Mvula, Martin Show Crowd ‘What’s Next’ at Fest in Netherlands

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Junius Paul (left) and Makaya McCraven at the So What’s Next Fest? in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, on Nov. 5.

(Photo: William van der Voort)

By posing the event’s name as a question, the So What’s Next? Festival hopes to pique audience interest in “below the radar” artists, those musicians who demonstrate great potential for becoming trendsetters. The festival is based in Eindhoven, the Netherlands—a hi-tech haven where Philips, the co-creator of the compact disc, was founded—so presenting game-changers in the field of music is part of the city’s DNA.

Musically, the DNA of the festival’s fourth edition (Nov. 5–6) can be traced to Robert Glasper. Although the keyboardist himself wasn’t in the lineup, his influential jazz/hip-hop hybrid was detected in the music of such artists as saxophonists Terrace Martin and Marcus Strickland, organist and keyboardist Cory Henry, drummer Makaya McCraven, harpist Brandee Younger, and trumpeter Theo Croker.

“From Day 1, we really started thinking about the scene built around artists like Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, Hiatus Kaiyote,” explained Frank Veenstra, the artistic manger of the So What’s Next festival and of the Muziekgebouw Frits Philips, the venue that hosted the first night of the festival.

“We also wanted to bring something different from other places within the Netherlands and other places in Europe. They just had a festival in Bremen that was more in the European tradition of jazz. We like to focus on the American influences.”

While jazz and hip-hop certainly had a stronghold, the festival presented artists of other idiomatic persuasions. Such was the case for the cathartic exorcisms from baritone saxophonist Colin Stetson, the sonic sculpting created by trombonist Samuel Blaser’s trio, the pointillistic abstractions from pianist David Virelles, and others.

The So What’s Next? Festival is the brainchild of Veenstra’s artistic endeavors at Muziekgebouw and kindred spirits from the North Sea Jazz Festival and Mojo Concerts. Before partnering up, Veenstra was aware of the North Sea Jazz Festival’s desire to build an offshoot event that focused on emerging artists. Sander Grande, program manger of the North Sea Jazz Festival and the So What’s Next? Festival, explained they all had agreed that Eindhoven was the ideal location.

This was the first year that the So What’s Next? Festival expanded to two days. Four months prior to the festival dates, the province of Brabant C granted three years of funding. So the organizers used that funding to create an “open call” of artists who would like to perform at the festival. Out of 65 submissions, the organizers chose 10 emerging acts.

The organizers also enlisted a formidable New York-based jazz contingent—Winter JazzFest’s Brice Rosenbloom, Revive Music Group’s Meghan Stabile and jazz journalist, author and educator Ashley Khan—to help flesh out the expanded lineup.

“Most of the ‘open call’ acts came from the greater Netherlands with a bit of from Belgium, Germany and the U.K.,” Grande said. “There was not a big budget so travel expenses had to be limited. We picked the most interesting 10 out of 65. The quality was pretty amazing.”

The expansion also meant engaging other venues besides Muziekgebouw. “We got a lot of positive feedback from the venues downtown,” Grande said. “They wanted to be involved. So we developed a program that involved diverse locations so that we could infuse the ‘So What’s Next?” concept more into the city.”

With 17 acts performing concurrently in various foyers and large stages throughout the Muziekgebouw and other venues, festivalgoers were forced to make some tough decisions regarding which concert to attend. Younger, McCraven and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa were all booked against one another, as were Virelles, Strickland and the Jameszoo Quartet.

Catching sets by the comparatively bigger acts—such as Henry, singer-songwriter Laura Mvula and trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf—was easier to do.

With those challenging choices in mind, it was a delight to see McCraven steering his quartet. He started with a splendid arrangement of Tony Williams’ “There’s Comes A Time” that was decidedly bluesier than the original. The tune made a perfect vehicle for trumpeter Marquis Hill, guitarist Matt Gold and keyboardist Rob Clearfield to issue sumptuous improvisations as McCraven and bassist Junius Paul built an undulating groove.

McCraven’s proclivities for contemporary hip-hop and electronica rhythmic patterns became even more evident on such originals as the hypnotic “This Place, That Place” and the jaunty “She Knew,” which also unveiled his fascination with West African grooves. Considering that he hails from Chicago—a major music hotbed for not only exploratory Afrofuturistic jazz but also the incubator of house music—McCraven represented Chi-Town marvelously; he and his quintet drew upon the city’s rich musical legacy while still sounding utterly cosmopolitan and of-the-moment.

Martin—who’s been making headlines in the worlds of both jazz and hip-hop because of his upcoming project with Herbie Hancock and for co-producing Kendrick Lamar’s epic, To Pimp A Butterfly—definitely celebrated Glasper’s influence. After leading his combo, the Poly Seeds, through a searing instrumental take on Lamar’s “For Free,” Martin moved onto the vocoder, then launched into Derrick Hodge-penned hymnal “Open Mind,” which has long been in the Robert Glasper Experiment songbook.

Though Martin released a new album, Velvet Portraits earlier this year, he was more content to perform the music of his associates. By bringing on singer Rose Gold, the Poly Seeds reprised Lamar’s “Real” and “These Walls” to great effect. The latter also featured an impromptu cameo from Croker.

Of the major headliners on Nov. 5, this writer opted for Mvula—a commanding West Indian singer and songwriter (of Jamaican and St. Kitt heritage) now based in England. She possesses a searing alto that’s greatly enhanced by her work on the keytar.

During her set, she focused on material from two studio albums, Sing To The Moon (RCA, 2013) and The Dreaming Room (RCA, 2016). As shades of Bob Marley and Angélique Kidjo seeped their way into Mvula’s artistry, she thrilled the crowd with such songs as the exuberant “Let Me Fall,” the suspenseful “Lucky Man” and the plaintive “Father, Father.” Because of the intimacy of her themes and lyrics, the resonant venue somewhat hindered the impact of her set.

The second evening forced festivalgoers to navigate between six downtown venues, so catching full sets was trickier. In a batch of performances that included the Dutch r&b singer Chelsea Foreman, Chicago-based hip-hop duo Noname and the Dutch straightahead jazz combo Trempera!, the most rewarding showcase was Henry’s closing performance.

The prior night, Henry and the Funk Apostles held court at Muziekgebouw. On Nov. 6, he closed the festival in the city’s stately Catharinakerk cathedral for what was supposedly a solo performance. Drawing upon his gospel roots, Henry delivered a beautifully plaintive rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Afterward, he invited drummer Taron Lockett onto the stage, creating a situation that potentially could have been disastrous considering the cavernous acoustics of the cathedral.

Henry and Lockett triumphed by approaching the material gently, without sacrificing the heat of the grooves. Lockett underscored “Wade In The Water” with a faint Afro-Latin feel while Henry embellished the melody with impressionistic improvisations.

As the concert progressed, Henry slipped in snatches of Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” and Miles Davis’ “Tutu” before launching into a full-fledge rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” singing the lyrics with slow-boiling intensity.

Toward the end, Henry invited keyboardist Nick Semrad onto the stage for a sanguine mashup of Edwin Hawkin’s “Oh Happy Day” and Tramaine Hawkins’ “Goin’ Up Yonder.”

The cathedral setting and Henry’s vesper-like concert meshed superbly. The performance was certainly worthy of being documented then released as an EP. With future performances such as this one, the So What’s Next? Festival is primed to become a major new destination in the international jazz ecosystem.



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