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North Sea Jazz Festival Recap: A Moveable, Musical Feast


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North Sea Jazz Festival
Rotterdam, Netherlands
July 10-12, 2015

Three days immersed in sounds and sensations. Followed by two days at home in zombie mode, zen silence. Rather than do an exhausting commute from Amsterdam to Rotterdam each day (by train or auto (50 miles / 75 kilometers each way), I opted to stay at a B&B in Delft, one of the oldest towns in The Netherlands, and the de facto capital back in 1581, known for its blue pottery, the House of Orange, and Johannes Vermeer. In a summer that has been dominated by wind, rain and grey skies, it helped to have perfect sunny summer weather the first two days (after all this is the Netherlands) With 150 acts to choose from, the moving throng of concertgoers was mellow, united by their love of the music, at least when you were going with the flow of people traffic rather than against it.

How I survived the North Sea Jazz Festival. For starters, this was the first time since 1987 that I attended the entire weekend. It was held in the Hague back then, near the seaside resort of Scheveningen. I was newly established in Europe and this event, along with Montreux, had been on top of my wish list. In those days there were perhaps 20,000 visitors a day, compared to the 24,000 plus these days at the Port of Rotterdam.

I remember being exhausted by Sunday morning and needing a few hours to recoup my energy with a walk on the beach and a lot of fresh sea air. I had attended three memorable concerts in a row the day before from jazz legends Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon and Oscar Peterson. When you reach the top of Mt. Everest one day, you don't try to scale the Eiger on the next. This year's lineup inspired me to experience the whole weekend, and to indulge in a movable feast of solid state sound. Rather than write reviews which was not my role as a journalist covering the Festival, I would like to share an abbreviated diary which contains random observations and commentary on the North Sea Jazz experience.

In a variation of the road not taken, I experienced the usual conflicts in choosing one concert over another. I had to accept that without being cloned, I would simply have to pick and choose and sometimes just let fate steer me to unknown territory. Sometimes I got shut out, as in Wayne Shorter, or had to make an intuitive choice between Marcus Miller and Terence Blanchard, Cassandra Wilson over Mary J Blige, Branford Marsalis over Dianne Reeves. Back in '88, I thought I could check out one venue, then segue seamlessly to the other. But just as I have gotten over my penchant for multi-tasking, I prefer not to jar my senses. If I'm in, I'm in for the duration. If something is not happening for me, I will take the option to exit.

Fast forward to 2015, Rotterdam, Friday July 10. The doors opened at 16.30 but I arrived at 18.00 because of an accident on the highway. The first event on my list was at 18.30: Beyond the Memory, A Tribute to Paco de Lucia, featured musicians from different generations who performed in the guitar maestro's renowned septets over the years. The lineup included: Juan Rafael Cortes Santiago (vocals); Jorge Pardo (flute, saxophone); Antonio Serrano (harmonica, keyboards); Antonio Sanchez Palomo, José María Mari Bandera Sanchez (guitar); Alain Perez, Carles Benavent (bass); Israel Suarez Escobar, Rubem Dantas (percussion); Joaquín Grilo (dancer). The great flamenco guitarist and composer died unexpectedly in 2014, and this tribute concert covered four decades of his musical life. There were soul-searing performances of "Entre Dos Aguas," "Zyryab," and "Solo Quiero Caminar," among others.

At a certain point in the concert, flutist Jorge Pardo approached the microphone and explained how the tour was almost not meant to be. "It was on, it was off. We said do we, don't we? It was very painful (to make a decision) and then we realized that we must honor Paco." He mentioned that de Lucia's favorite jazz musician was Chick Corea, and there was a hush in the hall, as Pardo inquired: "Is he here tonight?" The silence turned into rousing applause when a moment later, Chick Corea walked on stage, ever boyish in simple t-shirt and jeans and sat down behind the piano. For the next 20 minutes, the hall was mesmerized by the collective synergy of the ensemble with its new addition. A guy behind me muttered to his companion: "Do you call that jazz?" to which the other replied, "No, I call that flamenco." Corea just crossed over. Ole.

