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SUPER-SONIC JAZZ FESTIVAL - pushing the boundaries of jazz culture

From November 17 'til 21st, talent development platform Super-Sonic Jazz presented its fifth annual festival, with a whole lot of innovative artists on the line-up, all operating on the cutting edge of jazz. It's been five special days full of exciting and intriguing music, providing a stage for the new wave of contemporary jazz musicians. Young fresh Dutch acts like SMANDEM. were given the opportunity to share the podium with jazz virtuosos like Yussef Dayes.

Tijmen de Nooy Photography

First, let's rewind to November 12th first, just five (!) days before the festival started. Dutch government announces new corona measures: bars must close at 8 p.m. and all concerts can only take place seated. Disastrous, of course, for an organization that simply cannot change everything within’ a sec. "First of all, we wondered: is it still possible to organize a festival within the boundaries of new restrictions", says Kees Heus (aka KC The Funkaholic), the organizer of the festival. "When the government details showed that it actually was possible, we were left with a question: Do we really want this? It's a tough job, to change everything, from timetables and tickets to the schedules of bartenders and cleaners." It has cost the crew a lot of creative flexibility and long days, but after all it worked! The festival was able to continue with a few adjustments.

One of those adjustments is the Wednesday, when British jazz progenitor and Gondwana Records founder Matthew Halsall had to be moved from the cozy canal-side church De Duif to the big Paradiso. "Huge shame, but it also has its advantages," says Siemen Tenzer, who is part of the SSJ organization together with his brother Vincent and focuses mainly on the Super-Sonic label, named after the Sun Ra's acclaimed record from 1956. "This way, more people were able to still see Halsall play his wonderful music."

Matthew Halsall
Matthew Halsall - Tijmen de Nooy Photography

Halsall is supported by Alabaster DePlume, artist-in-residence at the Utrecht Le Guess Who? Festival a week earlier, who with short spoken-word phrases and the oblique playing of his saxophone lets you know right away: expect crazy things this week. DePlume is a real maverick of sound, dancing in circles with clear pleasure. "As a band, it must be impossible to play with someone like him", a person in the audience says. "I don't think even DePlume himself knows which way he's going. He's almost inimitable."

Alabaster DePlume - Tijmen de Nooy Photography

Thursday is the time for jamming and improvisation, the foundation on which jazz is based, in a sense. Together with streetwear brand The New Originals, who just released a super dope FW21 campaign built around the vibe of the 20s of the last century, Super-Sonic Jazz hosted a real Jazz Club Jam Session in the main hall of Paradiso, built around a strong shared vision: stimulating young creative talent and contributing to a fertile creative ecosystem in Amsterdam.

Kees Heus / TNO x SSJ tee - Tijmen de Nooy Photography

It was originally meant to be in the basement, but due to changes it is now set up in the centre of the main hall, with audience all around. What's striking is that from the very first minute, when local producer Phantom Wizard kicks it all off with a fairly experimental and totally trippy free jazz session, many young kids are already listening very attentively in the front. Kids, who a few years ago preferred not to associate themselves with jazz and rather went to see Dutch hip-hop acts instead.

TNO Jazz Club - Shali Blok Photopraphy

"You just see that the jazz scene is growing enormously amongst young people", says David Grutter, jazz programmer of the Grachtenfestival and host of the jam session. "Jazz is becoming more and more acceptable within the young communities and crowds. It's getting cooler to really delve into the different movements and check out artists carefully. Instead of dancing in a club, for example. It's not only happening in London. This type of experimental music has also arrived here, in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. It was a very special evening to be a part of. The energy that reigned there was really unique."

David Grutter / TNO Jazz Club - Shali Blok Photography

Kees Heus also sees this cultural shift, although he believes that more needs to be done in order to 'document your culture', the adage coined by the Total Refreshment Center in London. "On Thursday night, four hundred kids, twenty years old on average, sat in their seats and watched free jazz breathlessly", Kees tells. "Thirty questions pop into my head at a moment like this: How is this possible? What trend do I see here? We've done so many cool things with Super-Sonic Jazz over the years, but a lot is quickly forgotten, while we’re deliberately building up a small legacy. People who see jazz as something old-fashioned have now been overtaken by reality."

