North Sea Jazz Festival, July 8-10, 2011

North Sea Jazz Festival, July 8-10, 2011
R.J. DeLuke BY

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North Sea Jazz Festival
July 8-10, 2011
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

The North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands is staggering in size, touted as the world's largest indoor jazz festival and that's certainly a good bet. With 13 stages running from late afternoon until the early morning hours, it's far more than a smorgasbord. More like an avalanche, but one where the music fan happily stands at the bottom of the mountain.

Artists of all statures perform, from the biggest names to up-and-coming artists. It's also—like most jazz festivals these days—one in which pop, soul and rock acts augment the schedule to make the event more of a draw to general music fans.

The 2011 edition, in the city of Rotterdam, was one in where you could see someone like Ntjam Rosie, a Rotterdam resident who's been working on her sound that combines pop, world music, R&B and jazz harmonies at times. It was a soulful, energetic mélange that could spring the young singer/composer to fame beyond Europe. She was cool and confident, yet humble. Eager to make her own music and bring it to the world.

And it was also a festival where one of the world's best jazz musicians, saxophonist Joe Lovano, marched in with his Us Five quintet and blew the roof off the place, shredding the room with saxophone that roared, screamed, and vibrated with power and sophisticated rhythms that demanded attention. Lovano's group brought American swagger to the Ahoy festival venue.

There were aspiring stars, established stars and everything in between. Holland's own Tineke Postma and her quartet of Dutch musicians were superb. A saxophonist who is making waves on a more global scale these days, her sound melded beautifully with her sympathetic mates in a heady and heartfelt display of first-rate jazz.

Good festivals always have surprises and North Sea had plenty. Among them: finding Pharoah Sanders smoking with the Robert Glasper trio to round out the pianist's quartet; walking into a set by French reedman Michel Portal and finding trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire in the band with Harish Raghavan and Nasheet Waits. Or finding the band of bassist Chris Lightcap, which had saxophonists Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek and pianist Craig Taborn.

Non-jazz acts included Prince, who played all three nights (actually starting in the wee hours and going on from there), Paul Simon. Seal, Bootsy Collins, Snoop Dog, Tom Jones, Chaka Khan and European pop star Selah Sue.

But the jazz was plentiful and often brilliant, and the acts stood together, side-by-side. One couldn't possibly see everything in the incredible Ahoy venue. So jazz fans had to miss fine groups, but what a person could fit into the weekend was great stuff. People had to go away satisfied with the amount of stellar music they could engulf in an evening. The audiences that went to the jazz rooms appreciated every nuance. They stayed tuned in to Tom Harrell's mainstream jazz, like they did to Dave Holland and John Surman playing soft, oblique music with Anouar Brahem's oud, or John Escreet's strange keyboard explorations over Tyshawn Sorey's percussion that came from many odd directions.

Rotterdam is a great host city for the event. It may not dazzle as some cities, but it is very friendly, which is perfect for an event that attracts 70,000 people. It's also easy to get around, rich in arts and culture, and delightfully laid back. It's a multicultural city that is a great backdrop for the giant-sized festival that grabs all the attention for a few days.

The festival can be a whirlwind, where one can pick their spots and enjoy, or portions of sets can be caught before scooting off to others. In this case, it was quite often the latter approach.

Day One

The Ahoy venue was shaking with music from the onset. Ahmad Jamal's quartet and Esperanza Spalding's Chamber Music Society were among the leadoff groups. But holding interest early on was Yuri Honing's Acoustic Quartet. Dutch jazz was well represented throughout the weekend. Honing is known for his rich tenor sax sound, which was on display. On ballads, he played slow, floating lines, using dynamics and punchy phrasing over the gentle rhythms. Pianist Wolfert Brederode was similarly selective and unpreserved, adding to the band's mellow sound.

There were many melodic riffs, even a sensuality to the music. Even when the tempo picked up, Honing didn't seem to have more than a third gear. The group built tension with phrasing and the use of space between musical conversations.