After a break we returned to the Amazon Hall, which accommodates about 2500. It was time for a musical dialogue between serial innovators Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, reunited once again (for the first time since 1979 at North Sea) for a double-keyboard duet performance. They started the tour in April at New York's Carnegie Hall, and it was quite a coup to get them here. Props to Michelle Kuypers and her six colleagues (and numerous assistants) who are responsible for the Festival's ambitious, extensive programming. The two were their unique selves, a case of opposites attract: Corea still in t-shirt and jeans, Hancock in a tailored suit and tie. Corea innocently posed the question: "So, what are we going to do here?" To which Hancock replied: "Everything and something, and then back again to nothing." To which Corea responded: "Then, we'd better get started."

The droll and dynamic duo opened with an abstract, seemingly improvised composition while the photographers clicked away for their allotted time. After the shooters departed, they segued into a deconstructed version of "Easy to Love," followed by "Señor Blues" and other classics like "Cantaloupe Island." Yet something seemed off, like the performances were being called in. As the concert progressed and the collaboration became Steve Reichian and other worldly---or was it simply too cerebral and without passion? ---a few dozen people made their exodus as they do at North Sea, while grateful people camped on the floor scampered forward to claim the vacant seats. Corea stood up, waved toward the departing concertgoers, adding a thumbs up, then sat back down at the piano and resumed playing. Before the next number started, there was another small exodus and he commented: "If you want to hear another band, fine. I wouldn't mind hearing another band, too." Hancock then approached his mike, perhaps to neutralize the situation. "We've been playing a lot of notes, and maybe it's time for a little B minor. We've been playing duet, maybe it's time to have a third element, a trio, and have you all sit in with us." They divided the front of the hall into men's and women's voices, got the groove going, Corea raising his hand from one side to the other for a surrealistic sing-along which eased into a lush "Concierto de Aranjuez." No one left the hall until the last notes were sounded. The musicians and their audience were satisfied. But I had the feeling I might have overstayed.

It was time to shift to the Hudson Hall to catch the second half of Cassandra Wilson's set. The smoky-voiced chanteuse released her latest album in the spring, an homage to Billie Holiday, who would have turned 100 on April 7. In an interview in the New Yorker that same month, Wilson told Alec Wilkinson that the title of the Egyptian funerary papyrus "Book of the Dead" is more accurately translated as "Coming Forth By Day," which is the title of her tribute album to Lady Day. The set was comprised of such classics as "Don't Explain," "Billie's Blues," "Crazy He Calls Me," and "All of Me." Musicians included Robby Marshall (woodwind); Charlie Burnham (violin); Kevin Breit (guitar); Jon Cowherd (piano, keyboards); Lonnie Plaxico (double bass); Davide Direnzo (drums). Unfortunately I arrived at the hall at the end of her set which she concluded with a stirring interpretation of "Good Morning Heartache," and some high energy solo work by her ensemble. She paced the stage like a sleek panther, channeling, conjuring, communing in her original way.

There were a dozen choices in the closing slot at 11.00/11.30, which listed (among others): The Stanley Clarke Band, D'Angelo and the Vanguard, Avishai Cohen's New York Division, Bugge Wesseltoft, Henrik Schwarz & Dan Berglund, and a special tribute to Joni Mitchell. I decided to catch the first half of Joni's Jazz, then a bit of D'Angelo and the Vanguard, and finally, the Stanley Clarke Band. I was on an adrenaline rush by then and felt invincible. Once again, the Amazon hall was packed. Joni's Jazz focused on the innovative, jazz-influenced music from Mitchell's 1970s albums "Court and Spark," "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," "Hejira," "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" and "Mingus," while also showcasing some of her other work.

