ROUND-UP: Festival Jazz International Rotterdam 2018

Theo Croker at Jazz International Rotterdam
Photo credit: Nigel Slee

Festival Jazz International Rotterdam
(Lantarenvenster venue. October 2018. Round-up review by Rob Adams)

It seems appropriate that two young musicians who want to be included in festival and events programming due to their quality, rather than to do with matters regarding gender quotients, should be among the highlights of the latest instalment of Festival Jazz International in Rotterdam.

Romanian vocalist Suzana Lașcu opened the festival on Friday with an exhilaratingly fearless set that was designed to take a political position yet also give the listener a comforting feeling. She succeeded in both ambitions with edgy songwriting that suggested something of a continuation of the chanson and cabaret traditions and tone production that occasionally reminded your reviewer of Annette Peacock at her most persuasive, although this is undoubtedly an artist who is charting her own course.

Lașcu was helped no end in her endeavours by a trio who shaped the songs with assurance and in guitarist Jorrit Westerhof’s case, showed both tremendous poise and exciting, going-for-it invention.

Saxophonist Kika Sprangers’ contribution came at the other end of the festival, towards the end of Sunday’s programme. Playing specially written music with a bespoke line-up of poetry, piano, bass and drums enfolding her alto and soprano, Sprangers revealed real improvising nous and a sound on both saxophones that was strong, sweet and expressive. The directness of her communication was particularly ear-catching and added to her compositions’ innate sense of purpose.

The theme of the festival this year was The Voice and as well as Suzana Lașcu I caught song-based sets from Donny McCaslin’s Blow band, French harpist and loop pedals artist Laura Perrudin and Norwegian pop-soul-jazz trio Gurls, and some vocal sorcery from Switzerland’s Andreas Schaerer.

Gurls were great fun, managing to make even the songs that were not about boys into mischievous digs at boys and packaging them in tightly structured arrangements for maximum impact. Andreas Schaerer showed both his intimate side, in a series of brilliantly fluent duets with guitarist Anton Goudsmit, and his ability to project and soar mightily in a big band, although the very fine New Rotterdam Jazz Orchestra is not your standard big band, with its rhythm section of guitar, bass, drums and accordion. Schaerer’s tone production is a marvel and when he does slip into the beat boxing that seems inevitable from someone whose vocalising is from, but not exclusively of, the Bobby McFerrin school, it’s done with attention to the sound of his instrument rather than the slamming volume you hear elsewhere.

Also showing great attention to the sounds of the instruments at hand was this year’s recipient of the festival’s Pack Project commission, Rotterdam saxophonist Wietse Voermans. A second saxophone (doubling on clarinet), double bass, drums and tuba was Voermans’ choice of colours and his music, often quite staccato and witty as well as warm-toned, grew in impact as the set progressed.

Finally, there were two contributions – one scheduled, one spontaneous from members of trumpeter Theo Croker’s quintet. As with their appearance at Glasgow Jazz Festival, Croker’s team embodied jazz that absolutely knows where it’s come from and where it’s heading. This is tradition in transition indeed, as might be expected of the grandson of Dixieland through swing trumpeter Doc Cheatham, and its freshness-infused character, wedded to great playing all-round made for immensely satisfying music.

Minutes after delivering a master class in solo building in the main auditorium, Croker’s alto saxophonist, Irwin Hall took over from the indisposed Turkish trombonist Efe Erdem to lead a jam session in the foyer that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the main stage and even featured Croker’s brilliant pianist-Hammond Organist, Mike King as an unshowy, quietly grooving drummer.

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