(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.
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.
The group paid their way (raising $3,000 of the $5,000 cost back home), missed two flights, stayed at a hostel instead of the center's swanky hotel housing the stars and Nolan noted "my cymbals are floating somewhere around the world." But they said being on stage before an enormous crowd - most of whom presumably paid at least some attention - wiped out the jet lag and other issues.
"We didn't know the doors were going to be closed and thousands of people would be standing here," Wittman said. "So that was an adrenaline rush."
Cashdollar applied to perform in the festival by sending a demo disc featuring the band playing compositions by John Zorn's Masada - but said they could hardly do that at the festival since the Zorn himself and the acoustic version of the ensemble were among the headline acts. So part of the band's work was coming up with originals for the opening gig and a Saturday night concert on a stage devoted to student bands inside the center.
"I hope this isn't the last gig for these guys," Cashdollar said. "Right now it is because we all just graduated."
The International Association of Jazz Education selected about a dozen bands for this year's festival from 20 or so applicants - few are able to meet the requirement of paying their own way, said Gregory Carroll, the association's director of education. He said acceptance is based on talent, without seeking to fill certain genres, and for him the result is some of most intriguing music of the three-day event.
"I want to see where the future of the music is," he said. As for students, sparse come- and-go crowds can be hard for some, but at the same time "it's great to see how they interact with the big names."
One of the best examples of that potential came just inside the entry hall as the doors opened Friday and Saturday, with the New Generations Of Dutch Jazz ensembles playing the first shows. There was some mixing-and-matching of the Netherlands students studying at conservatories and other institutions, but among some consistent standouts throughout was pianist Sjors Segaas, who constantly drew the loudest applause from a come-and-go lobby crowd usually numbering in the hundreds. Segaas' playing was a nonstop assault of heavy chords and two-handed runs, always fast and utilizing a variety of colorful and complex themes that, according to my notes, "resolved themselves with frightening precision." One can come away from a lot of "name" shows hearing less.
Another standout performer was saxophonist Floriaan Wempe, whose complex barrage of far-reaching notes might draw comparisons to Michael Brecker's better pure jazz work. Also boding well for the group was the discipline: Saxophonist Florien Westendorp displayed a strong tone and the intelligence of "playing within one's abilities" on "Mr. P.C.," starting with sparse phrasing and building tension by evolving into a run that matched the energy of the ensemble without trying to emulate Coltrane's complexity.
Again not everyone was into it - one women held a hand over her ear in obvious frustration as she answered occasional calls on her cell phone. And most of the crowd gave little or passing notice as they disbursed through the center, with the humanity seeming elbows-room only in every major space.
Entering the Escherzaal room, devoted the festival's student performances, was like an alternate universe.
The small theater, with maybe 200 chairs, was nearly empty as the MYSO Combo took the stage. The setting was more like a jazz club on a weeknight than a major festival, and the introduction by the emcee made it clear the rules were different as well.
"The public is not supposed to take pictures, but in this case I think the band has requested pictures be taken," he said.
The quartet, playing works by the likes of Corea, Hancock and Monk, was clean and one could hear shades of the composers, but what failed to emerge was a true identity. This was evident on a slow rendition of "All Blues," which has great potential if enough ideas are ingested into the empty space, but not enough were put forward. Variations of the phrase "decent, not special" showed up a lot in my notes.
At times performances in the theater featured standing-room crowds, at least as they opened. Among those crammed in to see the Dos Pueblos High School Choir was Thera Bykerk, an Amsterdam resident who's attended 29 of the 30 festivals. She said she was curious about the group because she sings in two choirs and the main acts didn't appeal.
"I don't know the names any more," she said. Earlier she went to the "Trumpets For Benny Bailey" concert, but "I didn't know he'd died." While the tribute to him by her countrymen was OK, "Dutch guys I can hear anytime."
