North Sea Jazz Festival 2008, Day 1-3
After the extraordinary anti-climax of Friday night, something to heal the faith was certainly needed. It came in the form of Pat Metheny and his superb trio with drummer Antonio Sanchez and Christian McBride on bass. Playing to a sell-out crowd in the Amazon hall (tickets for concerts there had been sold separately to festival day passes), he emerged on his own for a couple of solo numbers to start the show. The first was largely chordal and had a little country twang, played with a powerful empathy that disguised its relative simplicity. Relative, that is, to what Metheny was about to play on his custom-made 42-string guitar. Somehow managing to hold a bass line with his left hand and a varying series of chords and motifs on the other three sections of the instrument, it was a mesmerising display. It set the scene for what was to follow; Sanchez and McBride came out to join and were perfect partners. The drummer's skittering, busy, polyrhythmic style was complemented by McBride's knack for always finding the right balance: he didn't use too many notes and played brilliantly within himself, clearly below the limits of his virtuoso technique.
Dropping in to catch a few minutes of Victor Wooten on the Maas stagea huge, echoing space also used for a tennis tournamentwas not the shrewdest decision. Of Flecktones fame, Wooten is an electric bassist par excellence. Countless videos of him performing ridiculously difficult technical stunts exist on YouTube. However, it is a shame to report that his band's music comes nowhere near this level of instrumental proficiency: tacky, cheesy and soulless, it is often geared towards generating showmanship opportunities for Victor and his guitarist brother Regi. There was no coherence. The only moment worth seeing was when the band went off stage entirely, leaving Victor alone to perform a few neat little tricks with his bass and a loop pedal.
The Bad Plus is one of the big jazz success stories of recent years. A young, eager standing audience had assembled in the Yukon tent and provided a rapturous welcome. From the start of the gig, it was clear the progressive trio go for a lot more when they play live. Drummer David King was exemplary in his scuttling crossrhythmic approach, throwing random accents onto different beats with joyous animated energyhe looked like a man possessed by the sheer exuberance of making music. The first few tunes, including "Big Eater," were as expected: crunchy, hard-hitting piano riffs combined with moments of delicate dynamic interaction as the three musicians rose and fell as one. Things took a turn for the worse, however, when kooky singer Wendy Lewis was presented. Billed as a new feature of upcoming album For All I Care, her wailing, moany vocals were off key at timesperhaps intentionally? She didn't add a great deal to the band's signature sound. One wonders about the reasoning for getting her involved in a group that has done so well with its instrumental concepts. In any case, maybe it is too early to pass judgement: it will be very interesting to hear the new CD when it appears.
Then it was a quick call on saxophonist David Sanchez. The Puerto Rican tenor man played in the Yenisei venue, a pleasant little room reminiscent of inner city jazz clubs. Sadly his set was drawing to a close, but there was enough time to see that Sanchez is very much back on the scene. This year he released Cultural Survival (Concord, 2008), a long-awaited disc to follow the Grammy-nominated Coral (Columbia, 2004). Backed by an able group of Lage Lund (guitar), Orlando Le Fleming (bass) and Henry Cole (drums), his lean, heavy tone was given ample space to live and breathe.
British saxophonist/flautist Finn Peters was on stage in the Murray tent, and there was time to catch a couple of tunes before going back to the Amazon for Wayne Shorter's headline show. Peters, who recently released his second album Butterflies (Accidental, 2008), was joined by stellar sidemen from the London circuitincluding bassist Tom Herbert and pianist Tom Cawley, both of Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear fame. The result was an ambitious mix of crossover music drawing on influences as broad as Indonesian Gamelan and pulsating Afrobeat grooves, with a jazz undercurrent running through. It was pleasing to note these original concepts translate better into a live show than they appear on the record, which comes across as rather airy and lacking punch. Peters clearly possesses a high degree of musical knowledge; it would have been great to see him really let go with solos, but he is perhaps more a thinker than a showman. Nevertheless, this was a valuable contribution to the festival, a strong representation of the vibrant new UK jazz scene which is constantly growing in stature.