On the same stage, Lovano's US Five was the opposite with Lovano starting a darting, aggressive unaccompanied tenor sax statement. As the rest of the group jumped in, Lovano was off, exchanging lines with drummers Francisco Mela and Otis Brown III on a bebop adventure based on Charlie Parker (the focus of his 2011 Blue Note release, Birdsongs), but flying beyond. Lovano took chances at every turn, pushing the envelope while his band mates kept pushing the rhythm. This was pure, unbridled jazz out of the spirit of Lovano's idols like Bird and Sonny Rollins.

James Weidman flew on piano, a good foil for the saxophonist. This band was scorching, taking no prisoners. Lovano's sound and fury was infectious and inspired awe.

As B.B. King was winding down a perfunctory set that has become more show biz and less raw blues ("You are My Sunshine?" Really?), Kneebody was tearing it up, playing on the edge, raucous, freewheeling, but mesmerizing music. The group followed the band Mostly Other People Do the Killing, which is known for taking the music out on bizarre paths. But Kneebody wasn't taking a back seat.

Propelled by Nate Wood's crashing drums and Kaveh Rastegar's fat, steady bass, trumpeter Shane Endsley and saxophonist Ben Wendell played some fierce, riveting stuff. When the group slowed it down, it was soulful, then using that as a jumping-off point for more mischief. The horn players were kindred spirits in this dense, varied music, high-energy music.

It made Chucho Valdes, with singer Omara Portuondo, seem tame. But their set of Latin music had toes tapping. In another room, however, reed man Michel Portal was playing his interesting post-bop compositions with the help of Akinmusire, Waits and Raghavan. A highlight was the leader and Akinmusire's frantic unison lines, which then segued into a more delicate motif that allowed the trumpeter to float off into a ballad solo containing a myriad of inviting twists and turns. Always trying to create something meaningful, Akinmusire played with strength and beauty.

Pharoah Sanders, now 70, walked slowly to the stage but jumped out of the gate like a race horse, blaring "Giant Steps" with all the flair and excitement of its creator—and his mentor—John Coltrane. He is still pushing, still reaching, still preaching on his tenor sax. Glasper, with drummer Chris Dave and bassist Derrick Hodge, was equally adventurous. His solo also pushed the limits, using short, choppy phrases and spinning off his own ideas as he investigated the classic tune.

Day Two

Ntjam Rosie led a larger band with backup singers, doing songs from her new self- produced CD Elle (2011), including "Roof Over My Heart" and "Morning Glow." The Cameroon native is charming as well as strong on stage, has a alluring way with rhythm and harmony that blends into a style she is carving out for herself.

The magnificent fusion guitarist John McLaughlin tries a lot of different musical things. Lately, he's back with probably his strongest suit, playing his quicksilver, electric guitar fireworks over strong, soulful, world beats. He simply sparkled. His playing seemed effortless, but there was so much there in those flying fingers. Good for the head and the soul. Etienne Mbappe was a thunderous bassist, always in step with McLaughlin, while Ranjit Barot's persistent rhythms suited every change in the music. Keyboardist Gary Husband almost seemed superfluous in the maelstrom created by his three mates; the groove was always in high gear, but shifting, not stationary.

For non-jazz acts, the Tedeschi-Trucks Band—Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks who play blistering blues-rock—was a great choice. They wailed. Trucks is the new Duane Allman on slide guitar (he tours with The Allman Brothers Band, where his uncle, drummer Butch Trucks, is an original member), full of invention, fire and improvisation; he made his guitar talk. Tedeschi's voice was sounding better than ever, strong, emotional, full of soul. And this band had a three-man horn section that included fine young trumpeter Maurice Brown.

