After yesterday’s post, covering some of the more boundary-pushing electronic music to feature at the North Sea Jazz Festival, you could be forgiven for wondering if there was any jazz worth seeing at all. And while it wasn’t all tame vocal jazz and funk-lite, you still had to navigate the programme carefully to avoid making wrong turns. Pat Metheny’s peformance turned out to be somewhat saccharine, full of gurning and noodling, while Marcus Miller’s Tutu set featured one slap bass solo too many for me (i.e. I left after the first one). But elsewhere some of jazz’s elder statesmen, as well as its innovative young guard, were to show the way.
After his inspired curatorship of last year’s Meltdown festival in London, Ornette Coleman was now honoured to be selected as the North Sea Jazz Festival’s artist-in-residence, playing once each day in a different setting. As tempting as it would have been to see him three times (including once with Charlie Haden and Joshua Redman, and once with James Blood Ulmer and Bachir Attar’s Master Musicians Of Jajouka) in fact I only caught him with his super-tight regular quartet which featured Al McDowell and Tomy Falanga on basses, and his son Denardo on drums. They played a set of Coleman classics such as “Peace” from The Shape Of Jazz To Come, and “American Skies”, with Ornette playing mainly alto sax, with a tone so beautiful it almost made me weep, and adding colour with his more esoteric trumpet and violin technique. Sadly, whenever he picked up one of those it seemed to be a cue for people to get up and walk out; but when the Japanese improvising vocalist joined him that trickle towards the door became a torrent. This was typically uncompromising stuff from Ornette, refusing to water down his approach for the benefit of a crowd who seemed in part unaware or at least unappreciative of his immense contribution to jazz. Those who were left at the end gave him a huge ovation.
Later that day I also caught some of the set of McCoy Tyner, pianist with John Coltrane’s classic quartet from 1960 to 1965, one of the most important groups in jazz. In fact in all of music. As I learned when I saw him at Ronnie Scotts a couple of years ago, you mustn’t be deceived by the seventy-odd year-old’s frail appearance; Tyner still has that awesome power in his left hand, that dominant bass propelling the more uptempo numbers. Accompanied by a band which included the saxophonist Joe Lovano, he rifled through a selection of classics from his own and from Coltrane’s songbooks, including “Afro-Blue” and “Song For Peace”. It felt like a privilege to be in the same room as him, never mind hearing him play some of this classic material, still finding new angles of attack, that left arm hovering above the keys like a cobra waiting to strike.
But what did I learn about the state of jazz from the festival’s younger performers? On the basis of some of the ensemble performances I saw, there is a desire to integrate jazz with more contemporary forms, pushing the music forward. The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble on Friday were the only group brave enough to try to persuade a seated crowd to stand for the duration of their performance. But how could you sit to this? Reaching into jazz’s past and to the future simultaneously, they went from the Sun Ra-flavoured brass harmonies of “Jupiter” (their father Phil Cohran is ex-Arkestra) to deep funk and hip-hop grooves, bringing the party to a place that had no idea it wanted to party in the first place.
I was particularly pleased to getthe chance to catch the Steve Lehman Octet, whose Travail, Transformation And Flow album was one of the standout jazz records of last year. Sadly for us their superlative drummer Tyshawn Sorey wasn’t around, having recently dropped out to focus on his studies for his MA, but in Damian Reid they appear to have a pretty able stand-in. And while Lehman’s compositional skills are pretty evident in a piece like “Wave”, with its ebbing and flowing passages of massed horns, the percussion is what grabs my ear most, both live and on record. On “Rudreshm”, Reid chopped up beats into wafer-thin slices, while “GZA Transcription” had some sick, lopsided rhythms; perhaps the fact he spends as much time playing with hip-hop and soul artists as with jazz ones helps.
The last thing I was to see was Bachir Attar’s Master Musicians Of Jajouka, playing their knotted, hypnotic reed lines at the bottom of the escalators to a departing crowd. After such a great weekend, I was sorry to be leaving. A festival as big as the North Sea Jazz Festival has an important role to play as jazz continues to move and evolve into new shapes, influencing performers in disparate genres. This year’s lineup showed that in taking a broad-minded approach to the genre, and by supporting innovative artists, they could lure the audience to new stages and introduce them to exciting new forms. I hope this trend continues in future; jazz must not be allowed to become a heritage industry.