The concept of this living tribute came about In 1999 when producer Danny Kapilan was asked to create a New York concert to celebrate Canada Day. It featured music from her 1979 Mingus tour, and in 2011 a new edition was presented in Los Angeles. Brian Blade, Mitchell's drummer since the mid-90s, was co-music director with his longtime colleague, pianist Jon Jon Cowherd. In 2013, they co-directed still another concert in Toronto to honor Mitchell's 70th birthday. For this European premiere, they invited vocalists Oleta Adams, Lizz Wright, Michael Kiwanuka, and Becca Stevens. The band members included: special guest Terence Blanchard (trumpet); Melvin Butler, Myron Walden (saxophone, woodwind); Kevin Breit, Marvin Sewell (guitar; Jon Cowherd (piano), keyboards); Chris Thomas (bass); Brian Blade (drums); Jeff Haynes (percussion).

Chaka Khan was also listed in the lineup, but did not appear, which would be understood the next day when mid-way through her concert she tearfully informed the audience she was suffering from a sore throat, had no voice, and retreated from the stage. Perhaps that was why there was a delay in starting, with the assembled musicians onstage still tuning and ostensibly warming up. In any case, it created a unique audiovisual prologue for what was ahead. Eventually Oleta Adams opened with "Strange Boy," followed with a nearly too dynamic rendition of "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow." Lizz Wright was up next providing a solemn subtext to a timeless "The Fiddle and the Drum." Having followed Mitchell's career from her debut concert at LA's Troubadour in the early 1970s, it was an adjustment to hear her songs once again interpreted by other singers, but both women had the chops to pull it off.

When Michael Kiwanuka took the stage, modest with guitar in hand, I didn't expect such a raw, spare version of Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire, and he nailed it ("Concrete concentration camp Bashing in veins for peace...." It was clear why the London-based singer-songwriter of Ugandan origin was crowned the "Sound of 2012" by the BBC before his debut album hit the shelves. A young artist to keep an eye on, he's worked with Jack White and Black Keys front man Dan Auerbach and his sound has been compared to soul masters Bill Withers and Otis Redding. The eight musicians joined him on "Furry Sings the Blues, tight and together, but unfortunately Kiwanuka was not informed who the song was about and continued dropping r's, emphatically singing "Fury Sings the Blues," which gave the ode to bluesman Furry Lewis an unintentional meaning and felt awkward (and embarrassing) for those familiar with the song.

Next on stage was Becca Stevens, a young American singer/guitarist in a sophisticated scarlet dress, who did an empowered version of "Help Me," nonchalantly strumming away on a ukulele, accompanied by the musicians. I like the occasional tribute, but with Joni Mitchell still recovering the past months from what appears to be a stroke, it gave me an uneasy feeling, despite its undeniable sincerity.

Time to catch some of the other offerings at the midnight hour. I have to admit that D'Angelo was never on my musical radar and at the urging of an enthusiastic bassist friend of mine from Stockholm, I promised I would check him out. Dutch friends were still raving about his appearance at North Sea Jazz back in 2000 which was described as "one of the best shows ever seen in the Netherlands." According to the press, the so-called ''king of groove, croon and swoon'' proved himself not only as an energetic multi-instrumentalist but also an excellent bandleader. Afterwards he fell silent for more than a decade because of personal problems and artistic dilemmas, but earlier this year when he delivered a "rock n raunch soul spectacle" at Amsterdam's Paradiso, he re-established himself as "a reborn master of soul."

The Vanguard is made up of: D'Angelo (vocals, guitar, keyboards); Jermaine Holmes, Joi Gilliam, Red Middleton (backing vocals); Keyon Harrold (trumpet); Isiah Sharkey, Jesse Johnson (guitar); Cleo Sample (keyboards); Pino Palladino (bass), and Chris Dave (drums). The Nile hall was "bomb full" as the Dutch say, and I was stuck on the far sidelines in the middle of serious fans and thirsty punters carrying precarious trays full of beers. I appreciated the colorful, charismatic cast of characters, but I'm a proponent of Less is More, and Stanley Clarke remains hip to that premise, which is where I headed next. His troika of young musicians included: Beka Gochiashvili (piano); Cameron Graves (keyboards); Stanley Clarke (bass); Michael Mitchell (drums). The hall was completely full so I joined the crowd outside and observed from the big screen, just in time for the last two numbers. Their set was tight, taut and tenacious, each man holding his own with Clarke and Mitchell, the architects behind it all.

