Blog: Not dark yet – Festival report NSJ 2023
Not dark yet – big and small discoveries at North Sea Jazz 23
North Sea Jazz is big
Everything is big, a lot, expensive, dizzyingly unmanageable.
3 days full program with officially 90,000 visitors in total. But I guess they let a lot more people in this year. It was mega crowded and on the weekend July 7-9 it was hot in Rotterdam, at least 30 degrees outside. Inside it was just as hot in some rooms, in others it cooled down to 15 degrees, so you had to bring a jacket to avoid catching a cold.
The spectacle takes place in the huge fair complex “Ahoy”. Actually everything under one roof. Outside there are stalls with food and drink and a few smaller open-air stages.
A total of 16 stages are being used in parallel. It’s loud everywhere!
Phew! Such a mega event can be quite stressful – and expensive.
We were lucky enough to snag early-bird tickets for the entire 3 days. That’s also difficult and stressful, but it worked out this year!
And so I was there for the third time and come back tired and full of colorful impressions and emotions!
Not dark yet… Tom Jones???
To start a report about a jazz festival with Tom Jones is almost sacrilegious.
But sometimes the first spontaneous image that pops up is the best introduction.
Tom Jones – a legend – but what is he doing at the North Sea Jazz Festival? With the incredibly huge lineup of artists and stars, he wasn’t actually on my list of musicians I really wanted to see. Especially since he played in the biggest hall of the festival – the “Nile”. About 10,000 spectators fit in there. It could also have been 15,000.
The fact is that this event, like most of the big “jazz” festivals, attracts this mass of audience because there are so many pop, soul, R’n’B acts playing.
To make the story with Tom Jones short:
We fought our way into a much-coveted seat on the steep grandstand at the very back of the hall shortly before the show started. But at least here you can sit and since left and right of the stage huge screens show the show, you can also see something from here.
Tom Jones starts with a Bob Dylan song and sings charismatically and it sounds fat: Not dark yet.
I think: wow!
I didn’t expect that. Brave to start a show with that.
Super voice, very much expression, great song choice and so atmospheric!
Then he reeled off his hits and when finally the hit-like “Delilah” came, we had to leave the hall in a hurry, making our way through the swaying masses.
A jazz festival day should not have to end with this catchy tune!
The agony of choice
But there are ups and downs, light and shadow, especially with this huge offer of acts.there you have to decide what you want to see.
And because often the big halls are packed and you can’t get in, you have to get in line early if you want to see a concert.
But sometimes it’s the accidental, unplanned discoveries that are the best!
So it happened that after a really nice concert by the Brad Mehldau Trio, for which we had to secure good seats in the front 30 minutes before the concert started, we wanted to take a look at the “Amazon” during the break before the next concert, where John Mc Laughlin’s Shakti project was playing.
I followed my friend Inge, who wanted to see it, a bit hesitantly. We had to climb all the way up to the balcony of the 2nd floor, because everything was occupied downstairs, to then experience an unbelievable show!
Madness! I am still totally flashed!
And at the end I had tears in my eyes and was so emotionally carried away and energized by the virtuoso interplay, as it very rarely happens. And the singer and percussionists impressed me deeply!
And a five-minute solo on a small tambourine-like instrument that was incredibly exciting and captivating. I’ve never experienced anything like it before!
The line-up: Padma Vibhushan Ustad Zakir Hussain – Tabla, John McLaughlin – Guitar, Shankar Mahadevan – Vocals, Ganesh Rajagopalan – Violin, Selva Ganesh – Kanjeera, Tabla
Five musicians sitting in a semi-circle on a platform on stage, celebrating beautiful, complex music to strange clapping patterns (sometimes with the palm of the hand sometimes with the back of the hand clapping on the palm of the hand), in Konnakol manner that is incomprehensible to me, as is the custom in this Indian system. Incredibly well connected and together, attentive and taking great pleasure in making music together. The syllabic language of konnakol, reminiscent of vocal percussion, is fascinating anyway when used with so much relaxation and skill.
The last piece took me so emotionally that I had tears in my eyes.
Esperanza Spalding and Co-Musicking
The wonderful Esperanza Spalding was the festival’s “artist in residence” this year, performing on stage with various formations and also giving interactive workshops that you had to sign up for, but didn’t cost anything extra.
After Esperanza’s introductory words and some explanations about the co-musicking concept, about 40 people improvised with each other in one room. Some sang, played percussion – also instruments like drums, rhodes, saxophones were in the room and played by musicians of their band.
Thus, 4 pieces of improvised music spontaneously emerged, initiated by the opening question:
“What do you need the music to tend to today?”
“What do you need the music to tend to today?” “What do you need the music to tend to today?”
Esperanza collected the participants’ answers and summarized them, then joined them in a musical flow.
Answers came in like: being without fear, freedom, being able to let go, not having to judge, having fun, going beyond boundaries, finding connection, being crazy, not thinking….