The choir performance was a lesson in a good conductor elevating a student group. The harmonization backing up short scat solos on the opening and upbeat "Dizzy's Itch" was outstanding as various portions of the ensemble dropped in and out, with their coordination with soloists on complex passages spot-on as well. The subtle opening of "Spain" exposed weaknesses among some in the group that louder and more lively passages could mask. Capturing the highs and lows was their arrangement of "Minuano," set to lyrics. At its best it reminded me of Pat Metheny's collaboration with Polish vocalist Anna Maria Jopeka at the festival a few years ago, but lower moments like an overpowering and too-sharp male soloist served as a reminder this was a student performance.
Some of the greatest learning opportunities at any jazz festival are the artist workshops, but not necessarily because they're immaculately prepared.
"I didn't know what to expect," said trumpeter Jerry Gonzales. "When I got here I forgot I had to do it."
His guitarist, more preoccupied with the sound check on the roof stage where they were playing that night, skipped the session in front of an initial audience of about 20 people. Gonazles spent much of the session holding his trumpet as he swayed and talked in his gravel-like voice about his career, sometimes looking downward and sometimes seeming to focus on a single audience member. The trumpet was more than window dressing - it was a lesson he learned long ago while meeting his idol, Freddie Hubbard
"He said, 'Yeah I know you. You're a double threat - you play congas and trumpet. You got your horn? No? You got your own mouthpiece?" Gonzales said. "My hero was inviting me to play with him and I didn't have my equipment."
Neither did the audience in this case - it wasn't the kind of workshop seen at some smaller festivals where locals bring their instruments to study and/jam with the pros at the end. But when nobody had any questions, Carroll asked the trumpeter to illustrate the difference between "hotel" flamenco and the "savage" stuff he urged upon the audience by playing some of the latter.
Gonzales indulged in an up-tempo and enjoyable bit of solo playing, but afterward apologized to the audience, saying it was impossible to properly capture the flamenco feel without at least a guitarist to establish a rhythm. But afterward he said he didn't mind the sparse setting or crowd.
"Any message spread is worth it," he said.
For some reason a noticeably larger crowd of about 100 - many toting plates from the food booths outside - showed up for an unbilled Saturday evening workshop that turned out to be Weston's solo piano session. Tinus Koorn, a computer programmer and harmonica player from the Netherlands town of Delft, said beforehand he had no idea who was scheduled, but anybody performing at the North Sea festival is probably a worthwhile talent.
"I look for the smaller rooms," he said. "I like bands with strange instruments."
Some surprises with big names also occurs, said Koorn, who's attended 10 festivals. Among them was an intimate session with trumpter Wynton Marsalis three years ago, with Koorn gaining a new appreciation for the qualities making up the trumpeter's tone.
"When you hear him in a hallway you don't hear that," he said.
Weston said his aim was giving the audience an overview of his career by playing pieces and explaining each one, since "each composition tells a different story."
Not quite a workshop, but a definite chance to see work being evaluated, came during Saturday evening's finale for the Dutch Jazz Competition. The three bands selected before the festival as finalists from 64 entries each played half-hour sets in a battle for a grand prize featuring a recording session, club tour, promotional support and an appearance at next year's festival.
The workshop tent was fairly full, but there were still definitely seats available as saxophonist Tom Beek's quartet took the stage for a set highlighted by drummer Gijs Dijkhuizen and the group's burning modernism of "Grand Central." Beek won the best composition award for the somewhat dark and moody "White And Blue," but was outplayed during the piece by staying close to the melodic structure while Dijkhuizen and bassist Jereon Vierdag were expanding it around him. Saxophonist Thijs Van Milligen's trio played the third show, with an accolade noting "the absence of a chord instrument offer this trio the possibility of more rhythmical and harmonic freedom. In the process the dividing line between soloist and accompanist becomes blurred."
The competition was won by the second act, Robinson, Freitag and Caruso, led by drummer Yonga Sun, who also won the award for best soloist and praise from the jury for "a high level of artistry, dazzling technique without gimmicks, provoking dynamics, the complete use of the drum pallet and a strong communicative partner within the group."
