grenadier while Mehldau elaborated a cunning solo. Hard bop, Monk and Irving Berlin were all on the agenda, but the definite highlight was a gently lilting Latin number by Chico Buarque. It seemed to go on and on, with Mehldau giving a virtuoso display of calculated pianism in a solo which told a real story, taking each segment to harmonic exhaustion and holding spectators rapt with awe. This steadfastly unflashy, patient approach—tied in with an occasional minimalist aesthetic—has placed Mehldau firmly in the vanguard of modern pianists.

Maceo Parker

The danger of information overload was high after the sequence of Mahanthappa, Burton et al, Open Loose and Mehldau in quick succession. Luckily, there is no better person to avert one of those head-exploding moments than Maceo Parker—the legend of funk sax was playing the Nile stage with Germany's brutally efficient WDR Big Band. In a far classier show than Friday evening's disastrous James Brown tribute, they rattled through favourites like "Pass the Peas," "Shake Everything You've Got" and "To Be Or Not To Be," Parker's alto leading the way with fiery, funky licks and a razor sharp tone. It is a pertinent sign of his influence that, when another saxophonist came down from the bandstand to trade phrases with the master, her playing was eerily similar to the man himself. Parker also demonstrated a richly soulful singing voice as he crooned a couple of suave covers to honour the late, great Ray Charles.

Branford Marsalis

On the Amazon stage, scene of some of the festival's brightest moments, Branford Marsalis and his excellent quartet brought the curtain down in fitting fashion. As an intermittently underrated contributor to the post-bop idiom, Marsalis has been working solidly with Joey Calderazzo (piano), Jeff "Tain" Watts (drums) and Eric Revis (bass), racking up thousands of air miles on the international tour circuit. The saxophonist is distinctive as a stylist who speaks with highly contrasting tonal voices on tenor and soprano: in the first place brawny and muscular, but with a delicate quavering vibrato as the hallmark of his sound on the smaller horn. Tain's composition "Return of the Jitney Man" was a forceful opening statement. Marsalis's tenor spewed out a cascade of blistering runs, and Calderazzo's burning lyrical lines bounced off the keys with verve and zest. A free-time ballad calmed things down as the drummer's rubato shading afforded space for a mournful, emotional soprano solo that evoked the essence of a funeral song. The group's variety of moods and ease in handling sophisticated compositional ideas is testament to Marsalis's skill as a leader. While his trumpeter brother Wynton remains a staunch protagonist of the old school modus operandi, it is wonderful to see Branford pushing the music forward with this terrific array of sidemen. He needs to hold onto them as long as he can.

A quick wander revealed the ultimate festival finale was in fact taking place back at the Nile arena, where veteran bluesman Buddy Guy was playing out to a boisterous pack of ecstatic revellers. Although most of the serious music seemed to have been and gone, Guy was in his element, shouting, singing, showboating on guitar and even leaving the stage to enter the crowd. He is an old expert at instigating a strong rapport with the audience so, when he finally exited to a mountainous cheer, there could have been no better way to finish the weekend.

Photo Credit

Andrew Hayes


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