Saturday, July 11. Richard Galliano "30th Anniversary of Career New Musette Quartet" featuring Sylvain Luc. Lineup included: Richard Galliano (accordion); Sylvain Luc (guitar); Yaron Stavi (double bass); André Ceccarelli (drums). The versatile French accordionist (from Bayonne) has collaborated with Wynton Marsalis, Charlie Haden, John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, and Dee Dee Bridgewater, to name a few. Based in Paris, he achieved world recognition with his album "New York Tango." Whether he is interpreting a favorite by Astor Piazzolla, renewing the Piaf evergreen "La Vie en Rose," or collaborating with Eddy Louiss (on the Hammond), he does it with soul and esprit. I discovered him on my way to the Dee Dee Bridgewater concert and decided to sit in for a few numbers. I was only disappointed because I couldn't stay for the complete set. Once again, an embarrassment of riches for the early evening: from Randy Weston & Billy Harper, Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band, a promising vocalist Leon Bridges, Lee Konitz, David Sanborn Electric Band, and more.

I am a longtime fan of Dee Dee Bridgewater and love that she continues reinforcing her talent rather than reinventing herself. If it ain't broke, don't fix it baby! Her latest project involves trumpeter/bandleader Irvin Mayfield Jr and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO), a collaboration which brings new life to traditional classics like St. James Infirmary (with banjo embellishments and featured four young cats on trumpet aka the "trumpet mafia," including Leon "Kid Chocolate" Brown). During their spirited solos, she took a seat on the piano bench and watched them playfully compete with each other, which concluded with Mayfield literally throwing in his towel, declaring: "Now, that's the trumpet section.'' Other numbers in this rousing, theatrical set included "Big Chief," and "Do You Miss New Orleans?" which can be heard on Dee Dee's latest recording, "Feathers." The versatile, energetic Bridgewater combines sultry, silky vocalizing with sinuous scatting in harmonious collusion with the soaring, scintillating sounds of NOJO. Satchmo would be proud.

With a half hour between concerts, I went out into the sun to stretch my legs and get some fresh air. It was time to regroup for bass virtuoso Ron Carter and Foursight, comprised of Renee Rosnes (piano); Ron Carter (double bass); Payton Crossley (drums); Rolando Morales-Matos (percussion). In recent years, Carter has been involved with the Golden Striker Trio and Foursight, the latter which is devoted to lovingly reviving the music of Miles Davis. The program is titled "Dear Miles'' after a recording from 2006, which included Stephen Scott on the piano. Carter remains the epitome of old school elegance and class in ubiquitous black suit and bow tie, a master of effortlessness and timeless cool. The set opened with one of his compositions, "595," followed by another, "Mr. Bow Tie."

The quartet played with a lot of heart with Crossley providing the heartbeat along with some impressive solos. Morales-Matos, a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, is a multi-percussionist extraordinaire, and no stranger to a heavy groove. Renee Rosnes on piano, a native of Canada, based in New York City, has played with a who's who of legendary musicians including Wayne Shorter, J.J. Johnson, Buster Williams and Bobby Hutcherson, and was a member of James Moody's quartet until his passing in 2010. She is clearly at ease on free jazz and bebop terrain and has a take no prisoners attitude with her intense, intricate improvisations. Carter introduced "My Funny Valentine" as their "version of a song he learned in 1964 when he played with Miles Davis." Rounding the exhilarating set out were original interpretations of "Flamenco Sketches," Victor Feldman's Seven Steps to Heaven and Luiz Bonfa's "Samba de Orfeu" which featured Carter in solo bass performance.