Sun, who calls Wayne Shorter's current group (including "my hero Brian Blade") the world's best band, writes on his Web site that pianist Cristoph Mac-Carty and bassist Uli Wentzlaff "give me so much freedom playing their music that I feel like a child in a candy store. They really write beautiful songs which I'm allowed to destroy any way I like." He was "flabbergasted" after winning the soloist award for an earlier performance in the competition.
"The thing is that I didn't even play a real solo!" he wrote. "Just some sounds and funny things, but apparently that's not what this is all about. It seems to be more about propelling the music. Blending in with the band and taking the lead at times. Being inside the music and giving it a certain edge."
Those shut out of the big events had a chance to see some "names" pass through the tent, including workshops by Holland and drummer Bill Stewart, and guitarist Charlie Hunter doing a live "Blindfold Test" for Downbeat. It also offered more than just music as food for thought.
One got the feeling Grammy nominee Don Byron wasn't thrilled about his Sunday sax/ clarinet workshop before an initial audience of about 20 people, and it probably didn't help when Carroll at the beginning asked those sitting at tables away from center stage not to talk except for questions. Sitting leisurely in a T-shirt and shorts, Byron opened with two solo clarinet pieces, the first a lyrical exploration that eventually stretched into some high-register exercises, followed by a surprisingly gentle interpretation of "Giant Steps" (full disclosure: in my ignorance, I didn't recognize the tune until he identified it).
"So we're supposed to have questions, so let's get to the questions now," he said rather abruptly. "Anybody have any questions."
For a painful moment, nobody did. Then somebody asked about his study habits.
Byron said he doesn't study licks or patterns, that with the clarinet the approach is studying progressively harder pieces. A seemingly simple question about differences between a clarinet and saxophone launched him into a subject that dominated much of the discussion, claiming the music industry historically and currently shuns blacks from "intelligent" and big-money positions.
"We still haven't seen a black clarinetist in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra," he told the almost entirely white audience. "In American football, the quarterback position used to be like the clarinet is now. They used to say to black quarterbacks 'you get the ball or make a lot of decisions,' (and) black players weren't smart enough to do that."
He warmed to Steve Edwards, a London heating engineer and woodwind technician who was one of the few blacks in the audience, but that may have been more a musical than racial bonding. In a bit of give-and-take, they found they shared the same double embrasure technique and approach to "Giant Steps."
"It's not something so that tenor players can kick each others' ass and shit, so I try to play it like it's a nice song," Byron said.
Edwards later said that, beyond his interpretation, "it's the first time I actually heard somebody play 'Giant Steps' like a song. There's a lot you can learn from it if you play it slow."
The 'Obscure' Acts
If Byron was having a hard time feeling the love, there was plenty of it at the food booths outside the tent for the Newbirth Brass Band, which put in short appearances in the courtyard all weekend with something close to street musician verve and casualness. Lead trumpeter and vocalist Kenneth Terry was one of the best showmen of the festival, growling and trilling and doing far better than most at getting the crowd involved in classics such as "Minnie The Mooch." Virtually all of the solos were energetic and interplay-driven and, if they weren't of the same caliber of the virtuosos inside, few in the audience seemed to care.
Terry said the band played at North Sea 10 years ago and tour all over the world, returning this year at the request of festival officials interested in their sound, energy and approach.
"What we do is something different than what's going on in there; you don't have to sit down," he said.
Not only did the band draw an enormous impromptu crowd - some of whom no doubt merely wandered out for a bite - but Terry sold the shopping bag of CDs he brought almost immediately and had numerous people asking when they'd be playing next so they could get one.
The band was likely among many escaping notice by festival goers perusing daily schedules. In big type at the top are the headlines in the main halls. Next is a group of "secondary" acts such as Andrew Hill, Greg Osby, Jim Hall and Ivey Divey that might easily headline other festivals. Finally, in tiny type squished at the bottom is an assortment of bands and performers with unfamiliar names, including some appearing unbilled except for being part of something like a continuous live radio broadcast.
