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North Sea Jazz Festival 2019

Ljubinko Zivkovic By

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North Sea Jazz Festival
Rotterdam, The Netherlands
July 12-14, 2019

For a while now, jazz festivals have lost their exclusivity and being a musical source for just jazz fans or those who wanted to get involved in the scene. More commercial artists from other musical genres have actually become a source of sustainability for jazz festivals and in many respects for jazz artists themselves.

Even while it was still located in The Hague, until 2006, the North Sea Jazz festival was becoming an event that continuously incorporated a wide array of artists who only had a tenuous connection with what hardcore fans considered "true jazz." The move to nearby Rotterdam that same year, only strengthened the commercial element and different musical genres but at the same time enlarged the audience and made the festival more sustainable.

It took time for the jazz festival goers to get used to the new presentation, but also for the programmers and festival producers to focus on a two-track approach—attracting more visitors on one hand with artists a wider audience might be drawn to and slowly expanding the program roster to include performers that in straightforward, or in some other way fell under the jazz category.

Whether or not that was a conscious concept of the organizers, it seems to have worked—for the last four or five years, the North Sea Jazz Festival has been sold out well in advance, with organizers stretching the capabilities of the Ahoy Center in Rotterdam to its utmost.

Friday, July 12 Being a workday, Friday was usually the NSJ festival day that had the lesser crowds, with visitors arriving from all over The Netherlands. The festival organizers used it to make the Friday program the most jazz-oriented of the three days. That tradition essentially did not change, but on July 12, the number of festival-goers seemed to have grown exponentially.

Of course, acts like Diana Krall, Burt Bacharach, Anita Baker, Joe Jackson and Tower of Power were bound to attract larger audiences, but even more avant-garde presentations like "John Zorn Presents Bagatelles Marathon" that included his m: Masada project and the likes of Ikue Mori and Sylvie Courvoisier were practically impossible to enter unless you wanted to arrive well ahead of the starting hour or wait in line for somebody to leave.

Actually, the same situation was with the more straight-ahead jazz acts like Gary Bartz with stellar guest Ravi Coltrane asnd Charles Tolliver, who actually had another set on Saturday, varying their setlist. Both shows had some stellar moments, but also those where it was obvious that some compositions were played at the spur of the moment, only the experience and mastery of the participants being able to turn a possible disaster into a triumph.

There were no possible slip-ups in the performance of Makaya McCraven and his Universal Beings with the septet turning in some exquisite spiritual jazz and harpist Brandee Younger and vibraphonist Joel Ross standing out.

Still, the highlight of the evening and one of the highlights of the festival was saxophonist James Brandon Lewis and his quintet, whose performance in the Yenisei room raised the heat in one of the literally hottest performance spaces (no air conditioning) at the festival. It seemed though that those lucky enough to see this performance didn't care about the oppressive heat at all.

The evening came to its proper close with the performance of the Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch Ronin—his quartet that was welcomed with sheer joy by the fans of Manfred Eicher's ECM label

Saturday, July 13

Open-air venue Congo hosted four artists that were soul, r&b and blues oriented. Australians The Teskey Brothers were the big crowd-pleasers with their soul-inflected The Allman Brothers Band sound, guitarist and lead vocalist Josh Teskey styling his sound somewhere between Gregg Allman and Bobby Blue Bland.

Both Marc Broussard and Kenny Wayne Shepherd gave what they are known for and what was probably expected of them, while the r&b duo The War & Treaty and their support band gave a rousing r&b/soul performance that went down best with the audience.

This year's artist in residence was Robert Glasper, whose Saturday trio performance was his most straightforward jazz offering, while on Friday favored his hip-hop leanings and on Sunday he presented his tribute to Miles Davis' music.

The best Saturday performances were by pure jazz artists—Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson and his trio and saxophonist JD Allen and his quartet. Both presented the true beauty of live jazz performance, ranging from lyrical, through rousing to even avant-garde, with Allen's performance of the torch song classic "Strangers In Paradise" raising the audience literally to their feet.

Sunday, July 14

Saturday is usually the most visited NSJ festival day, but this year Sunday saw its biggest number of visitors yet. Those coming in really early were able to witness the usual excellence of pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and his Ekaya band.

The large Maas hall was almost completely full with the audience willing to see Kamasi Washington, and those able to squeeze in had certainly made the right choice. It seems that during his rise to prominence not only has Washington's music matured, but his band has further gained in confidence and tightness, giving an excellent performance. Cape Verde singer Mayra Andrade dazzled both with her vocals and overall performance, supported by a tight band, not letting the audience sit down for a second during her show.

On Sunday, the Nile the largest festival performance space mostly reserved for more commercial acts actually presented two brilliant performances. The blue-eyed soul of Daryl Hall & John Oates has matured well, as has the duo.

Still, it was Janelle Monae who probably gave the performance of the festival. Not jazz? Does it matter? It shouldn't because Monae's socially conscious performance was practically perfect in every way—musically, show-wise and the audience present recognized the moment.

Overall, NSJ's 2019 edition was possibly the best in recent memory and set a standard the festival should adhere to moving forward.
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