Event promotion for Rotterdam’s North Sea jazz festival will tell you it is the largest indoor jazz festival in the world. Yet nothing prepares you for the exhibition centre-cum-international train station of the venue: a labyrinth of plush-carpeted corridors that, when used to wander to a gig at 11pm, are lit by the kind of golden aura that masks all traces of day or night.
This is the charm of the long-running festival: an impeccably organised safe haven of jazz and pop for all tastes, from legacy acts such as saxophonist Gary Bartz and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim to next-gen stars Robert Glasper and Makaya McCraven, with crowd-pleasers Anita Baker, Janelle Monáe and even Toto all thrown in for good measure.
Now located in a sports complex in central Rotterdam, the festival began nearby in 1976, in a concert hall in The Hague. It was conceived as a chance for the Dutch avant garde to rub shoulders with the likes of Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan and is today celebrated for bringing together radical new jazz players and living pioneers.
For its 43rd edition, North Sea enlisted pianist Glasper as its artist in residence. Glasper’s varied career, encompassing everything from hip-hop to jazz fusion, exemplifies the anything-goes ethos of North Sea. Across the weekend he played several sets, from the raw, earthen hip-hop of his show with rapper Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) to the hard-swinging bop of his trio set, which featured everything from New Orleans-style stride piano to a cover of Prince’s Sign o’ the Times.
Other genre fusionists included Chicago drummer Makaya McCraven, who enlisted young vibraphonist Joel Ross and harpist Brandee Younger to disassemble tracks from his blistering Highly Rare and Universal Beings records, and producer Sly5thAve, whose orchestral show covered classics from Dr Dre to Adina Howard. In fact, the drummers were out in force over the weekend. Jesse Barrett of Norwich-based trio Mammal Hands gave a virtuosic performance of tabla, hand percussion and polyrhythmic textures to accompany Boreal Forest and similarly incantatory tracks by the group, while Ronald Bruner Jr and Tony Austin shredded through a typically gut-busting set from Kamasi Washington.
But it was the legends and legends-in-making who stole the weekend. Anita Baker was pitch-perfect throughout a set of “old love songs” that included the iconic Sweet Love, while Gary Bartz provided a beautiful 50th anniversary tribute to his Another Earth album with the help of Ravi Coltrane on tenor sax and Charles Tolliver on trumpet.
Blood Orange, meanwhile, brandished a wilting bouquet of flowers as he played through the future love songs of Negro Swan and new mixtape Angel’s Pulse, and Janelle Monáe cemented her status as a 21st-century Prince with her slick, ice-cold funk. South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, now 84, floored his audience with a deeply emotive paean to his home country’s jazz lineage; songs of exile from an understated yet pervasively influential talent.
With jazz firmly on the rise in the UK, it was heartening to hear Ibrahim’s music alongside the new experimentalism of North Sea. And if the vibe of the after-hours jam sessions across town was anything to go by, with sets pushing on until the dawn chorus called time, North Sea will be thriving for another 40 years to come.