Gifts from the North Sea

In Rotterdam a couple of weekends ago, the North Sea Jazz Festival took place. It was an excellent event. Well, I think it was, based on my Saturday trip there with some friends – I assume that the other two days were at least as good. We were there from the start at about 4:00pm until about 11:30pm, when we went back (via trains, with an adventure story for another day) to Amsterdam. Seven and a half hours is a good amount of time for some excellent music to be heard and seen…

Turns out that there was great news for me right from the get go on this event. One of my favourite saxophonists from the younger generation playing out there these days, Joshua Redman, was the artist in residence for the event this year, and he did two concerts that day, in different configurations. (I say younger… I’ve been following his work for 20 years, since I first arrived in the USA all the way back (Princeton), shortly after his second album appeared. He was one of the hot new musicians on the scene at the time… But that was 20 years ago, so I suppose it’s time to use a different term…?)

I’ve seen him play a number of times over the years, on both coasts, in tiny clubs and in larger concert halls, and he’s always been great. This time he was probably the best I’ve ever seen him, and that’s saying something, since he’s usual so very good, along with the musicians he has in his bands. This time he’s part of a newer band called “James Farm”, along with pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Eric Harland. It was an incredible set, with such energy as I’ve not felt in a concert for a long time. Two of us were screaming our encouragement and appreciation at the end of most of the solos… (along with so many others around the concert hall that it was not unusual).

I must not forget to note that the legendary Ahmad Jamal and his band started out the proceedings in this particular space (see photo above – there were so many different concerts going on in parallel in various halls), coming on before Redman and Co. That was a great concert too – it is just that Joshua and his band were so remarkable that I had to mention them first. Ahmad Jamal is well known for his use of space and rhythm in his piano playing that remains highly influential. I’d not heard him play in many a year, so this was a treat.

After that, in another space we saw some of Esperanza Spalding (see above), the bass player and vocalist who has been making quite the splash in recent years. She was in the largest of the halls (that’s what winning a Grammy will do for you) and with quite a large band (with an impressive horn section). She was really good, although not always to my tastes (I’d have fewer long interludes involving talking at the audience about love and more of her just letting her music speak for itself, but I get the feeling that people loved that sort of thing, so I’m in the minority). When she was actually playing her instrument (especially the upright bass) and listening and interacting with her band with it, she was really good indeed. I was less excited about the talking, as I mentioned, and also not sold on the too-long meandering vocal dialogues with her main saxophonist, which I found more to be light on musical depth. But while I think the balance of stuff was off, the music was strong when it was there, and so I’m excited that she’s going to mature into a great musician who I’ll want to hear more of. So overall, it was enjoyable, and the crowd loved her.

I’d have stayed with Esperanza Spalding longer, but Prism, comprised of Kevin Eubanks (guitar), Craig Taborn (Fender Rhodes), Dave Holland (bass) and Eric Harland (drums) was on, and I wanted to hear them. This was a fun group, doing some really exciting things (Eric Harland was doing some great things with time signatures that reminded me of Steve Coleman and the Five Elements) although I felt it harder to connect with them emotionally than I felt I ought to have. Was it something about the particular combination of instruments? The compositions? My mood? My position in the room? Not sure. That said, I enjoyed it overall too.

I don’t go to Jazz festivals very often, if the truth be told. One reason for this is simply that most of the ones I see advertised don’t seem very interesting to me. The term “Jazz Festival” has been ruined, at least in the USA, by gatherings of musicians who are mostly nothing whatsoever to do with Jazz. The term has become a catch all phrase for a random grouping of people that don’t collectively fit under any of the other festival categories like rock or folk. (I remember going to the Aspen-Snowmass Jazz Festival one time when, if I recall correctly, the most Jazz related of the musicians playing was Macy Gray. Don’t get me wrong…. I loved Macy Gray and had a great time – and I went specifically to see her perform… It is just that it is not Jazz…) Well, one of the things about this festival (and maybe this is the also the case more often in Europe? I do not know) was that it really was a Jazz festival in that the majority of the work on show was genuinely Jazz in some meaningful sense. See the schedule here. (Yes, out of curiosity I did try to go see Hugh Laurie’s band play, but it seems that everyone else had the same idea too, and so there was no getting in there at all.)

Having said that, one of the acts I saw next was Rufus Wainwright. No, not jazz, but really good all the same. He has a great voice, sings some excellent songs, and has a great band playing with him. I listened for a while until he brought on two guests to sing some songs that did not inspire me so much and then it was time to try to get into the second Joshua Redman concert.

This time he was playing in the Axis Quartet of saxophones with Chris Cheek, Chris Potter and Mark Turner. Four great sax players! Chris Potter is another favorite of mine going back to my days of going up to New York from Princeton. He’d sometimes play alto with the Mingus Big Band on Thursdays, and he was tremendous. Well, he was still great. The whole gig was great, with them all taking turns stepping back to do harmonic and rhythmic support when someone else was taking a solo, on a wide variety of great compositions.

This was an excellent way to end the evening (on a high note, so to speak) and then it was time to head for the trains…

Lastly, I must say a special thanks to Amy, Yvette, and Mark for your roles in making the visit so excellent!


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