"We don't look at this as the bottom of the schedule," Carroll said. "We look at this as the intimate part of the setting."
Even with the "Who's Who" guide (roughly an extra $10, including a Dutch jazz magazine with a sampler CD), it can be tough knowing what to expect.
It notes the five-member POW Ensemble, led by self-taught free jazz saxophonist Luc Houtkamp, features a large computer network where "one computer reacts to what another one has come up with and a form of digital improvisation has come alive." Also, it tap dancer Marije Nie is part of Saturday's performance.
The ensemble's introductory "Black Cat Bong," a tribute to Muddy Waters, opened with Houtkamp seemingly making every sound possible with a saxophone other than a conventional one, assembling key clicks, sharp percussive tonguings, squeaks and squeals into something of an improvisational melody, backed by Nie's eclectic African-like dance steps. Joining in after a few minutes was a static-like background texture from two synth/ electronics performers, and Hans Buhrs' deep blues vocals.
Experimental stuff like this is everywhere - I encounter endless groups distributing it free free on the Internet - but the group illustrated 1) accomplished performers can take this to another level and 2) one needs to see as well as hear it if they're going to appreciate it.
On the ensuing piece - which I'd swear was a seriously twisted arrangement of the old pop ballad "Traces," based on the opening lyrics - Burhs' voice rose to a Michael Jackson soft falsetto, accompanied by a sporadic-but-furious tapping, a continuous sax hum (sounding like a tin whistle at one point) and spooky haunted house electronics. From there the electronics accelerated into an Afro/Cuban beat and kept going into what can only be described as "beyond." The daring got plenty of applause, but a lot of people left after the song as well.
They lost more of the crowd, notably conservatively dressed types and groups of women, on "14 Songs And One Riddle" as Buhrs launched into a seemingly endlessly repetitive poetry rant heavy on references to sexual organs. If the lyrics weren't too much, a constant throbbing bass plucking from one of the electronics players was far too stomach churning to be appreciated.
Then again, sound issues may not have been the band's fault. Nie said afterward she felt like she was "tap dancing on an old tin bucket" because of the heavy air, low ceiling and lack of air conditioning, resulting in something less than the "warm, low bassy" sound she aims for.
Less-than-perfect setups and spur-of-the-moment adjustments are common away from the main stages, although they frequently are a major bother for performers who make improvisation a way of life.
Vanessa Goings wasn't a scheduled performer - billed or unbilled - at the festival. But only a few feet from where staff were blocking a crowd from getting to the already full rooftop stage of Sanborn's upcoming concert, she impulsively joined a trio of musicians at a small row of instrument booths for a lively rendition of "My Baby Tonight." From her scat, dance moves (undisturbed by occasional groups of people getting off an elevator three feet to her left) and constant cueing of the trio, the uninitiated might have thought she'd worked with with them for years.
"I was just walking by and I saw them and I said 'Can I jam with you?'" the German systems network manager said. "I'm just here having fun."
Guitarist Jerome Hol and bassist Wim den Herder spent much of the festival playing as a way of luring customers, but said the occasional jam with other booth workers and even passer-bys wasn't unexpected.
"We just started and I think it's going to happen more every year because there are a lot of musicians," Hol said.
More impromptu jams could be found in room featuring "Live Uitzendingen" radio broadcasts, which strongly resembled an intimate jazz club with a handful of linen- covered tables along the walls and an open carpeted floor, used by the audience for sitting instead of dancing in this case.
