So here we are again. North Sea Jazz in Rotterdam has started on a sweltering day. My first show of the festival was a classic: pianist Kenny Barron, who recently turned 80 and who remembered the days at The Hague and couldn’t really tell when he first started to play at North Sea, played a brutally swinging set. Starting off with “How Deep Is The Ocean”, it was clear from the start that here’s one of the most inspiring and fiercely dedicated pianists at work. Playing with Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass and Savannah Harris on drums (first time I saw her play), Kenny dived deep into Brazilian repertoire with the beautiful Caetano Veloso composition “Aquele Frevo Axé”. A pretty joyful noise. He brought Jesse Davis up on stage for a few numbers, adding some nice New Orleans touches to the proceedings. Jesse now lives in Verona by the way. Just in case you were wondering.
You would think that continuing with “But Not For Me”, the opener of the duo set by Fred Hersch and Esperanza Spalding, looks like a common thread here. But what Esperanza added to the lyrics was just amazingly witty, contemporary, and inimitable. She pondered about why nobody really writes love songs for her. The rapport between the two was simply mind-blowing and had us all listening admiringly. It was even more tripping than on their recently released duo album “Alive at the Village Vanguard”. And it continued with “Dreaming of Monk”, the Monk-inspired tune written by Fred, and the Charlie Parker penned “Little Suede Shoes”. Esperanza, who is Artist in Residence this year, reminded us that this tune was written back in the days where people actually danced to bebop and why and how we actually received the download code to dance to the music. Or not. A very in-the-moment and creatively fascinating set.
Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who recently came up with “New Standards: 101 Lead Sheets By Women Composers”, showed us that these new so-called standards should be an addition to the canon, not a replacement or re-arrangement of the order. And what a joy it was to hear her play with the amazing Kris Davis on piano and the much-loved Rhodes, guitarist Matthew Stevens, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and Milena Casado on trumpet and flugelhorn. Opening the set with a very loose and avantgarde-ish “Rounds”, written by Marilyn Crispell, the band was on fire from the get-go. It was great to hear singer Michael Mayo again. He played North Sea last year and I think he deserves a much bigger platform (if that’s possible) because I think he has one of the most brilliant voices, with a range to die for. He excelled on Gretchen Parlato’s “Circling”, totally hit me with Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away”, and absolutely nailed it on Carla Bley’s “Two Hearts (Lawns)”, deservedly praised by Terri as one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Terri also called special guests up on stage: Dutch saxophonist Tineke Postma was featured with one of her own touching compositions. Saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin‘s energy was unbelievable. And singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding (there she was again) added up to one of the most enjoyable sets so far. It was crazy to watch Kris Davis playing her whatever off on piano and Rhodes without seeing any hint of stress or strain. And funny to witness Milena’s eyes as if she couldn’t believe that it was really her playing all these fancy and subtle notes and lines. And a true revelation that Linda’s own “10 Minutes Till Closing” is one of the most brave and gorgeous originals I have encountered in recent months. Coalescing with all the proceedings on stage: the ever so dynamic and present, dramatically gifted and on the spot Terri Lyne Carrington. Yes, this is one of the best groups playing today.