Review: North Sea Jazz Festival 2012

Simon Adams at Holland's festival in a sardine tin says "The headline jazz act this year – I’m ignoring Hugh Laurie – was Pat Metheny’s Unity Band." He also says he never thought would ever say anything negative about Wayne Shorter. A dream fulfilled, he found Ahmad Jamal, 82, outstanding

Photo: Ahmad Jamal by Brian Payne

Ahmad JamalThree evenings and 27 hours of continuous and often simultaneous music played by four to five acts each night on the 12 stages make the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam a daunting proposition. Who to see, how to get quickly from stage to stage avoiding the crowds, who and what to avoid – many questions, few simple solutions. So best choose carefully.

Friday evening opened with the Flat Earth Society featuring cellist Ernst Reijseger, proof that the Dutch taste for Brecht–Weill mayhem still packs in the crowds. Reijseger’s amplified cello easily cut through the 15-strong ensemble, notably when he held it in his lap and played it like a guitar. Music ranged from a souped-up boogie-woogie to a township shuffle.

McCoy Tyner came on to a standing ovation and played a great set with his trio, his style still architectural in construct although slower now and less demonstrative. Tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane supported, although in truth he was solid rather than strong. Lastly, a quintet set by trumpeter Dave Douglas and saxophonist Joe Lovano. The interplay between the abrupt Douglas and the abundant Lovano with his harsh lyricism made for an engaging set.

I achieved one of my dreams on Saturday when I finally saw Ahmad Jamal play live. If he were to play in London, I would expect him to fill a small-sized hall, but whatever else it does, the North Sea festival delivers the numbers. So Jamal must have been amazed to peer out across a room packed with upward of 2,000 people who had been sitting and standing patiently for half an hour for the set to begin. At 82 he is now frail but his playing was more forceful than I imagined it would be. Strong left-hand chords and stabbing right-hand figures giving way to flurries of notes, ably supported by the florid percussion work of Manolo Badrena, made for an outstanding set. Poinciana was the inevitable encore.

Pianist Craig Taborn won this year’s Paul Acket award for the artist deserving wider recognition, mainly for last year’s Avenging Angel set on ECM that he reprised. He’s hard to engage with, but his combination of disrupted swing, fragmentary motifs and kaleidoscopic delivery is mesmerising.

The headline jazz act this year – I’m ignoring Hugh Laurie – was Pat Metheny’s Unity Band. Metheny started solo playing a double-headed six and 12-string guitar with attached zither and resonating strings before switching to more orthodox instruments. Drummer Antonio Sanchez and outstanding bassist Ben Williams supported Metheny in his guitar-synth fusions, with the Orchestrion – a Heath Robinson machine that plays itself – plus robot finger cymbals joining in later for some overdubbing fun. The only drawback to the set was the presence of saxophonist Chris Potter. I realise I am the only man on the jazz planet who does not rate Potter, but I find his single-volumed unvarying attack relentless and dull. He might run through the changes with ease, but his dry, vibrato-less tone is soulless and lacks all warmth.

A difficult choice for the end of the evening, but I missed the trio with Kurt Elling and guitarist Charlie Hunter in favour of David Murray’s Blues Big Band with singer Macy Gray. Not an obvious marriage, but then Murray’s band is not a traditional blues band and Gray is an uneasy stage presence. Great solo work from an impassioned Murray, but I think this was a festival affair, not a lasting relationship.

Sunday kicked off with saxophonist Bennie Maupin’s long-running and oft-interrupted Surinam Music Ensemble, a curious mix of Headhunter-style fusion and the Caribbean, made all the better by the pairing of Maupin’s bass clarinet and Ronald Snijders’s flute. I make no comment about the Miles Smiles project of 1980s Miles Davis alumni including Kenny Garrett and Daryl Jones other than that I hope they feel they earned their pay cheque.

The bad taste in my mouth was quickly removed by the mesmeric Brad Mehldau trio, playing a five-star plus performance of reworked pop songs and own compositions. I hadn’t appreciated until I saw him this time that Mehldau achieves his own sound largely by keeping his hands close together on the keyboard and rarely venturing too far from mid-register. No grandstanding, just quiet application of intelligence. Bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard were exemplary in empathetic support.

Finally, Wayne Shorter’s quartet, now with Mehldau’s ex-drummer Jorge Rossy on board. I was disappointed, for this was a noisy, cluttered set that lacked the moments of sheer transcendent beauty I expect from Shorter and was unlovely to listen to. I never thought I would ever say anything negative about Wayne Shorter.

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