Off the Main Stages at the 2005 North Sea Jazz Festival

Mark Sabbatini By

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(Note: This is part of an ongoing series about jazz from lesser-known events and places around the world. Although the North Sea Jazz Festival hardly qualifies, this article focuses on performers getting the "small print" treatment - and sometimes not even that - at the bottom of the schedule. Big-name acts were deliberately avoided - with one exception noted at the end - they are mentioned only in passing.)

It's like Disneyland for jazz fans.

The doors to the world's largest indoor festival open and 70,000 people stampede to the most popular attractions, where long lines and frequent denial of entry await. The skilled and lucky can hear a who's-who's smorgasbord of commercial and artistic all-stars, but the experience is about as intimate as Times Square on New Year's Eve.

It's a good bet almost none of them came to the Netherlands to see the Garfield High School Jazz Ensemble.

Those flocking in vain to the David Sanborn concert on the already-full roof terrace likely never noticed passing impromptu jam sessions in the hallway, some featuring tourists sitting in on a whim. Throngs watching Jamie Cullum in the massive Statenhal arena were a few steps from a smallish tent where three finalists of a Dutch Jazz Competition put on a youthful modernistic battle for the prize of a recording contract and a promotional tour.

Most of the more than 1,200 artists at the three-day 2005 North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague performed in small rooms with seating often ranging from nearly empty to half full. An atmosphere and informality more like a nightclub or small- town festival were common, which for a handful of ticket buyers more than made up for skipping headline acts.

"I can see the big names in London," said Andy Wilson, a retired London software engineer who helped design the record-size Airbus 380 plane, attending his 14th festival. "If you go to North Sea you can see lots of things you'd otherwise never hear."

It wasn't just students and unknowns; perhaps 30 people attended a session by Grammy- nominee Don Byron where the racial politics of jazz were discussed as much as his woodwind playing. A similar gathering attended a session featuring pianist Randy Weston playing and explaining his more noteworthy compositions, perhaps because the official program listed it only as a "workshop" with no name attached. Vibraphonist Mattias Lupri, whose group burned up the stage as a headline act at the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival in Canada the previous week, was relegated to the last spot on the last night as part of a series of small-stage "Introducing" concerts.

The following is a sampling of the festival's student, workshop and "obscure" performances (even limited to this, there's no way to hit them all) before audiences ranging in size and enthusiasm from large to nearly nonexistent. Making an exclusive diet of them is hardly recommended for North Sea festival-goers - there's too much world- famous talent worth braving the crowds for - but plenty of memorable moments both musically and otherwise can be discovered with a few stops where most never tread.

The Students

Saxophonist Matt Cashdollar's first professional jazz gig was an opener for the ages.

He and three fellow Iowa college students kicked off the festival for a captive audience of thousands in front of the Netherlands Congress Centre on Friday, June 8. Nearly all were crushed around a row of doors that didn't open until an hour later, but a few dozen gathered loosely around the stage just to the left of the doors and others lounged on the grass across the vallet driveway - able to pretty much able to walk into the center 10 minutes after the doors opened.

Cashdollar's group, The Madcap Four, played originals and pieces like John Coltrane's "Ole" with all-out raw energy, the saxophonist evolving licks into the extreme upper registers and trumpeter Ben Syversen using longer deliberative notes in related-but- different-each-time phrases. The backing from drummer Jesse Nolan and Jesse Wittman on bass not only drove the intensity further forward, but the visual cues the band exchanged made it was clear they were locked into the moment.

The power didn't impress everyone; a pre-teen girl jammed her hands over her ears walking by the stage, but standing among those focusing on the music was like being at a club during the third set when only the dedicated listeners are still awake. In most such crowds there's usually a couple of devotees with funky hats or odd clothing constantly in motion to the music; here the ratio was simply a bit higher as most of the "normal" people studied performance schedules and held places in line while companions bought the mandatory "munten" tokens for the food and drink booths.


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