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The Optimal Evolution of Amersfoort World Jazz

The Optimal Evolution of Amersfoort World Jazz

Courtesy Nico Brons

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Jazz is not a history museum, it should be music of the future.
—Alexander Beets
A multitude of festivals recently returned from the pandemic wasteland as the world of live music played catch-up from over two years of interruptions, but few comebacks in the busy summer of 2022 were as uniformly strong as the full reopening of the Amersfoort World Jazz Festival. During what is likely now a permanent switch from the previous spring time frame to an early August edition, Amersfoort elevated its status as a multi-venue concert program, showcase-type exhibition series, and marketing conference to justify its "Musician's Paradise" tag.

Considering how well this year's model of eleven nights blossomed at seven distinctly picturesque locations, in gatherings that ranged from cozy dozens to swarming hundreds, a comprehensive review of the year's musical summits clearly indicates Amersfoort has reached a threshold of becoming one of jazz's premier annual destinations for a truly global jazz experience. The consistently expanding Network Conference added expertise and perspective to the experience with a series of in-person and online forums that offered enjoyable, educational formats for discourse regarding business and marketing that expanded the "World Jazz" concept.

Distinguished guests included American bassist and conductor John Clayton along with his son Gerald Clayton, and the Orchestra Jazz Siciliana. As always, there were plenty of inspired sets by various Dutch players, and an array of dynamic international acts by the SENA Jazz Laureates. This year's model also introduced an experimental change from the previous, entirely free program to a ticket-based system for many shows. That somewhat controversial switch proved quite successful by setting bargain prices in conjunction with a solid number of no-fee shows.

Much of the festival's positive energy is derived from Director Alexander Beets, a true jazz ambassador and accomplished musician. In addition to a prolific career on the tenor saxophone, he's an esteemed professor in the Rockacademie program at the Fontys School of Fine and Performing Arts in nearby Tilburg, which focuses on a broad array of popular music topics. Beets's engaging, no bullshit personality and dedication to broadening Amersfoort's status is obvious through his engagement with fellow musicians, related staff, or audience members. With a team of top notch staff like multi-skilled, on site public relations ace Arlette Hovinga, Beets maintains a flourishing environment that visitors and participants make a priority to return to.

"Jazz is not a history museum," says Beets. "It should be music of the future."

A prime example of Amersfoort's growth came through the very special guests in Orchestra Jazz Siciliana, presented by master producer Fabio Lannino. It was a rare treat, and the very first time this distinguished ensemble performed outside their homeland, a result of Beets and Lannino having recently forged an expanding partnership that paid immediate dividends this year and portends a very bright future.

The band lived up to the occasion with a pair of stirring concert collaborations, in varied programs that included guests like the Claytons, vastly popular Dutch vocalist Trijntje Oosterhuis, the festival's National Artist in Residence Lucas Santana and featured in-house soloists like Vito Giordano. Everyone in the OJS ensemble got a bit of the spotlight at one point or another and demonstrated many memorable merits that proved their all-star credibility. Energetic conductor Domenico Riina was practically a show by himself, while the talents of saxophonist Alessandro Laura and trumpeter Gaetano Castiglia, from OJS's school of popular music, represented the Sicilia Jazz festival as SENA Jazz Laureates in concert with the Mitchell Damen Trio.

The orchestra's original designation was as The Brass Group Big Band decades ago, and they have maintained part of that moniker throughout landmark projects with renowned guests and appearances throughout the Italian regions. Their foundation has included a first rate music school for over thirty years, providing extensive multi-media library facilities for the public and OJS has been honored by the Sicilian Parliament for cultural contributions. The triumphant gigs in Amersfoort signified yet another step in its prestigious development.

The orchestra's initial performance began at a club-type venue, with a rousing set of standards that featured Clayton Sr. as guest conductor on songs like "Sunday in New York" and Sam Cooke's "Another Saturday Night," with Oosterhuis singing a subsequent series of classics from the Stevie Wonder songbook. The seventeen-piece group achieved excellent overall sound almost immediately, with near perfect opening brass and keys, but there was a bit of sonic overkill in the relatively small venue's echoing confines and too much crash on the cymbals. Still, it only took a few moments for them to balance the blend and put smiles on the audience's faces that remained for the duration of the set.

Accordingly, one of the intimate hall's benefits turned out to be that everyone in the room got a nice, close-up look at the entire band, and individual facial features and gestures were far more visible and engaging than most large-group formats. An exemplary interpretation of "I was Made to Love Her" and the alternating, multi-horn section finale to "Higher Ground" had most people in the building dancing away from their soon unnecessary chairs. Much of the set was familiar ground for Oosterhuis and Clayton, who'd covered the material previously with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra while recording Sundays in New York (Blue Note, 2011). A fine trio of backup singers harkened back to earlier stages of the Steely Dan Gaucho period.

Oosterhuis shared a few biographical tidbits about how Wonder was an influence, and how his music fostered her awareness of trailblazers like Little Willie John, an anecdote that led to the evening's wonderful closing number, "Crying Over You." Clayton returned to the stage and contributed a seemingly effortless demonstration of optimal dexterity and bass tones while the orchestra soared and the audience cheered. Considering that the OJS had only received their arrangements a few days prior, the set was quite an achievement. The next day's set with Oosterhuis and Santana, before a much larger outdoor audience, was even more impressive, and the cheers were even louder.

