Pharoah Sanders and Binker & Moses walk on water at North Sea Jazz Fest

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With all the recent Brexit shenanigans it must have been a proud moment for Britain's very own Binker & Moses to kick off the 41st North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam last week. Reputedly the world’s largest jazz festival, held in the village-like setting of the Ahoy complex with 13 different stages, along with dozens of eating and merchandising establishments, at NSJF you can immerse yourself in whatever musical bliss you choose to map out, during a jam-packed three-day programme, offering an eclectic mix to satisfy most tastes from mainstream jazz to contemporary pop. In the area known as Congo Square, Binker & Moses tossed and fielded phrases with minimum eye contact, demonstrating a maturity bordering on telepathy. A perfect start to the three days.

Other highlights of the day included Diana Krall, Christian Scott – who engaged with the audience throughout a performance of his Stretch Music – and Ibrahim Maalouf (this year’s artist-in-residence, pictured top). The latter appeared each day of the festival, with his final gig a stupendous showing with the Metropole Orkest. The same ensemble also joined Snarky Puppy, airing material from their collaborative work Sylva, a cinematic fusion of funk, rock and jazz. Kamasi Washington (below) later utilised the full weight of the Orkest to reproduce elements from his current album usually missing from his touring ensemble. This was indeed Epic!

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Buddy Guy created a storm in the packed Nile Arena, delivering gutsy blues guitar, reminding the gathered about the roots of the music. Veteran organist Dr. Lonnie Smith was also on hand, coercing every nuance and texture from his Hammond B3, incorporating aspects of his own electronic gadgetry and that of guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg.

The second day intensified with offerings from relative newcomer James Brandon Lewis, his trio invoking the spirits of Coleman and Coltrane, combined with hip hop rhythms. Performing tracks from his album Days Of Freeman, his composition ‘Speaking From Jupiter’, with its edgy lines, suggested we’ll be hearing a lot more from him in the future. Cécile McLorin Salvant brought the past to life with her sassy renderings tinged with the influences of Vaughn, Fitzgerald, Holiday and Betty Carter, while Charles McPherson and his quartet reasserted the worth of straightahead bebop sax in the snug setting of the Madeira Hall.

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One of the day’s highlights was the duo of Ron Carter and Pat Metheny (above). They played a varied repertoire with hints of Bach and originals such as ‘Eight-One’ and ‘Minuano’, the pure virtuosity of these two masters exposed in perfect unity.

The late evening performance from the Branford Marsalis Quartet featuring Kurt Elling (below) was simply staggering. The lyricism of Marsalis’s saxophone and Elling's stupendous vocal delivery on Sting’s ‘Practical Arrangement’ brought out the theatrical poignancy of it’s lovelorn lyrics before the ensemble beautifully rounded off the set with their recent album’s title track, ‘The Return (Upward Spiral)’.

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The plentiful timetabling of NSJF can often leave you feeling spoilt for choice. Particularly so on the final day, as Esperanza Spalding unveiled her Emily’s D+Evolution alter ego concept, her band accompanied by various vocal actors who explore the substitute personality, coupled with her own faultless vocals and bass work. Slightly more conventional is Henri Texier, presenting his new album and band Sky Dancers 6. Their name comes from the Native American ironworkers who helped build the skyscrapers, working fearlessly on narrow steel beams hundreds of feet above ground. A blend of jazz and Native American textures were identifiable throughout the set, Texier's bass providing drone-like pulses underpinning dense passages of horns, keyboards and moments where guitarist Nguyên Lê throws blues and rock into the sound.

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Charles Lloyd (above) was performing with his New Quartet – comprising Jason Moran (piano), Eric Harland (drums) and Reuben Rogers (drums). Though the name implies it, the band is not a new line-up and have been featured by Lloyd over many years. Performing tracks from his Blue Note album, Wild Man Dance, Lloyd ventured inside the piano during a Moran solo, wildly shaking and rattling percussive items in his oft-declared ‘search for the sound’.

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Chick Corea and John Scofield + Mehliana performed during the closing hours of the festival, while Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles raised the temperature with their rip-roaring rousers. But it was the Pharoah Sanders Trio (above), consisting of Trilok Gurtu (drums, percussion) and William Henderson (piano) that were the final day’s standout. Sanders entered the stage, seemingly a little unsteady on his feet, but seemed transformed as he brought the saxophone to his lips, extracting all he could from his instrument with the use of overtones, high harmonics and even vocalising into the horn. Combined with sounds and textures by Gurtu and Henderson, the look of many faces in the audience suggested they were in jazz heaven and no doubt looking forward to NSJF 2017.

-        Story and photos by Roger Thomas