It was easy to lose track of time in my Treme state of mind and when I returned to the Hudson, there was no way to get in and catch Wayne Shorter and his Quartet featuring Danilo Pérez (piano), John Patitucci (double bass) and Brian Blade (drums). Outside the entrance I was surrounded by a couple hundred disappointed diehard fans that were intent on waiting it out. After ten minutes, I was clearly not in my comfort zone despite the fine sounds I was hearing too far in the distance, which is why I can't list any composition title. I decided to go upstairs and explore the small halls which accommodate about 200 and have an intimate jazz club ambiance, complete with bar.

The Yenisei hall was full with some places to stand, and in my program, the listing simply said: Azar Lawrence Quartet. I should have known something was up when I saw the Director of the Bimhuis jazz club in attendance (The Cookers, a dream team of hard boppers. had played there the night before, comprised of Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, Donald Harrison, David Weiss, George Cables, Cecil McBee and Billy Hart) and several young New York musicians in the front row. The set was halfway done, but the vibe in the room was serious, like a slow-building tsunami. My memory kicked in and Lawrence's impressive credentials as saxophonist/composer/arranger came to mind. In his 20s he'd been in the bands of McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, worked with Miles and also played with pop acts like Earth, Wind and Fire, Busta Rhymes, and Frank Zappa. Lawrence assembled an impressive lineup of musicians for this gig, including seasoned cats like Cecil McBee (double bass); Billy Hart (drums); Eddie Henderson (trumpet). Pianist/composer Benito Gonzalez, the junior member of the lineup who hails from Venezuela, played with a passion and precision that was thrilling to behold. If I remember correctly, I think they played Simone" Frank Foster and McCoy Tyner's "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit," and Gandhi, a Lawrence composition. Other selections were from Lawrence's 2014 release "The Seeker," the 2010 release "Mystic Journey," and from the upcoming "Elementals," which I intend to check out.

I was planning to move back to the Hudson hall for Joshua Redman and The Bad Plus, but Dutch saxophonist Tineke Postma (who just won the prestigious Boy Edgar Prize) suggested I check out the Jeroen Manders Quintet with Ack van Rooyen in the Madeira hall. At that hour, I was ready to wind down with something a little less intense and more mellow. Legendary flugelhorn/trumpet player Ack van Rooyen will be 85 this year, but on the podium he's still playing like the young cat he's always been. His career in the jazz circuit (Paris, Berlin) and as a studio musician covers a broad spectrum. In addition to being a composer, he has also taught at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague and continues to lead workshops and coach big bands throughout Europe. Saxophonist/composer Jeroen Manders, a former student of Rooyen's, formed the quintet which ''celebrates the melodic side of jazz'' and pays homage to jazz classics as well as introduces their own original work, "The Ends of the Earth." "Song for Lost Friends." Other musicians in this tight, competent formation include: Marc van Roon (piano, Fender Rhodes); Erik Robaard (double bass); Wim Kegel (drums).

Afterwards I was invited backstage to finally meet van Rooyen in person (after several phone conversations when I was writing a story about the late Herb Geller). Security at North Sea is always tight as a drum, and I suppose my press badge eased the way. The stage hands were already packing things up and I stood outside the dressing room listening to the animated conversations. I introduced myself to van Rooyen's wife Barbara, a fellow New Yorker, and our chat was interrupted by a familiar looking man in t-shirt, jeans and sneakers who held out a hand to greet her, "Hello, I'm Mark Rutte." She smiled and nodded while he made small talk, then went back to join his nephew Jeroen Manders. Rutte is a jazz lover and former conservatory student who evidently plays impressive piano. His day job is a bit more demanding as Minister/President of the Netherlands, equivalent of Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, or David Cameron. On this night he was the proud uncle, genially popping open cans of Heineken beer and having an enjoyable off the radar evening.

