Notes from 40th North Sea Jazz – Day 1

It was the perfect start to the 40th anniversary edition of the North Sea Jazz Festival last night. Jarrod Lawson & The Good People opened the night at Congo with their unbelievably funky, soulful, and intense set. Like in previous concerts I saw in Paris and Berlin, here’s a future Soul star with a mesmerizing voice, tight band, and deep lyrics. His songs with the signature very cool rhythm changes are destined for future classics. “Music and its Magical Way”, “Walk In The Park”, “All That Surrounds”, and “Gotta Keep” were little masterpieces. His duet with Tahirah Memory (“All The Time”) is simply outstanding. Jarrod produced her recently released solo album “Pride” (to be reviewed here asap). This is exactly the kind of artistry I could watch and indulge night after night (they are playing Vienna tonight).

Tahirah Memory/Jarrod Lawson

with Tahirah Memory and Jarrod Lawson at North Sea Jazz

Even though the three days are once again sold out, I had the feeling that there was more space and fewer people walking the grounds. Checking in at Darling, I wanted to find out if Lizz Wright would include her new album “Freedom & Surrender” (to be released in late August/early September) in her set. She only did a couple of tunes from it but her act is still an eclectic showcase of Soul, Gospel, and some Blues and Country. Her version of Roberta Flack‘s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was majestic.

I was equally impressed with Cassandra Wilson‘s new project with the songs of Billie Holiday from her most recent “Coming Fourth By Day” album (which I thought was a bit too ambitious production-wise with strange reverbs and such). It’s really not easy to put new spins into those tried and tested songs but from the very start with “The Way You Look Tonight”, I knew that we were in for a real treat. It was of course due to the fact that she has a rather unusual combination of instrumentalists on stage setting the pace and mood for Billie Holiday at 100. The violin of Charlie Burnham, Kevin Breit‘s guitar, Lonnie Plaxico on bass, and the bass clarinet of Robby Marshall plus the brilliant keys work of Jon Cowherd all added up to a brooding melange of Holiday classics. Her upbeat, groovy rendition of “You Go To My Head” was a striking example for Cassandra’s new class act. Her voice is now resembling a fine Laphroaig single malt (more the 18 years old than the 10).

In between sets, I had the chance to see a bit of Mary J. Blige‘s performance which seemed to be off the chain. Which also was the last set I attended last night: a special project that took four years to realize. “Joni’s Jazz” was an outstanding tribute to the great Joni Mitchell (get well soon Joni!) with an all-star concoction of current Jazz and Soul/Singer/Songwriter artists. The band consisted of Jon Cowherd again playing various keyboards (was there a Wurlitzer as well?). He must have rushed over from Cassandra’s gig to this one. Also on stage, guitarists Marvin Sewell and Kevin Breit (again), Chris Tomas on bass, the omni-present Brian Blade on drums, whirlwind percussionist Jeff Haynes and a crisp horn section: Myron Walden, Terence Blanchard, and Melvin Butler.

Lizz Wright started off the evening with a heart-warming “The Fiddle and the Drum”. And for the rest of the evening, each solo vocalist contributed different Joni songs which was not only a very entertaining aspect, but also a reminder of the sheer monumental work Joni Mitchell has given us over the decades. And it was refreshing to hear not the obvious choices. Interestingly, Michael Kiwanuka came closest to Joni’s dodgy phrasing and style. His “Furry Sings The Blues” was totally adept and “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” a fancy move. Too bad he wasn’t featured more often. Becca Stevens had several shining moments as well. Her “Help Me” (from the “Court & Spark” album) was delivered with convicting aplomb as were the tricky “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines”and the hilarious “The Hissing Of Summer Lawns”. Lizz had several brilliant returns with “The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey”, and a mind-blowing “Shades Of Scarlet Conquering”. Even Oleta Adams was a good choice for this particular project. I had some doubts at first because her thick gospelly voice (she seemed to put more effort and oomph into the proceedings which took sime time getting used to) didn’t gel with the sublime lyrics (unlike Lizz’s) but she soon won over by including some of Joni’s later work like “Man From Mars” or “Two Grey Rooms” where she beautifully belted out the first phrase “Tomorrow Is Sunday” with just about the right amount of restraint (this particular song is from my favorite Joni album ever: the strangely overlooked and underrated “Night Ride Home” from 1991). Earlier in the set, she delivered “A Strange Boy” and “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” with much panache. The rousing finale was “Woodstock”, where all vocalists involved chimed in (Chaka Khan was on the bill but did’t make it – no loss) and where Michael seemed a bit lost. Strangely enough, by this time the hall (Amazon) was shockingly empty.

What a great start! What’s on tonight? Randy Weston & Billy Harper, “Made In Chicago” with Jack DeJohnette, Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and Larry Gray, Somi, Theo Croker, Michael Kiwanuka, Candi Staton….We’ll see.

 

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