Producer Lannino, who teaches marketing with a Masters in business management from Berklee College of Music, also handles international relations and participated as a panelist in the World Jazz Conference that ran during the festival's latter schedule. He showed considerable skill on the bass during the closing, "Director's Invitation" concert that provided further high notes for the festival's finale.

"Thanks to this new partnership our orchestra can be heard by many more audiences," said Lannino. Alexander Beets is a great resource and when he says something you know it's true. I'm sure more and more will come from this partnership."

The festival's most distinguished performer was probably American bassist Clayton, whose presence added prestige while his musical skill on the upright bassist and cheerful verve as a conductor added luster to multiple locations throughout the festival grounds. Clayton and son Gerald were constantly inspiring ambassadors and it was a delight to watch them interact with the many fans who greeted them all over town. It was also the week of the elder Clayton's 70th birthday. He celebrated as a lean, mean, music machine beginning with the OJS stint, progressing masterfully the next night into a duet performance with pianist Peter Beets for an after-midnight show in one of Amersfoort's picturesque, though sweltering, old churches.

Both musicians were in top form, and the high, domed ceiling was great for acoustics, and except for some chatter that intruded from the café a floor below, the show was flawless. Clayton's bow solo had a sweaty audience mesmerized and sticking around despite summer extremes. Clayton looked and sounded like he had reached four-string nirvana, and a cheerfully intense Beets appeared the same. They were joined for a couple songs by (Director) Beets, the pianist's older brother who modestly downplays his chops, but showed they were quite real during a sublimely searing take on Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood."

National Artist in Residence Lucas Santana was the festival's endorsed exceptional talent and an International Jazz Laureate. The emerging saxophone and flautist from San Paolo, Brazil, who previously studied in Amsterdam; has gathered multiple accolades including a 2021 Downbeat Student Award. Santana's second album Ambivalence (Zennez, 2022) is gaining momentum and his quintet (Tijs Klassen bass, Tim Hennekes drums, Davor Stehlik guitar and Timothy Banchet piano) played a well-received show of modern jazz. Santana provided further highlights in multiple formations including a string group, the Loet van der Lee Quintet, and the Orchestra Jazz Siciliana.

Santana's most unique appearance came during an official opening ceremony, in a performance that included spoken word, electronics, plus sax and flute improvisation, with two poets and another saxophonist adding flourishes of computerized distortions. The memorable half-hour set took place in a large rectangular church, temporarily repurposed by special commission with brightly painted, pink-based walls. The new interior would only exist for a few weeks of exhibition for the festival, and be restored to its original blank interior that Sunday. The concept came in conjunction with nationwide recognition of iconic abstractionist Piet Mondrian, born in Amersfoort in 1872. While Mondrian may be known for flaring geometric canvasses, there was nothing too square about the pop-up gallery or the poetic jam. As the poets continued an alternating narrative amidst looping effects and horn segments, it was enlightening to watch Santana deeply survey the vast murals for inspiration grounded in the artwork. His commitment to the project and the festival was clear, and stood out in a year that has seen a sizeable increase in spoken-word sets at locations like North Sea Jazz.

Familiar Netherlands talent represented the Professional Association of Performing Musicians and its well known flagship jazz venue in Amsterdam, Bimhuis. Adding to the organization's 50th anniversary were the BIM All Stars featuring Hans Dulfer, while Thailand's Koh Mr.Saxman, a longtime high-energy friend of the festival, and Eric Ineke also marked the occasion with related concerts. Venues specified as Dutch Jazz Release Stages focused on Netherlands-based talent and included sets in conjunction with new releases by vocalist Jessica de Boers, the Tijs Klaasen Quintet and Folkert Tettero. Acclaimed Korean drummer Sun Mi Hong, a previous National Artist in Residence, celebrated ten years in the Netherlands with a new release of her own, Third Page: Resonance (Edition Records, 2022).

The quality of Hungary's jazz scene was well represented under the banner Babel Sound Collaboration by the Peter Sarik Trio's highly-anticipated Bela Bartok project, Santa Diver, the Mihaly Borbely Quartet, and Veronica Harcs with Bálint Gyémánt.

Poland's five-piece Unleashed Cooperation began unobtrusively with typical rising intonations, but within a minute or so they actually had blossomed into something unusual. Unfortunately, that sound was less than optimal to say the least, and their tone was never fully balanced. Pianist Patryk Matwiejczuk bravely led the way until the other players (Krzystof Kusmierak on saxophone, Patryk Rynkiewicz on trumpet, Flavio Gullotta on bass, Stanislaw Aleksandrowicz on drums) found an acceptable range. With horns alternating lead phrases, by their third song an amazing transformation took place and everything seemed to click. A keys-based transitional theme was very good, as were the follow-up horn pieces. "Our March" was one of the better songs and "Hope" was much more than just a decent ballad. During "Eight Years" the time changes were too abrupt for the startled looking audience, but at least the band was aiming high and they recovered once again by the set's end with a Polish polka that featured an interesting, twin-chambered flute.

