North Sea Jazz Festival
(Ahoy Centre, Rotterdam – 7-9 July 2023. Round-Up by John Ferguson)
The 2023 North Sea Jazz (NSJ) Festival managed once again to illuminate, surprise and inspire, even on my 21st visit. Choosing what to see from a whole menu of the best of both established and newer acts, is always a ‘nice’ problem to have and despite abstaining this time from seeing such jazz luminaries as Metheny, Garbarek, McLaughlin, Frisell, Porter, Snarky Puppy or either Marsalis brother and ignoring other headliners such as Samara Joy, Lizzo, Stormzy, Seal, Jill Scott, Van Morrison and Tom Jones, there was still a fabulous array of talent available to fill any jazz lover’s boots.
Not yet a subscriber of our Wednesday Breakfast Headlines?
Join the mailing list for a weekly roundup of Jazz News.
Friday could not have begun any better than seeing the return of Maria Schneider to NSJ, this time conducting the Oslo Jazz Ensemble playing pieces from arguably this millennium’s most important album release ‘Data Lords’. After her concert at London’s Barbican scheduled in January 2022 became yet another pandemic casualty, it was a treat to experience a live performance of parts of this seminal work at last.
Friday highlights continued with the 2023 Festival’s ‘Artist In Residence’ Esperanza Spalding, in the first of her diverse performances, this one in a duo with the acclaimed pianist Fred Hersch. From such established jazz royalty, to one of what might be called the UK’s ‘new jazz royalty’ Yussef Dayes and a notable demographic shift to a mainly younger audience accordingly. Jazz needs such injections of youth and dynamism in order to remain fresh and vibrant – the hope being that the blatant enthusiasm generated even here outside of London’s hip scene, will quickly spread beyond such conurbation-based boundaries.
Some of Holland’s first class musicians were on show with the Jasper Blom Quartet including Jesse van Ruller and German guest Pablo Held. The legend that is Dave Holland rounded out an amazing opening day, featuring the wonderful Kris Davis in his quartet.
Resisting the temptation to see Jan Garbarek for the first time since 2004, instead following a ‘tip-off’ by UK pianist Rebecca Nash, a definite festival highlight turned out to be ECM Dutch pianist Wolfert Brederode with the Matangi String Quartet and percussionist Joost Lijbaart. With their poignancy and strong melodies, their ‘chamber’ jazz provided a beautiful start to Saturday’s programme.
Next up, the open-air fun of the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra & GURLS, including the wonderful bassist/vocalist Ellen Andrea Wang still fresh from her fabulous Wang/Luft/Fält Trio UK tour in June.
Some esoteric harp playing by rising US star Brandee Younger, including a guest appearance by Lakecia Benjamin, was followed by another of the UK’s young guns Kamaal Williams. The fusion of hip-hop and jazz doesn’t always have the musicality that artists such as Alfa Mist or Daniel Casimir command, but again the palpable energy exuded, is reciprocated by the audiences involved, which is no bad thing for the future of jazz.
Nevertheless it was a complete pleasure to watch Laura Jurd and her great ensemble round out the day, before she and drummer Corrie Dick negotiated various transport logistics in order to get to their commitment the following day at Swanage Jazz Festival in deepest Dorset.
Sunday – the final day and two acts at either end made it one of the most memorable ever NSJ days. Samora Pinderhughes released an album ‘Grief’ in 2022 that deserves to be in everyone’s collection. His exquisite performance with his regular ensemble, plus the addition of a string quartet for the first few tunes, was an almost religious event to behold! This man delivers strong messages, but does so in the most musical of ways.
After that, the Brad Mehldau Trio was always likely to disappoint, in my view. With no hint of his ground-breaking “Finding Gabriel” and “Jacob’s Ladder” output from the last 5 years, I have had a distinct feeling of treading water (two other punters later involved in casual conversation, wholeheartedly agreed with this synopsis).
Yet another from the burgeoning UK scene, guitarist Mansur Brown with the largest array of effects pedals ever seen on a stage, kept the spirit of Jimi alive, before the grand finale of the festival by Esperanza Spalding, re-establishing what the very best of jazz should always aspire to.
Esperanza sang and played electric and acoustic bass as thrillingly as she always does, but she added dancing and overall artistic genius to the list! With the precision of a theatrical performance in tandem with outstanding improvisation from her band, especially the marvellous Matthew Stevens on guitar, plus the four person Antonio Brown Dance troupe, the whole event was simply stunning. The young Dutch woman sitting next to me on the front row, who’d never been to NSJ before, but who attended for the day specifically to see her singing bass player role model, also mentioned Joni during our pre-gig conversation about Esperanza. She was absolutely spot-on – the ‘baton’ is truly passing to the correct recipient. Esperanza was officially presented with a bouquet of flowers at the end, in honour of her festival exploits this year. Truly well deserved!
Jazz is in VERY safe hands and the North Sea Jazz Festival continues to be an excellent one-stop-shop in which to experience it!