On Sunday, July 12, it was time for a change of scene to clear the senses and enjoy the last day of the Festival. It began with a late breakfast in Rotterdam on the Wilhelmina dock, in the shadow of the Hotel New York, the former headquarters of Holland-America line which transported thousands of migrants (including my great grandparents) to Ellis Island. These days, they call Rotterdam the "Manhattan on the Maas," with its impressive skyline of high rise structures designed by an international roster of architects. The sky was gray and dramatic and the Erasmus Bridge took pride of place as one of the city's major landmarks. I strolled into the Photography Museum in search of Jazz Portraits, which it turned out, were on display at the Festival, though not the great portraits of Jimmy Katz, which I saw at the Bimhuis earlier this year. Back at the Festival, I ran into one of my students who advised me to check out Ben l'Oncle Soul, a French soul singer; singer/songwriter Lianne La Havas and the Tigran Hamasyan (winner of the Paul Acket Award). Oh, if only I were cloned.

The plan for the last day was to keep things minimal---no overkill—with just two Must See concerts on my agenda: Branford Marsalis and Roy Hargrove. At the Yenisei hall Gideon van Gelder, a young Dutch pianist, had started his set. Lilian Viera, Brazilian vocalist was on hand, and if they performed like they did at the Bimhuis earlier this year, the crowd would leave satisfied. I kept my eye on the prize and made my way to the Hudson to get a good seat. I was not disappointed. The band was tight and terrific and even performed an encore, which is not usually done. The lineup included: Branford Marsalis on saxophone; Joey Calderazzo (piano); Eric Revis (double bass). Jack DeJohnette was the surprise guest who sat in for Justin Faulkner. The day before Marsalis gave a solo concert at the Laurenskerk (Laurens Church) in Rotterdam, "In My Solitude." That evening De Johnette returned to his roots with Made in Chicago, a salute to the music of the 60s, featuring the legendary musicians in the lineup at the 2013 edition of the Chicago Jazz Festival (except for Henry Threadgill), which resulted in a live album "Made in Chicago": saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams (piano), Larry Gray (cello, double bass)

I had two other bands on my list in the slot between Marsalis and Hargrove, Bossa Negra and Volcan with Gonzalo Rubalcaba and friends), but it seemed more pragmatic to take a dinner break outside. At Congo Square, an outdoor podium, a concert was in progress by the New Orleans Swamp Donkeys, comprised of: James Williams (vocals, trumpet); Sam Friend (vocals, banjo); Connor Stewart (clarinet, saxophone); Haruka Kikuchi (trombone); Wes 'Quad' Anderson IV (sousaphone); Josh 'Jams' Marotta (Percussion). Their inspired, authentic rendering of traditional compositions like "Maple Leaf Rag," "After You've Gone," "Buddy Bolden's Blues," "Charleston," and "Whispering" made me nostalgic to get to Crescent City sooner than later.

There was a half hour before the Hargrove concert in the Hudson, so I dropped into Madeira to hear Tigran Hamasyan and his trio: Sam Minaie (double bass) and Arthur Hnatek (drums). The 27-year old Armenian-American won the Paul Acket Award this year for an "Artist Deserving Wider Recognition." I found them interesting but not engaging, playing what sounded to me like 'Thousand and One Nights jazz.' They certainly showed promise, but I think more experience and refined seasoning is required to sharpen those chops.

There was a definite buzz in the Hudson for the last concert of the Festival with the Roy Hargrove Quintet, which included: Justin Robinson (alto saxophone); Roy Hargrove (trumpet, flugelhorn, vocals; Sullivan Fortner (piano); Ameen Saleem (double bass); Quincy Phillips (drums). The hall was packed and I managed to get a lone seat in the first row of the gallery. As I said at the beginning of this log, I was not in attendance as a reviewer. On this final evening, I didn't take notes, I simply listened. A highlight of this splendid set included Monk's "Ask Me Now," which featured Hargrove's precision playing and seamless versatility. His vocals on the Livingston/Evans 50s standard "Never Let Me Go" gave a refreshing perspective to Nat King Cole's familiar interpretation. Another Monk composition was played and the set reached its conclusion. The crowd did all they could to score an encore but Kees van Boven, an emcee and familiar "face" of the Festival, sympathetically reminded them that all good things must come to an end, even if he agreed with them. Perhaps that was a good note to end on. Until next year.

Photo credit: Elli Safari

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