Trumpeter Michael Varekamp, who's played 16 North Sea festivals, led his quartet on a nicely drawn-out series of passages over what felt like an improvised backdrop at one point, followed by Monica Akihary playing the thumb piano and singing to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitarist on an ethnic folk tune - pulling off the neat trick of making whispering scat audible throughout the room. All of them joined other players for a rousing "Route 66," confident enough in themselves and the audience to introduce it tongue-in-cheek, but then attack it with style. Among the impromptu cast was radio host Hans Dykstal who, despite spending most of his time interviewing performers between songs, happened to have his sax.
"It was something of a surprise," he said. "I didn't know I'd be playing."
The doors opened two hours early on the final day at 3:30 p.m., giving the Mambokids' concert on the entry hall stage the undivided attention of those wanting live music since no other performances started until more than a hour later. The 14-member Netherlands group, who has played at the festival for the past four years, did well as a whole, although few individual moments stood out. When it came to easily recognizable crowd fare they were far superior sticking to Afro/Cuban pieces such as Tito Puente's "Oye Come Va" than Latin adaptations of things like the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody."
Even if the group isn't among the "big" festival names, they're well-known and well- regarded regionally, so playing at North Sea isn't intimidating, said Bruce Stamper, a resident of The Hague now in his second year with the group. He said he is planning to work on his own music - although he'll still be available for future Mambokids gigs - but isn't willing to speculate on his chances of making it to one of the festival's big stages someday.
"If it's the mercy of God it will happen," he said. "I'm just doing my thing right now, having fun."
Now for that personal aside, mentioned way back at the beginning of the article.
I broke my "no stars" rule and paid the required extra bucks to see Dianne Reeves in the main concert hall, a near-mandatory sentimental thing related to my wife. Reeves exhibited typical near-flawless command of her considerable vocal range on standards, story-oriented songs and scat, with exceptional support from her trio. Hearing her talk about staying up the entire previous night composing lyrics for a song dedicated to drummer Tony Williams was intriguing and the band's level of comfort was such that, even though many of the songs were similar as the last time I heard her at North Sea, everyone seemed to dial the intensity and interactivity to "11." I confess it was the personal highlight of the festival and I left afterward, still relatively early in the evening, because that was the memory I wanted to linger. Still, I couldn't help thinking there was a greater impact at a festival in Colorado nearly 20 years ago when I was new to jazz and she was a relative nobody. She blew away headliners like Lee Ritenour and The Rippingtons with the one show that had a sizable portion of the crowd up and dancing.
Lest anyone think I carry a torch solely for Reeves, I admit I might have had similar raves about Dave Holland, John Zorn, Jim Hall, Keith Jarrett, Andrew Hill, Joey DeFrancesco and at least half a dozen others (and this isn't even including fusion masters like Chick Corea, John Scofield and David Sanborn). Nobody with a chance to soak up so much talent at once should leave with the regret of being deprived of it, which is why I don't recommend my exclusive experiment on North Sea's back roads.
Still, for those wanting at something of an alternative experience, here's another tip: Instead of booking a room in the usual cities of The Hague, Rotterdam or Amsterdam, take a flyer on a place in a small nearby town you've never heard of. I did this (not entirely by choice, I confess) by relying on one of those internet travel sites to pick an available place that was reasonable cheap on short notice, ending up in a place near Amsterdam called Zwanenburg. It probably wasn't the best choice, if for no reason other than getting to the festival was a two-hour bus/train/tram affair, although staying in Rotterdam was nearly as taxing. But it's one of those classically quaint European towns where you don't absorb the culture as much as are forcefully indoctrinated into it. Forget Starbucks and McDonald's; here I couldn't find a cup of coffee in the morning and the hotel couldn't conceive of a guest bringing a pot of it to their room so they could work, instead of drinking it properly in the breakfast room. Obviously, room service was unheard of. If you want to eat cafe food or hang in a bar until 2 a.m., no problem, but buying anything else after 6 p.m. is impossible. All typical of most European towns, but shuttling between the non-stop madness of the festival and village shops where there's no assurance of encountering someone who speaks English definitely magnifies the so-called cultural experience.
As for jazz...well, that's why people go to the city...