North Sea jazz festival review – all tastes catered for as old meets new

From Anita Baker to Abdullah Ibrahim, legends stole the show at the world’s largest indoor jazz festival

Event promotion for Rotterdam’s North Sea jazz festival will tell you it is the largest indoor jazz festival in the world. Yet nothing prepares you for the exhibition centre-cum-international train station of the venue: a labyrinth of plush-carpeted corridors that, when used to wander to a gig at 11pm, are lit by the kind of golden aura that masks all traces of day or night.

This is the charm of the long-running festival: an impeccably organised safe haven of jazz and pop for all tastes, from legacy acts such as saxophonist Gary Bartz and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim to next-gen stars Robert Glasper and Makaya McCraven, with crowd-pleasers Anita Baker, Janelle Monáe and even Toto all thrown in for good measure.

Now located in a sports complex in central Rotterdam, the festival began nearby in 1976, in a concert hall in The Hague. It was conceived as a chance for the Dutch avant garde to rub shoulders with the likes of Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan and is today celebrated for bringing together radical new jazz players and living pioneers.

For its 43rd edition, North Sea enlisted pianist Glasper as its artist in residence. Glasper’s varied career, encompassing everything from hip-hop to jazz fusion, exemplifies the anything-goes ethos of North Sea. Across the weekend he played several sets, from the raw, earthen hip-hop of his show with rapper Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) to the hard-swinging bop of his trio set, which featured everything from New Orleans-style stride piano to a cover of Prince’s Sign o’ the Times.

Other genre fusionists included Chicago drummer Makaya McCraven, who enlisted young vibraphonist Joel Ross and harpist Brandee Younger to disassemble tracks from his blistering Highly Rare and Universal Beings records, and producer Sly5thAve, whose orchestral show covered classics from Dr Dre to Adina Howard. In fact, the drummers were out in force over the weekend. Jesse Barrett of Norwich-based trio Mammal Hands gave a virtuosic performance of tabla, hand percussion and polyrhythmic textures to accompany Boreal Forest and similarly incantatory tracks by the group, while Ronald Bruner Jr and Tony Austin shredded through a typically gut-busting set from Kamasi Washington.

But it was the legends and legends-in-making who stole the weekend. Anita Baker was pitch-perfect throughout a set of “old love songs” that included the iconic Sweet Love, while Gary Bartz provided a beautiful 50th anniversary tribute to his Another Earth album with the help of Ravi Coltrane on tenor sax and Charles Tolliver on trumpet.

Blood Orange, meanwhile, brandished a wilting bouquet of flowers as he played through the future love songs of Negro Swan and new mixtape Angel’s Pulse, and Janelle Monáe cemented her status as a 21st-century Prince with her slick, ice-cold funk. South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, now 84, floored his audience with a deeply emotive paean to his home country’s jazz lineage; songs of exile from an understated yet pervasively influential talent.

With jazz firmly on the rise in the UK, it was heartening to hear Ibrahim’s music alongside the new experimentalism of North Sea. And if the vibe of the after-hours jam sessions across town was anything to go by, with sets pushing on until the dawn chorus called time, North Sea will be thriving for another 40 years to come.


Ammar Kalia

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Festival watch – Love Supreme
Lianne La Havas, St Germain, Kamasi Washington and Kelis delighted jazz lovers in camping chairs

Isa Jaward

10, Jul, 2016 @6:00 AM

Article image
Charlie Watts Meets the Danish Radio Big Band Review – serious jazz from Stones drummer

Dave Gelly

30, Apr, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto: Live at Berlin Jazz Festival 1966 review – more than impressive
The American saxophonist’s quartet were on top form here, and proved a perfect backing band for the star Brazilian singer

Dave Gelly

02, Oct, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
Landgren & Lundgren: Kristallen review – tranquil Nordic jazz

Dave Gelly

25, Jan, 2020 @4:00 PM

Article image
Miles Ahead review – ode to a jazz giant
Don Cheadle pays tribute to the imagined life and times of Miles Davis

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

24, Apr, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
J Jazz: Deep Modern Jazz From Japan 1969-1984 review – amazing drums and more

Dave Gelly

25, Feb, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Black String: Karma review – elegant South Korean folk jazz

Neil Spencer

29, Sep, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
Festival watch: BoomTown – review
Damian Marley’s affecting tribute to his father stole the show in a troubled weekend

Isa Jaward

21, Aug, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Festival watch: Latitude – review
Christine and the Queens, Grimes and New Order were the high points of the festival season’s most middle-class affair

Kathryn Bromwich

24, Jul, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Journeys in Modern Jazz: Britain review – an invaluable compilation
The burgeoning British jazz scene of the 60s and early 70s is fully captured on this fine double album

Dave Gelly

24, Jul, 2021 @3:00 PM