Sampling Jazz At The North Sea Jamboree

The North Sea Jazz Festival is one of the biggest in Europe. Morabo Morojele was there

IF your idea of the best way to enjoy a jazz festival is to decamp in a grassy spot with a good view of the stage, then the North Sea Jazz Festival might come as something of a disappointment.

Held annually for the past 19 years in The Hague, The Netherlands, the festival — one of the largest such jamborees in the world — is spread around a labyrinthine indoor complex, with more than 1 000 artists gathered for three days of performance on 13 stages.

The complex was so crowded for the festival earlier this month that moving from one venue to another was like manoeuvring through rush hour traffic on a busy highway.

Larger venues were reserved for acts best suited to performance in stadiums. Artists such as Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock and his electric group, Al Jarreau, the Dave Weckl group, Marcus Miller and the Yellow Jackets all did the big concert thing.

Memorable moments notwithstanding — the pyrotechnics of the Yellow Jackets drummer, the tribute to Miles Davis from Marcus Miller and Kenny Garret, two of his closest collaborators before his death, and the scat of “the voice”, Al Jarreau — more adventurous offerings were on offer in the smaller sites in the complex.

At the venue dedicated to be-bob and its derivatives, musicians such as Roy Hargrove, Johnny “Little Giant” Griffin, Max Roach and Ornette Coleman walked through the history of that genre. Coleman’s band played Harmelodics, a post-modernist musical form devoid of cliche and a veritable stirring up of the witchdoctor’s brew.

Max Roach is still supreme master of the drum, though master now of a somewhat dated musical form. The music works, but it cheats and does not sell enough for our attention.

It was, however, Roy Hargrove, a Young Turk with a slick band, who stole the show. In a cutting session of the old type, the vehicle an up-tempo straight-ahead with complex chord changes, three tenors were pitted against each other.

Johnny “Little Giant” Griffin evoked the wistful romance of the saxophone, revealing his maturity and a discreet use of notes and expression. The relatively unknown Ron Blake was the more cerebral of the three. (Watch out for him, as well as the excellent pianist, Peter Martin.) Blake’s totally hip harmonic sense was reminiscent of Wayne Shorter during his tenure with the Miles Davis Quintet of the 1960s.

It must have been with great trepidation, then, that Joshua Redman, son of tenor Dewey Redman, rising star and jazz pin-up par excellence, took up the challenge. The young Redman set out well enough, but ran out of ideas somewhere along the way. He then resorted to harassing the crowd for sympathy, using “look ma no hands” techniques, and honks and squeaks from his horn, like a rock guitarist using distortion to induce cries of appreciation.

There is much to be said for the new jazz heroes of recent years, and one needs young musicians to inherit the mantle of their forebears passing on to play in that great big orchestra in the sky. But too many of them fail the music, and, like the old adage goes, it’s a case of “you can’t play the blues until you’ve lived the blues”.

At a stage dedicated to new fusions of hip hop and jazz, underneath the rock steady rhythms of rap, horns and voices bartered licks and invocations of life at the edge.

Roach may well have been right when he said that hip-hop and rap are the new jazz. They have a common parentage in the violent and drug-ridden ghettoes of America’s large cities. They speak with an artistry born of anger. They are emotionally non-compromising, and the brilliance of their vocal improvisations are sometimes as unreal as Charlie Parker must have sounded to doubting audiences many years ago. The jazz that is now subsidised by art grants and that has moved into the formal concert hall is great music, but it will make space for a music that is about the despair and beauty of life on Mean Street.

The performance of the Joe Henderson Quartet provided one of the most memorable moments of the festival. Henderson has been overshadowed for many years by the legacies of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, and it is now more than fitting that he is finally getting his due. In a rarefied concert format, the quartet, with Bheki Mseleku on piano, George Mraz on bass and Al Foster on drums performed as if they had been together for years.

Henderson’s solos were full of the astute inventions that characterise his playing. Foster and Mraz demonstrated their mastery of the rhythms of modern jazz, from Latin, through straight ahead, to their dynamic control of the ballad form.

Mseleku was at first understated and hesitant; he later complained about the piano. It was only on the final tune, Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train, that Mseleku came alive. Following a Henderson/Foster drum/ sax duet, he first explored the chordal possibilities of the tune, then broke into a blistering run at the top register of the piano, to resolve once again in chords and out. The group received a standing ovation.

The protest music of Milton Nascimento and the drum orchestra of Brazilian group Olodum represented some of Latin America’s contribution to the fest. From Africa, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Hugh Masekela with Miriam Makeba presented another opportunity for friends and countrymen to celebrate the new South Africa. The small South African community gathered at the front of the stage was vocal throughout. Masekela has put together an impressive band of talented young musicians. The solo of a young backing vocalist stole the show from Makeba who should perhaps concentrate on recordings.

Festivals of this type provide an opportunity to sample some of the best music around, and they create work for musicians. When will an annual international jazz festival take place in South Africa, now that we are basking in the sun?

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