A Venue for some Fine Guitar Playing

From July 12th through July 14th, the Congress Center in The Hague, The Netherlands, hosted the 21st edition of the North Sea Jazz Festival. Initiated by the late Dutch jazz enthusiast Paul Acket, the NSJF is currently one of the major jazz events in the world: Approximately 1,000 musicians play on 14 stages for a crowd of 23.000 enthusiasts per night from all over the world (grand total 69.000 visitors).

As always, the NSJF 96 included a small but exquisite selection of jazz guitar players, with a wide variety of styles, reaching from more traditional playing to high-energy electric jazz and avant garde. Here is what I liked most.

Let's start with one of the true legends: Jim Hall gave a beautiful demonstration of his art in a concert that also featured down beat's Jazz Artist of the Year Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone. The two masters showed perfect ensemble playing, with Hall contributing sensitive comping as well as imaginative soloing. Lovano played with much more reserve than on other occasions, which created just the right mood for this particular setting.


As always, the NSJF 96 included a small but exquisite selection of jazz guitar players

The NSJF organizers make a point of never leaving a stage vacant. So, when rumour had it that Norman Brown was unable to attend, I nevertheless went to the tiny Spiegeltent ('Mirror Tent') - you never know what's going to happen. And up came The Mark Whitfield Quartet for a spontaneous performance in addition to their 'official' appearance. It was an exciting event for maybe 150 people who happened to be there, despite the fact that the band was pretty exhausted due to an aftershow jam session the other night in Istanbul and the following flight to Holland (off the stage, onto the plane). Whitfield's playing was a stirring mixture of tour de force improvisations and fine rendering of ballads. He seemed to genuinely enjoy the audience's immediate response to his playing in the intimate atmosphere of the tent. The Quartet's official show on the Dakterras ('Roof Terrace') the next day earned them (well-deserved!) standing ovations by the large audience, but it could not come close to the special ambience of the Spiegeltent.

Being a Dutch festival, the NSJF always has a fair share of players from the very active local scene. A popular new face is the young Jesse van Ruller, winner of the prestigious Thelonius Monk competition. Van Ruller had three appearances: as sideman to Dutch singer Fleurine, in the fusion band SFeQ, and with his own quartet, which is pretty much in the tradition of bop and neo-bop. I only saw him in the latter two bands, and my first impression is: This guy is to be watched out for. Especially in up-tempo numbers his playing is astoundingly fluent, his lines being somewhat reminiscent of Tal Farlow's style. Occasionally I heard a slight lack of tone when technical difficulty took its toll, but, all in all, Jesse is already a great musician at an early age (he should be no older than 25). And he is a versatile musician: Having plugged his hollowbody into a Korg synthesizer, he becomes an inventive member of the fusion band SFeQ who perfectly blends his jazz idiom with hard-hit drums, bass, saxophone and the DJ's scratching. I genuinely enjoyed Jesse van Ruller's playing on the festival.

Finally, here comes my personal highlight: Philip Catherine from Belgium, once called "Young Django" by Charles Mingus, captivated his audience from the first to the last minute with his playing on the hollowbody archtop and the acoustic flattop. The allusion to Django is only half the truth: His delicate tone and effortless swing are complemented by all facets of modern harmony, melody and rhythm. Within one piece of music, Catherine moves from impressionist strains to veritable swing, on to blues elements and back to impressionist coloring. It was particularly nice to see how Catherine guided his young colleagues (trumpet, bass and drums) by way of inconspicious hints and gestures (of course I sat next to the stage) through the complex compositions. Philip Catherine again proved to be one of the (if not *the*) leading jazz guitarists in Europe.

Who and what else was there? Lots and lots of the big names of jazz (Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson, Dewey Redman, Pharoah Sanders, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, Phil Woods, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Yusuf Lateef, as well as the youger generation of James Carter, Cyrus Chestnut, Courtney Pine, Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton, Branford Marsalis, to mention but a few), fusion and avant garde (with guitar players Harald Haerter, Bill Frisell, Charlie Hunter, etc.), lots of blues, even some funk and rock, a special section for High School big bands, and Jazz in Cyber Space. At the end of the festival, musicians of New York's Knitting Factory played a real-time interactive concert geographically split between The Hague and New York via a video conferencing system. The concert was diffused on the internet. The experiment drew quite a crowd of curious watchers and listeners, many of whom appeared to be somewhat at a loss (including myself). My impression is that the experiment did not really show that the virtual stage is on the verge of replacing the real one (I take this to be not the intention of the performing artists). It maybe showed what you could do with your friend just for fun when he happens to be oceans away (if you can afford it). The finale of NSJF 96 at least gave us something to ruminate about until July 11th, 1997, which is the opening day of the 22nd NSJF.

Let me finish with a recommendation for the active player: If you ever make it to The Hague, dont' miss Benelly's fine stock of D'Angelico, Benedetto, Gibson and Gretsch archtops (Anna Paulownastraat 58-B, just a few steps off the main shopping streets in downtown Den Haag). The owner, Ben van der Sman, is a real nice guy who is happy to let you check out his treasures (at least he seemed to be happy when me and my friends did).


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