Visiting North Sea Jazz always feels like coming home somehow. Not only is it held in my beloved city of Rotterdam, but the atmosphere, the diversity of people, and above all, the music provide a feeling of belonging.
North Sea is the only major jazz festival in the world where all the performances are in one place: the Ahoy conference center. Ever since the festival moved from The Hague to Rotterdam in 2006, it is noticeable how the organizers improve the festival experience year after year. There a bottleneck hindering the flow of people between two venues one year? You can rest assured that the logistics will be improved the following year.
Of course, in the end it’s all about the music, and as always the lineup did not disappoint. Here are the artists who made the biggest impression on me this year.
This year’s artist in residence was Michael League, Snarky Puppy’s bass player and band leader. Being North Sea Jazz’s artist in residence means that you get carte blanche to perform every day of the festival. For Michael League, this meant Snarky Puppy performing with the Metropole Orchestra, but also taking the stage with his Bokanté project and a gluttony of special guests, from scheduled performances by Bassekou Kouyaté and Mehdi Haddab to an unscheduled performance by Pedrito Martinez.
As with all festivals there are difficult choices to make. On Friday evening Badbadnotgood, Rohey and Hannah Williams & The Affirmations were all playing at roughly the same time. On Saturday, there was a clash of the saxophone titans with Shabaka Hutchings and his Sons of Kemet scheduled to play at the same time as Pharoah Sanders. And on Sunday, there was the difficult choice of watching legends Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, John Medeski, and Scott Colley or newcomer Moses Sumney. The latter provided one of the best shows of the festival with his intense falsetto combined with a captivating stage presence. When he walked into the crowd it felt as if he serenaded each and every one of us.
This year’s festival had a healthy mix of young artists and acts that have been around for much longer. Friday began with the O’Jays in the main hall, the Nile, and it was a pleasure for the crowd to discover that all those familiar songs come from this band. Hearing “Back Stabbers” and “Love Train” sung by the original voices is quite something.
Not quite in the same league, the closing act at the Nile was N.E.R.D., a band that can claim an equally impressive number of hit songs and the crowd loved it.
Besides these hitmakers there were also giants of the free jazz genre. The biggest highlight being the duo of Bill Frisell and John Surman. Where most free jazz can become devoid of melody, the beauty of Frisell’s guitar playing is that he always keeps it melodic no matter how sparse or full of notes a passage of play is.
On Saturday, the Darling was the playing ground of the new British Jazz Invasion where, in addition to Sons of Kemet, Nubya Garcia and Ezra Collective gave rousing performances. On the Friday, the Congo was the stage for the new North American jazz, heavily influenced by hip-hop. Badbadnotgood was the closing act of the day, and opener Cameron Graves set the tone with a fantastic sonic journey moving from classical piano to bepop and almost heavy metal drumming. My personal festival highlight, however, was R + R = Now, a kind of supergroup put together by Robert Glasper involving amongst others Terrace Martin and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. From time to time, the talent on display had some difficulty performing harmoniously as a group, but the best part was that they came together through humor. Certain phrasings in a solo would put smiles on the other players’ faces and the subtle communications happening at moments where the band would get back in the groove will stay with me forever.