Just look at some of the headliners at this year’s North Sea Jazz Festival: Norah Jones. Earth, Wind & Fire. Macy Gray. Diana Krall. Jools Holland and His Sodding Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. You’re probably already wondering what on earth possessed me to get the bus, train, tube, train, ferry, train and Metro from London to the city of Rotterdam for the festival. But if you looked beyond the unashamedly populist fare that was being peddled on some of the main stages of the huge Ahoy complex (13 stages, over 20,000 visitors each day; the scale of the festival was mind-blowing) you’d see some innovative and risky programming which meant that both meteorologically and musically this was to be one of the hottest weekends of the year.
Viral Radio have been at the vanguard of Amsterdam’s experimental music scene for the last four years. The stage they programmed on Sunday nodded to the festival’s collaborative and improvisatory side, pulling together and showcasing some of Europe’s finest experimental instrumentalists and electro-acoustic composers. A duet between the country’s finest, Machinefabriek, aka Rutger Zudervelt, and bass clarinettist Gareth Davis (recently heard on record with Steven R Smith) was a terrific warm-up, with Zuyderfelt providing a pulsating electronic canvas for Davis to paint on. Guitar-generated drones built from a whisper to a roar while Davis progressed from gently blowing through his mouthpiece to impressive full-blooded rampages up and down the keys, culminating in some huge blasts on the bottom note of his instrument’s range. A brief coda of static and clicking keys sounded like the remnants of the rain that had blown across Rotterdam the previous day.
Turntablist Philip Jeck was scheduled to play with the experimental French horn player Hild Sofie Tafjord. I had no idea how that would work; sadly I wasn’t to find out after a cycling accident caused Tafjord to pull out. No matter; Jeck rose to the occasion with a very special jazz-themed set. He began with recorded bells and shakers (the sort of thing that you’d find on a Pharoah Sanders record), before dropping in a melodramatic orchestral theme, and then some careering jazz drumming, like Elvin Jones at full tilt. Looped horns mixed with strange disembodied vocals, as if Jeck was summoning the ghosts of jazz past from junk shops to dance hazily before us. His new album on Touch is due next month; I expect it to sound nothing like this.
Sadly, some of the follwing acts were up against the biggest crowd-puller of them all: a big screen showing the Netherlands playing in the World Cup final. Because of the match (hey, I’m Scottish, this is the closest I’ll EVER get to feeling the excitement of seeing my team in the World Cup final) I missed the Fennesz/Brandlmayr/Dafeldecker trio, and the Bown/Britton/Arthurs/Ohlmeier quartet (in which only the two last named were present; those clever Icarus bastards Bown and Britton having written software to replace themselves). I returned, somewhat disheartened, in time to see local heroes Knalpot tearing up the stage, mixing math rock guitar crunch with razor sharp drumming and electronic effects. Their fifteen minute-long closing track featured a long middle section of spaced out dub electronica, taking their jazz tips via the stylings of the Moritz von Oswald Trio. I’d like to see these guys on a London stage sometime soon.
Two days before all this, Viral Radio curated a stage they had christened Hyperrythym, inviting four of the most exciting – and wonkiest – acts to grace their stages in recent years: Mike Slott, Dorian Concept, Hudson Mohawke and Dimlite. I wondered about the connection to jazz, about whether the festival’s patrons would see links in their willingness to work on the fly, improvising sections of melody and live beats. Dorian Concept was the first I glimpsed through the smoke that was drifting across the stage; I heard him adding his synth squiggles (even playing it with his elbow, an homage to Miles Davis’s keyboard technique, perhaps) over glitchy hip-hop beats. It felt like he was playing tricks with our perception; everything felt crisp yet foggy, fast yet somehow sluggish at the same time.
Hudson Mohawke really made the canvas shake, dropping samples from old soul records like a man in possession of the world’s greatest record collection. Which he probably is. Soaring female vocal lines were bent and twisted into new shapes and patterns; yelps and squeals were excised and use as the foundations for rhythmic structures. After contrasting sections of thunderous funk guitars and delicate, twinkling melody, he finished by dropping Tweet’s “Oops Oh My” into my mix, nearly ripping the roof off.
By contrast, Dimlite was much more dark and abstract, kicking off with Man With A Harmonica wail and drones, and performing as if in the midst of a mental breakdown – one minute throwing his arms in the air and grinning, the next clawing at his head with his hands. He continued to alternate these beat-free interludes with songs featuring his own heavily distorted funk vocals and synth lines. You could wonder about the connection to jazz. Or, as a packed tent attested, you could just dance to it.