Jazz music: Old hands and young pretenders

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The Independent Culture
THE NORTH Sea Jazz Festival has been around for 24 years and if it's acquiring institutional status, it's not showing it. Held last Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the massive Congress Centre in The Hague, there were more than 80 concerts daily, so a complex and interlocking timetable was essential. Also required was a certain amount of physical fortitude since getting from concert to concert within the Centre usually involved climbing up or climbing down endless flights of stairs, usually when crowds were surging the other way. Quite why everyone always appeared to be heading in the opposite direction defied rational explanation, like crop circles or the absence of taxis on a rainy night.

This year, drum legends abounded. Max Roach, whose CV is spattered with names such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown, appeared twice. On Friday night he performed alone. Since there has never been a drummer in jazz who has not regarded a solo opportunity as Walpurgis Night, the finale of the 1812 Overture and a 21-gun salute all rolled into one, this concert presented a daunting prospect. The wonder of it was that Roach could still do it at the age of 75. On Saturday night he appeared with his brass quintet, but surprisingly the effect was much the same, only this time with added fanfares.

Part man, part octopus, Elvin Jones is a drummer whose playing sounds beyond the scope of the four limbed. Never really sure how to position his music after John Coltrane's death in 1967, Jones likes it loud and surrounds himself with dashing young blades such as Carlos McKinney on piano and Robin Eubanks on trombone, who are tough enough to survive the barrage. Dave Weckl is already a drum legend although he's only been around for what seems like five minutes in comparison to Roach and Jones. Faster than an Uzi machine gun and with a built-in click-track in his head, he can be awesome, a predilection for light fusion his only discernable weakness.

Having reached middle age with his adventurous spirit more or less intact, pianist Chick Corea formed Origin, surrounding himself with up-and-coming whizz kids. But the saxophonists Robert Shepherd and Steve Wilson revealed plenty of flash, yet it has not yet been replaced with depth. They have virtuosity to spare, but a bit too much desire to tell the world about it. However, when Corea's guest, vibist Gary Burton, stepped into the solo spotlight, his playing was not only in danger of stopping the show, but stopping the world as well.

Verve Records' Saturday showcase has developed into an important event within an event. This year, it featured Regina Carter. Young and oh-so- petite, her hot-wired violin and sassy smile brought a five-minute standing ovation. She appeared overawed, but if she turns in performances like that every time she plays, she'll have to get used to it. Later, Verve's underground success Bugge Wesseltoft, who evokes one of Ken Russell's mad-genius composer types, hunched over his keyboards, sidestepped the everything-old-is-new-again vision of his young peers and played the compellingly eclectic music from his album The New Conception of Jazz. Don't look here for "Epiphanies", but his mix of club-culture rhythms and improvisation had the 700 or so audience up and dancing, which, come to think of it, is what jazz used to be all about.

On Sunday, Arturo Sandoval showed that he was the embodiment of the heroic showman, appealing to the public's love of the bravura virtuoso that dates back at least to Paganini and Liszt. With Sandoval, however, you get it with brass knobs on. When he's not zooming through the registers of his trumpet and hitting notes best appreciated by Labradors, he's at the piano, notes cascading everywhere. It was athletic, awesome and thoroughly exhausting, just like Adam Makowicz. Somebody put 88 keys on a piano and he struck every one of them, usually in the first two bars of his solos. Makowicz's playing refracts jazz history, but it was presented from the same perspective as the Fringe show The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).

There's no doubt that Roy Hargrove is a brilliant young retro trumpeter, but at present we're up to here with brilliant young retro trumpeters. The problem is that they all seem to have settled for a permanent state of becoming rather than actually arriving. Hargrove performed twice, with a small group and a big band and did enough to keep ahead of the pack, but the clock is ticking. Isn't it time these guys did something that hasn't been done before, and better, on 40-year-old recordings?

Both middle-aged, plump and with receding hair lines, John Scofield and Joe Lovano were refreshing evidence that the marketing men haven't taken over jazz entirely. Inside guitarist Scofield lies the soul of a tortured bluesman, while the saxophonist Lovano is part uber-Romantic, part modernist. Their "super group", with fellow fortysomethings Dave Holland on bass and Al Foster on drums, showed that individuality still remains at the heart of great jazz, something the young retro-jazzers forget at their peril.