As South African singer Keorapetse Kolwane and her well-dressed group warmed up, a full courtyard gathering knew immediately they were in for a classy night. Contrary to some of the soundboard issues at the building's interior stage, acoustics were solid throughout. Kolwane's personal connection to the music was obvious as she explained a dedication to her late grandmother. "I will try to put every song in context," she said. "Excuse the language barrier, I didn't do it on purpose." Her unlisted backup band offered excellent support, highlighted by the pianist on pieces like "Song for Gretchen." Much of the set had a bit of a Dianne Reeves-type vibe, never a bad thing.

Trumpeter Loet van der Lee's quintet and guests featured another welcome appearance by Santana. They opened with a snappy number that gave everyone a brief introductory solo and showed the whole band's skills. Guest guitarist Durk Hijma piloted a hollow-body Gibson on slick sequences while Santana got tips on the song charts from van der Lee, who switched to a fine flugelhorn. Santana proved a quick study, the three-horned attack was refreshing like the hot afternoon's courtyard breeze. Santana really got into the music with facial expressions of delight.

Collectively, the band looked relatively young but swung like old pros, including a modified Brahms piece with Santana on flute. Gideon Tazelaar was no slouch on his tenor while Tim Hennekes and Cas Jiskoot held down the rhythm on respective drums and bass and Sebastian van Bavel added some primo piano. By the middle of their excellent set it looked like Santana might just put his horn down and break into a full samba dance frenzy as they hit one of the week's high points and made it a beautiful afternoon for jazz with songs like "In Your Face." Afterward, accounting for his obvious joy a modest Santana said "That was so much fun because I'm not primarily a soloist." Those who've heard him might disagree, but he was clearly a team player on this day.

John Clayton and Peter Beets got together again as Clayton conducted pianist Beet's New Jazz Orchestra, one of the larger assemblies that kept the central bar and restaurant area heavily occupied and engaged. The set included a song with sensational Spanish harmonica player Antonio Serrano, who appeared later with his own group for a Toots Thielemans tribute. Serrano joined for a fine version of the Leon Russell ballad "This Masquerade," which in bayou irony has become somewhat of a present day jazz standard. When Gerald Clayton came out next for some unannounced solo segments it was cool to see his dad watching proudly, and when the elder Clayton led the orchestra in improvised solos it was another festival highlight.

Among other promising London-based prospects, Nigeria's Camilla George is touted as a rapidly rising star in Afrofuturism. Her backing band was excellent, but sometimes it seemed the sum didn't exactly fit the parts during opening segments of her outdoor afternoon show, most likely because George's pleasingly tricky, multi-layered songs are more complicated than most current music, jazz or otherwise. At first, a full house that was obviously anxious to see her looked confused or even disappointed. Whatever it was didn't last long, and soon the crowd was obviously feeling a thrill. During "The People That Could Fly" from her 2018 album, a large swarm of birds visibly flew overhead, chirping loudly in a magical moment and the entire audience began to respond to the abstract phrasing. George is definitely someone to hear.

The Pit Dahm Quartet, sponsored by Luxembourg's excellent festival Like a Jazz Machine, had obvious skill but perhaps not the proper performance space for their offbeat set that landed a little too far off for a gathering that seemed more effected by the band's facial expressions than their proficiency. Drummer Dahm and his cohorts (Charley Rose on saxophone, Nathanael Ramos on trumpet, Pat Cleaver on bass) took the typical trumpet—sax pairing down an extreme path, probably too extreme as evidenced by the looks of soon-exiting listeners.

A popular pub crawl supported by the city's caterers also returned from hiatus and took place in eighteen bars and restaurants to turn the central area into a flourishing hive of excited jazz fans that rivaled the very best of such summer scenes. Thousands of people buzzed throughout the old town area, as hundreds more than usual swarmed throughout the multi-stage surroundings. Truly great public awareness was apparent for the jazz "brand" overall and Amersfoort in particular, as organizers combined a vast array of styles while retaining a true, jazz-based format.

There was much to be seen, heard and tasted. The tag about musician's paradise seemed very real, not just for the many energized musicians, but the growing legions of Amersfoort fans as well. Whether or not the relatively compact city will be able, or will even aspire to expand from the current formula is still a question, but there is no doubt about the city's ability to put on a wonderful mid-size event.

Numerous venues and artists throughout western Europe listed major concerns regarding attendance and finance as consumer bases returned, or didn't, from pandemic restrictions. If such worries existed in Amersfoort, they were never noticeable. The vivid evidence from this year's festival proves Amersfoort provides a multitude of international performers and strong local audience many opportunities to meet, while the adjoining conference, with numerous creative participants, indicates a likelihood of growth. As the World Jazz scene expands, it certainly seems the evolving tradition will continue to thrive.

Music at its best is a multi-faceted passion that raises the human condition, drawing people together in manners that illuminate the many positive similarities and differences of various social constructs. Amersfoort 2022 was, indeed, music at its best.

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