They did a flurry of tunes from their new CD Revelator (Sony Masterworks, 2011), and all of them hit the mark, led by Trucks' soaring guitar work. Tedeschi, a strong blues player before she met Trucks (who is now her husband), also got off a virtuoso blues solo that would have made Buddy Guy smile. A fun twist was a down-home funky cover of Sly Stone's "Sing a Simple Song," that allowed Brown to cut loose. "Space Captain," which the couple cut with Herbie Hancock on his Imagination Project (Herbie Hancock, 2010), was also a killer.

John Scofield plays a different kind of guitar, with elements of blues and touches of rock, but jazz chops always finding their way in. He also has a unique sound, and it was in good form with the great Mulgrew Miller, Scott Colley and Bill Stewart. Miller fed well off Scofield's angular guitar work.

Kurt Elling started the day doing the vocalese stuff with Jon Hendricks and Al Jarreau, in front of the Metropole Orkest with Vince Mendoza. But he ended it in the wee small hours singing the material of Frank Sinatra with the Kluvers Big Band. He's the best male jazz singer on the scene, and the one who can best pull off Ol' Blue Eyes. He has the swagger, but with jazz chops Sinatra didn't have. "Luck Be a Lady Tonight" saw him turning phrases much differently. This was not imitation, it was Elling's spin. "April in Paris," like the version he's been doing for awhile, was adapted for big band, and remained scintillating.

Day Three

Jan Akkerman, another Dutch musician, plays a fusion type of guitar that touches jazz, pop and rock genres. He had a nice sound and played over a backbeat, using space and ethereal runs to evoke a certain mood. Eric Vloeimans joined him on trumpet, fitting nicely in the groove, adding a good horn sound circulating through and around the rhythms. He had more guests scheduled, but at another venue the Dutch big band Nationaal Jeudg Jazz Orkmest, conducted by Benjamin Herman, was cranking out some smart, swinging tunes.

This was a very young group of musicians, but they played sharply and swung like mad. "Spanish Rider" had a strong, robust tenor sax solo from Ben Rodenburg.

It was a pleasure to hear part of the set by Fay Claassen with the renowned WDR Big Band, which featured arrangements, and was conducted, by the talented Michael Abene. Claassen was in great voice, influences of Anita O'Day in her approach and the Dutch lady had the audience in the palm of her hand. She was a real jazz singer who swung the hell out of "Tea for Two" and showed a sultry side on "Love for Sale."

Veteran Barry Harris ended his set with an audience participation segment where people sang certain chords that went with his bluesy piano, backed by Ray Drummond and Leroy Williams. As he played a bluesy vamp, Harris—who was on the scene with Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon and Thelonious Monk—half-joked about North Sea not being a jazz fest because of all the rock music he heard during the day. Then he dipped into a version of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" that was a slick, hip jazz story, with Harris humming the melody as he deftly reconstructed it on piano.

Tom Harrell continues to play some of the most melodically imaginative trumpet around, and was in good form. Wayne Escoffery played more intensely, out of Rollins and Coltrane, and had a crisp, burnished sound. The difference works well and the band played a solid, noteworthy set.

Waiting for a Miles Davis Tribute Band made it necessary to miss people like Eddie Palmieri and Gary Burton. But a final dash, to see the wonderful Tineke Postma, was well worth it. She's been doing gigs in the U.S., but her European group, consisting of pianist Marc Van Roon, bassist Frans Van Der Hoeven and drummer Martijn Vink, played music from her new CD, The Dawn of Light (Challenge Records, 2011). They were sharp as a tack, completely in step with Postma's moves.

Her stories on sax were bright and expressive as she wove through her fine compositions, like the ballad "Before the snow," which was a highlight. Her playing could be serene or hot, and she's already found a strong voice within the combination of it all. There was strong group interplay throughout the set, decorated by the occasional individual statements.

Rotterdam can be justly proud of the North Sea Jazz festival and the way it puts on display so much of what jazz is and what it is becoming. Sure, there is a lot of outstanding music that a person just can't get to because of the sheer volume. But it's also impossible to go without seeing vital, interesting, important music. And fun music too.

Photo Credit

All Photos: Courtesy of North Sea Jazz

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