Words by: Grant Walker
North Sea Jazz Festival :: 07.13.07 – 07.15.07
Ahoy Complex :: Rotterdam, Holland
The 2007 North Sea Jazz Festival boasted amazing talent, and not just in the jazz scene but dipping into r&b, funk, hip-hop and soul. Impressively, jazz is now as malleable as silly putty. We got Al Green, Jamie Cullum, Sly & the Family Stone, The Roots, India.Arie, Cinematic Orchestra and Snoop Dogg. Snoop Dog? Well, 70,000 people catching music on sixteen stages at the Ahoy in Rotterdam can't be wrong.
Day One Highlights
One of the first acts on Friday was Philadelphia-based, jazz-influenced hip-hop group The Roots. Proving to be one of the most innovative live acts in the hip-hop scene, The Roots seamlessly weave gospel into classic soul, transitioning into hints of Coltrane before ripping into a studiously timed instrumental barrage. Half an hour later, The Roots prompted the audience to the pinnacle "O moment" with an outstanding take on Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song."
| ?Uestlove - The Roots :: North Sea Jazz Festival 2007|
More relaxed modern jazz took place over at the Congo Stage, where the acclaimed quartet of Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood played their usual style of jazz and elongated jams. Creativity surged between the four members, their playing seamlessly fused together. Guitarist John Scofield wailed away on his trusty Ibanez, his fingers weaving up the fretboard spoke; an invitation, extending musical tentacles into the crowd, reaching the distant and shadowy corners of the room. The playing of this acclaimed quartet is naturally fluid for and primed for improvisation at its best. The drumming of Billy Martin was superbly precise, and the crowd's appreciation fueled many solos, mirrored by the thumping of Chris Wood's double bass.
As the clock tolled eleven, the masses flocked upon the Nile Stage for the highly anticipated performance of legendary soul man Al Green. He strutted out dressed to impress in a slick tuxedo and dark shades with a yellow carnation protruding from his breast pocket to complete the look. "I Can't Stop" was his opening number and he performed it with a level of cool only shown by the likes of James Brown before him. A natural showman, Green fired through his set, pausing occasionally to insert a witty remark here or an amusing anecdote there. Al Green brought out that loving feeling in all of us.
"We came all the way from Memphis, Tennessee to play for you tonight," he shouted to the receptive audience. Green's performance reached its peak during his most soulful tune of the evening, "Let's Stay Together." He launched into the Bee Gees' "How Do You Mend A Broken Heart?," which prompted the ladies in the front row to push forward in hopes of catching one of the many flowers he tossed out during his set.
Highlights of Day 2
It was hot and sticky inside the building, so I ventured out to the open-air stage to check out the Amsterdam Conservatorium Concert Big Band, which has a 12-piece brass section, guitar, piano, double bass, drums, tenor sax and an Albert Einstein look-alike conductor. Together they produce a wall of sound Phil Spector could be proud of. A familiar face from Amsterdam's Cotton Club, young pianist Gideon van Gelder, hammered away on the keys like a Dutch Jerry Lee Lewis.
| Jamie Cullum :: North Sea Jazz Festival 2007|
27-year-old sensation Jamie Cullum was billed as a "Special Performance from London" on the schedule. Curiosity got the best of me and I pushed myself into the crowd in time to witness Cullum's fingers fluttering across the keys. As I listened to him sing, I realized just how much of a rock star this guy is on the piano. He kicked out his stool and jammed on the keys over some innovative sampling, yelling, "I'm just so lekker ding!" It's a Dutch expression meaning sexy and the ladies went wild. Cullum grabbed the mic and walked to the front of the stage, announcing that he was about to play what is, in his opinion, the best anti-war song out there – "Pretty Good Day" by Loudon Wainwright III, father of Rufus and Martha. It was the first time he'd played it live, and he seemed pretty nervous. But, all those worries seemed to fade as he replaced Wainwright's guitar strumming with masterful tinkling on the keys.
He's a self-proclaimed "skinny white kid singing sad songs," but if you take anything from his lyrics, it's that this "kid" has had his fair share of heartbreak. "Everyone's lonely these days," he crooned before transitioning into the song that put him on the charts, "These Are the Days." The crowd was into it, singing and clapping along, seeing Jamie Cullum off in style. This was one of the most energetic, intimate shows of the festival. I now see his music in a different light. At first, I perceived his style to be Jazz for Dummies, now I see him as a musician who filters jazz into the mainstream by writing jazz-influenced pop songs for the masses.
The next act at Yukon Stage was UK-based jazz-electronica outfit and Ninja Tune legends, The Cinematic Orchestra. Their set up was very simple - sax, double bass, drums, guitar and piano. Their set started off as a very subdued affair, and the crowd seemed more mesmerized by the dancing boy projected onto a screen behind the band than the band itself. Out steps Heidi Vogel, a London-born vocalist who has performed and recorded with the likes of the Brand New Heavies and Isaac Hayes. Incorporating jazz, soul Latin and funk, her main influence is Brazilian bossa nova singer-songwriter Rosa Passos. Vogel added another layer to the five-piece, bringing the songs to another plateau. Her luxurious voice intermittently allowed saxophonist Tom Chant to drop behind the vocals, letting the rhythm flow like a river of sound over our heads, under our noses and through our bodies. Newer tracks were followed by familiar material. The sax player switched to his soprano as they moved onto "Evolution," a track off their second full-length album, Every Day. It's a song that exemplified Vogel's blessed singing, a voice that perfectly accompanied the beautiful instrumentals of the band.
