North Sea Jazz Festival 2018

This year’s Rotterdam’s North Sea Jazz Festival promises something for everyone, including nostalgia featuring Chic, Chaka Khan and Earth Wind and Fire, and that old master of the Avant Garde, Pharaoh Sanders, still honking after all these years. Rupert Parker reports


I’ve been coming to the North Sea Jazz Festival regularly and am always impressed by the organisation – simply everything starts on schedule, sound is excellent and the musicians always seem to enjoy themselves.

This year there was a strong showing from the young firebrands of British Jazz, a healthy sign that the UK can compete with the best. I particular enjoy the Ezra Collective and they’re followed by saxophonist Nubya Garcia, Moses Boyd Exodus, Gogo Penguin and Sons of Kemet. They turn the Darling Stage into an extended British club night.

If you’re into nostalgia then a set from the O’Jays summons the sounds of 70’s Philadelphia. Nile Rodgers brings Chic to deliver their greatest hits and Earth Wind and Fires quietly funk the night away. Chaka Khan is perfect when she’s accompanied by the 52 strong Metropole Orkest and she belts out all her old favourites.

The singer that impresses me the most is young New Yorker Jazzmeia Horn, a thin stick of a girl with a great top range and enormous energy. She’s been compared to Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter but she takes her strange scat sounds even further. She also deals with social matters and her lyrics have a strong political edge.

Oumou Sangaré, from Mali, is another artist who never disappoints and her high voltage set, accompanied by two sinewy backing singers, certainly gets the crowd going. She’s promoting her first record in eight years and her sound is certainly rockier with electric guitar and synths to the fore as well as the traditional Ngoni.

Charles Lloyd is something of a regular at North Sea and he appears with guitarist Bill Frisell as part of the Marvels. Both seem to push each other’s technique to their limit, in a set that take in a range of Americana. Tunes like Hendrix’s Angel and Monks Mood benefit from their fresh approach.

Frisell also makes an appearance in a chamber duo with John Surman, both stepping in to replace an indisposed Carla Bley. Although they’ve only had a short rehearsal in their hotel room, they rise splendidly to the occasion. This is inventive noodling, both sparring off each other, and unlike some free jazz, lyricism is always to the fore.

Roaming around the other stages I catch power piano from Cameron Graves, and a cerebral set from Fred Hersch. Tenor player Chico Freeman is slow to start but builds in intensity. Vijay Iyer dips into a touch of everything and doesn’t disappoint. Joshua Redman joins 77 year old drummer Billy Hart in a quartet that plunders the past but looks to the future.

Latin Jazz is also strongly represented. Willie Colón, on trombone and vocals, has a hot band that keeps the crowd dancing into the small hours. Rubén Blades brings his charisma and the Roberto Delgado Salsa Big Band to prove that his time starring in the movies hasn’t blunted his Panamanian roots.

Pharaoh Sanders has already outlived most of his contemporaries but is still beating out the groove. With his long straggly white beard and cool shades he ambles around the stage like the wild man he is. These days there’s more singing than playing, although his tone is still firm and clear, and he does a lot of sitting down. Still, people have come to see a legend, and he delivers star quality in spades.

  • The next North Sea Jazz Festival takes place 12, 13 and 14 July 2019.
  • 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.
  • Eurostar has two direct trains daily from St Pancras International to Rotterdam, with a journey time of 3 hours.

All pictures copyright Rupert Parker.