North Sea Jazz Festival 2015

Rupert Parker was at the Rotterdam’s North Sea Jazz Festival celebrating its fortieth birthday this year, mixing jazz, soul and blues with distinguished jazzers sharing the bill with Lady Gaga, Mary J. Blige and Lionel Richie.

North Sea Jazz Front

North Sea Jazz Front

Ahoy Rotterdam North Sea Jazz 2015

Ahoy Rotterdam North Sea Jazz 2015

Lee Konitz backlit

Lee Konitz

Randy Weston w hands

Randy Weston

Cassandra Wilson and guitarist

Cassandra Wilson

Kurt Elling

Kurt Elling

Bill Frisell 2

Bill Frisell

Joshua Redman w bass

Joshua Redman

Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock

Marcus Miller

Marcus Miller

Lionel Richie

Lionel Richie

Rotterdam is the Netherland’s second largest city and one of the biggest ports in the world. The centre was flattened during WW2 but pluckily rebuilt using the best contemporary architects they could lay their hands on. Every year there seems to be some new thrusting tower, piercing the skyline, and this adds to its dynamism, coupled with a vibrant ethnic mix. Add reclaimed dock areas to provide a watery surrounding. It’s therefore the perfect place for a jazz festival.

Now North Sea Jazz is celebrating its 40th birthday and bringing out some of the guys who appeared in the first festival in 1976 – Lee Konitz, still going strong at 87, Randy Weston, a sprightly 89, and Han Bennink, the famous Dutch drummer who played on the opening day. And of course it moves with the times and these days there’s quite a sprinkling of things other than jazz – Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett, a most unlikely pairing that surprisingly works, Mary J. Blige and Lionel Richie.

For those who haven’t been, the festival takes place over three days, running into the small hours and Rotterdam thoughtfully runs the metro until the last act is finished. Another plus is that it’s mainly indoors, although there is one outdoor venue, and you get the chance to sit down in the majority of its thirteen stages. Even better there’s usually quite a churn as people can’t bear they’re missing something so, if you’re clever, you can always get a seat down the front.

In the case of Lee Konitz who hates microphones, that’s particularly important, as he plays less and less but sings more and more. It’s wordless humming as he says if he sang the words to Body and Soul, they’d make him cry. When he does solo it’s obvious he hasn’t lost his touch, although he’s fairly scathing about the people who leave – “I hope you don’t enjoy the other sets” he jokes.

Someone who can sing is Cassandra Wilson, although she’s prone to playing air guitar during the solos. Her take on Billie Holiday songs is fresh and idiosyncratic and highlights include Don’t Explain and What a Little Moonlight Can Do. Kurt Elling doesn’t just stick to standards in his set but is joined by French accordionist Richard Galliano to interpret some of his material and there’s also a pretty good rendition of U2’s Streets of No Name.

This year there are too any singer songwriters for my taste so it’s a bit of a hunt to find improvised jazz, but worth seeking out. I enjoy Randy Weston, with his African influenced compositions with tenor player Billie Harper, a classic piano and saxophone pairing. Tigran Hamaysan, from Azerbaijan, impresses with his trio and Israeli Oran Etkin delivers a tuneful set on clarinet and sax. Indian alto player, Rudresh Mahanthappa, with his set inspired by the music of Charlie Parker, shows he’s a person to watch. Perhaps the real throwback is Jack Dejohnette’s Made in Chicago which has Roscoe Mitchell delivering a circular breathing exercise lasting over 10 minutes. Guitarist, Bill Frisell pleases with selections from his album, “Guitar in the Space Age”, although I’m disappointed not to hear “Telstar”, my favourite track of all time.

There are the usual crowd pleasers. The Bad Plus, with Joshua Redman effortlessly integrating himself into the group, play a thoughtful set. Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea indulge in some interesting noodling. Wayne Shorter, as always, is impressive but seems to get more and more cerebral over the years. Marcus Miller previews his new album, Afrodeezia, and his musicians rise to the challenge. Branford Marsalis delivers pure straight-ahead jazz and nobody goes away disappointed.

North Sea Jazz deserves credit for enduring forty years and their winning formula of mixing pop, soul and blues with all forms of jazz seems to work. It also means that when the big acts are on other stages, you can still get seats for the jazz. This means that I miss Lady Gaga, who has as many costume changes as songs and Mary J. Blige, who I hear afterwards was sensational. Instead, I enjoy three days in the company of some of those who’ve made jazz history and those who are about to. I do have one confession. On Sunday night I join the masses for Lionel Richie and find myself singing along… bang goes my jazz credibility.

The next North Sea Jazz Festival takes place 8, 9 and 10 July, 2016. www.northseajazz.com/en/

The Nhow hotel makes a comfortable and convenient base and is just a few metro stops from the venue. Click here… for more information

Restaurant Dertien serves interesting food using local ingredients. www.dertienrotterdam.nl/home/

Rotterdam Info has information about the city. http://en.rotterdam.info/visitors/

Tourism Holland has information about the country. www.holland.com/uk/tourism.htm

All pictures copyright Rupert Parker.

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