And then we played on it and danced, as if in waves, grooving and sounding, listening freely and attentively. Esperanza stood a meter behind me with her double bass. Yes!
It was a nice change of pace on this festival day to get into the action myself instead of just receiving. But the big euphoria and realization did not come to me! I have been doing improvisation in various formats and concepts for too long. Probably I am an old hand;-), but I had fun!
Who knows Esperanza’s current album “Songwrights Apothecary Lab” and has dealt with the philosophy behind it, knows that she is intensively occupied with the healing power of music and has worked a lot with music therapists and healers*. I like the album very much!
But it is interesting that also in the above mentioned wishes of the participating musicians it is always about coming into music making without judgment, without thinking and without fear of doing something wrong.
This liberation from judgment and from the performance principle seems to be based on a deep and widespread longing. I know it well.
I’m sure I’ll write about it in more detail soon.
Highlights and disappointments
The concerts of Esperanza Spalding were very inspiring for me.
In the duo with Fred Hersch you could experience her as a singer who could play super freely and creatively with standards. She has a clear, bright, flexible voice and certainly an absolute ear. Otherwise she would not be able to sing virtuosic lines so light-heartedly and unite with the piano again and again. Moreover, it is impressive how relaxed she is on stage sharing her stories and thoughts with the large audience. And there must have been 3000-4000 in the audience. I don’t know exactly because I was sitting very far in front.
In her moderation, she also addressed – self-confidently and humorously – the fact that during the concert people got up and left and others were let in again.
This causes extreme unrest and is quite disrespectful to the artists and the other audience members, who are distracted each time. There is a constant coming and going in almost all the halls.
Curse and blessing of such a large offer of overlapping concerts on 16 stages in parallel.
We, too, sometimes left a show in the middle to be able to see the next one at all. Often you had to queue up 30 minutes in advance to get a seat.
Quite often we experienced that we couldn’t get in for Van Morrison, Pat Metheney or Samara Joy, even though they were playing in the big halls.
But then there’s still a lot of parallel stuff that you can see and discover instead.
So we spontaneously went to Madison McFerrin, Bobby McFerrin’s daughter, instead of Samara Joy. At the third song I couldn’t and didn’t want to stay any longer. She sang mediocre, the R’n’B songs were not my taste and she made aggressive announcements. Maybe she was having a bad day.
And then she had a skimpy net dress on and was almost naked, which I found very strange.
But that’s also a matter of taste.
It’s just that I’m a bit irritated that I get so hung up on appearances and that stage outfits catch my eye so much!
Snarky Puppy were on fire and were celebrated by 10,000 people. That was fat!
We danced wildly to Kurt Elling and Superblue with Charlie Hunter. I have never experienced Kurt Elling so relaxed, funky and with fun. I usually found him live always a bit undercooled and controlled. That was something completely different here at 30 degrees in the tent. He sweated and really went wild – and so did the audience. And Charlie Hunter plays guitar and bass on one instrument at the same time. How that works, I haven’t understood yet. Anyway, I was looking for the bass player on stage for quite a while, only to find out that the guitarist also plays the bass.
The Metropole Orkest played grandly the arranged “Diaspora Suite” with different soloists on vocals. Great cinema. Among others, Corinne Bailey Rae, Laura Mvula and the Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab, who was an interesting discovery.
My insight in this concert:
Stage presence can also have introverted artists. It does not depend on how much show is made to the front, but also a deep inner humble calmness and seclusion can be captivating.
The main thing is to be genuine and authentic. That’s what counts!
Speaking of which, peace and quiet was again emitted by Abdullah Ibrahim, whom we could only see briefly because we were going to the workshop with Esperanza Spalding. He had so thrilled me in 2019 at my first time at NSJ that I cried snot and water – with emotion.
On the last evening, still completely inspired by the Shakti concert, we refrained from going to see Gregory Porter in the huge and packed “Nile” and rather went relaxed to our last concert of the festival, Esperanza Spalding’s “Off-brand gOdds”. A performance of music and dance, a mixture of arranged and choreographed parts and improvisations. Very varied and atmospheric, beautifully staged, sparse set and all actors dressed in white. Almost a bit chilly. In the air-conditioned and much too strongly cooled down hall it became really chilly.
Nevertheless, we stayed until the end, compensated by a terrific and rousing Esperanza Spalding on bass and vocals and her great band, super dancers and a large choir formed by the audience at the end.
Singing the festival came to an end for us.
After 3 days full of sometimes quite demanding music (if you have given yourself properly jazz) in the middle of a huge mass of people, quite tired, but fulfilled and inspired we went “home” with the “Fiets” across Rotterdam.
By the way, when I talk about “we” I mean 2 heart people, my friends and colleagues Inge Rambags from Rotterdam, a wonderful singer and improviser, choir director, best vocal coach ever and warm host and Corinne Schmidiger from Zurich, an equally great singer and improviser, body percussion specialist and member of several innovative a cappella projects.
Britta Rex, August 2023