North Sea Jazz Festival 2017

This year’s Rotterdam’s North Sea Jazz Festival sticks to its winning formula of jazz, rock, soul and blues with distinguished improvisers sharing the bill with Mary J Blige, George Benson, Norah Jones and Stevie Winwood. Rupert Parker reports

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I must admit that I’m not much of a music festival man and don’t relish sitting in a muddy field for a whole weekend, trying to stay dry. The exception to the rule is the North Sea Jazz Festival, despite its name, not held on a windswept beach, but inside a purpose-built venue, near the centre of the city. The floors are carpeted, most gigs are seated, food is excellent and there’s no long hike to the toilets. Even better, everything runs to time, the sound is perfect and I can go back to my hotel for a comfy night’s sleep.

The only problem is deciding what you’re going to see on the festival’s 13 stages, simply you’re spoilt for choice. Often, it’s the smaller venues which deliver the nice surprises, places to discover musicians you’re not familiar with, but it’s the famous old timers, now sadly a precious few, who are not to be missed. Youngest of these, Chick Corea, at a sprightly 76, is the artist in residence and appears in different configurations – with his Electrik Band, with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra and in a duo with the banjo player Béla Fleck.

Wayne Shorter, at 84, is still fronting a fierce quartet, and shows he can still deliver, even bringing along an orchestra for a few numbers. McCoy Tyner at 89, looks increasingly fragile and has to be helped to the stage, but still manages three numbers, perfectly played, before saying goodbye to a respectful crowd. The most surprising OAP is Herbie Hancock who, at 77, dances with his Keytar around his neck, playing an encore of his classic Chameleon, to a standing ovation.

In the bigger spaces, Grace Jones, just under 70, belts out her greatest hits including Private Lives and Slave to the Rhythm, sporting outlandish outfits, tottering precariously from a raised platform above the stage. Mary J Blige is also on top form, but George Benson is in crooner mode and doesn’t play much guitar these days. I’m pleasantly surprised by Norah Jones, whose distinctive voice still manages to thrill and accompanies herself well on keyboards.

Steve Winwood alas, has lost some of his higher range, and his brand of white soul suffers somewhat, although he does deliver many of his hits. Van Morrison always seems to carry on regardless and his band these days is in particular fine form. I miss out on De La Soul, Gladys Knight, Jamiroquai and Solange, but hear good reports about them all.

The standout singer, though, is Dianne Reeves, right at the top of her game. She starts with her distinctive version of Dreams, the Fleetwood Mac tune, then devotes most of her set to her distinctive brand of scat singing. From high pitched yelps, to throaty growls, she manages to effortlessly conjure a whole range of emotions and, her musicians follow the twists and turns of her accomplished improvisations.

Robert Glasper always intrigues with his mix of funk, jazz and hip hop, and his keyboard playing always pushes the genre boundary. In a similar vein, Saxophonist Kamasi Washington has two drummers, trombone, keyboards and voice, to provide full-on support for his anthemic music. He even brings on his own father to play soprano, but the star of the show is the man himself and it’s great to hear him stretch out with long solos.

The closing act is the Donny McCaslin Quartet, certainly one of the highlights of the festival. McCaslin is the winner of this year’s Paul Acket award and he and his keyboard player, Jason Lindner, worked with David Bowie on the Blackstar album. They play an instrumental version of Lazarus and an encore of Look Back in Anger but they’re far more than a Bowie tribute band, McCaslin’s sax playing is intensely intelligent and he knows how to manipulate the dynamics, his long body contorting to express the emotion in the music. This is jazz for the 21st century.

The next North Sea Jazz Festival takes place 13, 14 and 15 July 2018.
The Nhow Hotel makes a comfortable and convenient base and is just a few metro stops from the venue.
Rotterdam Info has information about the city.
Tourism Holland has information about the country.

All pictures copyright Rupert Parker.