In the UK this festival seems relatively unknown, and perhaps expectedly, as it takes place at the Ahoy in the city of Rotterdam, which is a massive venue holding many arenas and rooftop spaces. It also takes place in Curacao and Hong Kong. However, their line-ups are notable, with Lenny Kravitz, Prince, and Jill Scott having previously performed there. With the biggest faces in jazz and blues, to more contemporary chart toppers like Pharrell Williams, the festival had something for everyone who was interested in funky rhythms and soulful sounds.
There were smaller rooms in which you could sit and watch humourous and inspirational talks and music from legends such as Benny Golson [6/10] and his Quartet; and bigger rooms such as Maas where you could see people like Outkast and Robert Glasper with his orchestra. Above all this were the rooftop bars and DJs. This was definitely the festival for people who wanted to chill out and listen to funky beats, with lots of Grolsch on tap.
The festival being predominantly indoors was actually a great thing; it felt as though you were going to many individual concerts rather than noises overlapping from different stages like you may get at other festivals. Additionally, it was in the evenings and many people only went for one of them rather than all three; this was favourable as it was extremely accessible from the centre of Rotterdam by a quick train journey, and only an hour from the hub of Amsterdam.
Grammy Award winner, Gregory Porter [9/10] soon filled out a big arena, not necessarily having the biggest band with him, but his warm voice flowed through the place easily. A North Sea Jazz Festival regular, he played songs from his 2012 album Be Good, ‘On My Way to Harlem’, ‘Work Song’, and 2013 album Liquid Spirit, which I particularly enjoyed. His alto player Yosuke Sato was exceptionally enthralling and almost stole the show, with his impressive fast playing.
A real shock favourite for me was Paloma Faith [8/10], wearing a bright pink ensemble with enormous matching hat, her voice, in both jazzy and pop numbers, was exceptional and the slow soulful performances particularly showed off her talent which seemed better live than on an album.
When going in to see Pharrell Williams [8/10], the room was packed out. It was sweaty and claustrophobic. Pharrell brought with him a bounty of fantastic dancers. Pharrell himself, took us back to playing the classics of N.E.R.D, as well as his collaborations such as ‘Hollaback girl’ and ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’. The crowd went wild throughout, even with the audience being majoratively over the age of 40 – it was nothing like an average festival in the UK in that respect; after also being to Parklife Festival, and Leeds Festival, I’d go back to Rotterdam without any delay.
Closer to this scene of Parklife however, was talented duo, Darkside [10/10] – a collaboration of Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington. Their light display was one to be noted – nothing else quite like it at the North Sea Jazz Festival apart from maybe Outkast’s illustrious images projected on the back of the stage throughout their set. This showed that conventional jazz was being shook up; mixing the funky rhythms of classic jazz with electronic music. A very recent band in comparison to other performers at the North Sea Jazz Festival; they played slow and strange music with a youthful and energetic flow, in an intimate setting in one of the smaller rooms of the venue. The synths Jaar uses worked well with the setting we were in, and somehow he effortlessly combined funky elevator jazz with gentle singing and abstract sounds. Having his own label, Clown and Sunset, he is one to keep an eye on along with guitarist Harrington who is looking to do a solo EP. They kept the audience intrigued by what was going on in their amazingly synchronised minds when, on the last track, as you expected the beat to drop, it carried on escalating.
On a different scale, Outkast [10/10] played to a massive audience on the last night, apologising to ‘real’ fans in the room for playing songs such as Ms Jackson and Hey Ya. Their performance was driven by their sense of humour and bringing the audience into their show, simply having a good time and it definitely seemed like the most energetic performance of the entire festival. Also performing was R&B star Kelis [7/10], whose deep, raw soul voice was intensely powerful. She sang her part of the 2004 collaboration with Outkast, ‘Millionaire’ and showed off her talent in both funky dance songs, and her slower numbers.
Big band sounds also gave a feisty energy to the festival including Snarky Puppy and Friends [9/10], and Robert Glasper [8/10] & Metropole Orkest [8/10], with Lalah Hathaway [8/10] and Bilal [6/10]. These guys truly showed off the talent of their players; from saxophonists – Casey Benjamin (Robert Glasper) and Chris Bullock (Snarky Puppy); bassists – Michael League (Snarky Puppy) and Derrick Hodge (Robert Glasper) and many more. Casey Benjamin is definitely one to look up, his talent on the vocoder also, was pretty incredible, creating sounds so unusual but impressively jazzy and almost spiritual.
The winning performance for me however, was that of Stevie Wonder [10/10] who, aged 64, had not lost his touch one bit. I think everyone in the festival had tried to cram themselves into that one arena, and wait in eagerness to hear a hero of the soul world. Of course, Stevie Wonder sang the classics such as ‘Signed Sealed’ and ‘Superstition’, but it seemed as though the audience would’ve been happy and cheered if he had sung Humpty Dumpty. Performing alongside him, was his daughter Aisha Morris, and he later brought out the wonderful Joss Stone [7/10], who had performed at the festival prior to Stevie Wonder. This brought even more energy to the stage, with Stone unsurprisingly extremely excited. His band were also on top form, creating a spirited atmosphere in the arena.
All round, The North Sea Jazz festival was an electrifying experience and I would go back in a heartbeat.
Oh, and I think I remember something about Robin Thicke being there (but that’s not important).