I strolled over to Nile Stage again as India.Arie took the stage looking as beautiful as ever; adorned in bright orange robes accessorized by massive crescent-shaped earrings. With a commanding presence, she said, "This is where the testimony ends. This is my testimony." She greeted us cordially and for some reason had a baffled, genuinely surprised look on her face. "I had no idea there would be this many people!" A couple songs later she brought out Mexican guitarist-singer-songwriter Raul Midón onstage for a couple songs. "This is the part where I celebrate that I'm alone, and it's okay to be myself." She looked to us for understanding, and told us, "I've gotta find the joy inside me!"
| India.Arie :: North Sea Jazz Festival 2007|
"Private Party" kicked it off, and she sang "Happy Birthday" to herself, her dancing and half-smile suggesting a private joke she couldn't help but laugh at. Before segueing into her next tune, she announced something "We should all know." After a brief pause, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech filled the room before India.Arie broke into "Wings of Forgiveness." She declared, "If Nelson Mandela can forgive his oppressors, surely I can forgive you for your passion." It was a powerful testimony by a woman full of inner beauty.
Highlights of Day 3
Upon arrival Sunday, rumors were flying about Amy Winehouse. Apparently she'd been seen in a London pub and would be a definite no-show. No surprise there. It's another humid day and the replacement for Miss Winehouse is none other than modern jazz legend Marcus Miller. Known primarily for his stints on bass with Miles Davis and Luther Vandross, his band ripped it up and the crowd was SO into it. Forget Amy Winehouse, this is shit hot. This is definitive Miller - funky bass with some killer slap and horns added to the mix. I can see now why so many bass players cite Miller as a major influence.
At the Maas Stage, Elvis Costello played with Allen Toussaint and his band. For those who don't know Toussaint, he's one of the most influential figures in the New Orleans r&b scene, and in my opinion, stole the show. Costello stood like a confused middle-aged man, a broken down, sad sack version of Paul Simon, guitar in hand, losing himself between notes. He lacked the cutting edge that was ever-present in his early work with the Attractions like Armed Forces and Get Happy!! If it wasn't for the backing band and Toussaint, poor Costello - declining in spirit and increasing in age and belt notches - would have been left in the lurch. On stage, it's obvious that Touissant is still in his prime. Unfortunately for Costello he's far past his.
| Wynton Marsalis :: North Sea Jazz Festival 2007|
Back at the Nile Stage, dim lights and cheering fans prompted The Family Stone sans Sly. Their first tune, "Dance to the Music!," jolted the crowd into motion, wriggling about with their hands in the air, belting out the lyrics word-for-word. The band segued into "Everyday People," and with that they tried to calm down the anxious crowd. "Be patient," they told us. "Sly IS in the building." They broke into "Hot Fun in the Summertime" but by this point the crowd was growing restless, dying for a mere glimpse of Sly Stone. And that's about all we got.
25 minutes into the set, sister Vet Stone announced, "He's coming." Out shuffled Sly, hunched over in an oversized white t-shirt, a white baseball cap, dark shades, gold chains and baggy jeans. He slumped behind the keyboard, lending vocals to "Somebody's Watching You" and "Stand!," which he did for about twenty seconds then exited, declaring, "I'm and old man. I have to take a break!" A shadow of his former self, he shuffled off just like he shuffled on - one slow step at a time. Time onstage? Fifteen minutes.
With Sly gone, they broke into "Thank You (Faletinnme Be Mice Elf Again)" and the familiar slap bass made it obvious where bassists like Flea get their inspiration. Sly reappeared 15 minutes later, bringing his total stage time to about 20 minutes. The one song that stood out in Sly's casual return to the stage was "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey," though the lyrics didn't have the same impact they once did when racial tensions were high and a band like Sly & The Family Stone promoted love and equality.
The performance was a disappointing one. When I heard they were playing the festival I thought that the chance to see such an influential funk band would be a clear highlight of the festival, if not my lifetime. To say it was a bit anticlimactic would be a heavy understatement.
Snoop Dogg performed late Sunday night with his usual repertoire of guns, hos, and chronic. Snoop was perplexed as to why he was playing a jazz festival and I understood his confusion. At least he got past Dutch customs. It wouldn't have been so in the UK.
A bit bored with Snoop, I found myself wandering to the Amazon Stage to check out Wynton Marsalis. With brass wailing and cymbals crashing, the jazz was smoking. The drumming was so quick, so precise, so technical. Marsalis blew his brains out, but I wouldn't expect anything less. This is pure jazz, so original, yet so traditional. This is what one thinks of when they hear the word "Jazz."
With enough jazz, funk, soul and r&b to fill my head for the months to come, I shot back to Amsterdam one happy guy. Another year for the North Sea Jazz Festival had gone by. The musicians have gotten older, the bands have gotten tighter and the quality of the music could only get better. Next year is tempting, but with a ticket price of 320 Euros is it really worth the fee? That question, I will leave up to you.
JamBase | The Netherlands
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