A little later in the evening, jazz trumpeter and Erasmus prize 2021 winner Peter Somuah and keyboardist Bnnyhunna take over, and other musicians chip in here and there making the overall level quite high. "It really made the evening feel like a joint effort," says David. "Having a podium in the middle of the room was really a winning strategy. It created a unique interaction between the music and audience. That worked so well that we are going to do it that way more often. One thing is for certain: Dutch jazz is here to stay."

TNO Jazz Club - Shali Blok Photography

Friday is the first "real" evening, with a long program of no less than five acts. As soon as we enter the hall, Kees and the Super-Sonic family are already chit-chatting at the merch stand, welcoming the visitors. That says something about the accessibility and geniality of the festival. Due to the passe-partouts, some faces already feel familiar in the hallways. Faces you know for sure you'll be seeing again next year at, let's say, Hiatus Kaiyote's Paradiso show.

It's full and packed from start to finish. People are clearly energized and looking forward to it. The lights are covered in lots of pink, a sexy kind of blue and purple red. Wonky Logic, one of the more rebellious beatheads in the UK Jazz scene that you might know from bands like afrofuturism ensemble ONIPA and The General Elation Soundsystem, starts off with heavy and breaky beats. So intense that fifteen minutes after entering, three guys are already head-banging in the front row. Later in the evening, Ego Ella May, who will be launching her new EP for the both of us on that day, and CKTRL slow down the tempo with warm sounds and beautiful clarinet playing. With a single spotlight, so you can't see CKTRL's face, he brings the first tears to the room.

Moments later, Sons of Kemet is ready to rumble and down for a good party. Bandleader and the walking epicentre of London's jazz scene Shabaka Hutchings is excited. Within fifteen minutes the audience is standing next to their chairs, hyped up by the two drummers that the band brought along. Every now and then, spoken word artist Joshua Idehen in a gospel-like dress adds an extra scoop of ecstasy on top. Later on, Steam Down can hardly match that, but sends everyone home enchanted by the smell of holy wood, full of joy.

Sons of Kemet - Jelmer de Haas Photography

London is well represented on the line-up. "We want to attract a young audience," says Kees, "and notice that English jazz is booming among young people. The London scene has exactly that sharp edge that we're looking for. Is a band like Steam Down actually jazz? I don't know, and I don't really care. They have something special; those guys can completely destroy the main stage of a festival like Lowlands."

Steam Down - Jelmer de Haas Photography

Saturday was a rest day for your reporter. That doesn't mean that there was nothing beautiful to see. Moses Boyd and Nubya Garcia performed and the Amsterdam-based multi-talented Gino-Cochise, who was previously featured in a Super-Sonic livestream, got the opportunity to close off the day.

The Sunday is manned by jazz heavyweight Yussef Dayes, with the Amsterdam heroes of SMANDEM. on the pre-programme. "SMANDEM. broke through over the last few months. They know how to keep their hype alive," says booker Kees Heus. "They’re now ready to fire things up when the measurements get lifted. They really captured and conquered their moments well in the Netherlands over the past period. 250,000 people watched their NTR steam. That is quite something, I was very proud of that. 250k, that's a lot of full Paradiso’s."

Yussef Dayes & Rocco Palladino - Tijmen de Nooy Photography

By putting a local band like SMANDEM. on a line-up together with an internationally renowned name like Yussef Dayes, SSJ sends out a signal: "We have confidence in this band and we see high potential here. Putting them together on one bill has a reinforcing effect," says Kees. "I think at Yussef's shows, 30% of the visitors knew the SMANDEM. boys. That's not normally the case with pre-shows. The next step is a headline show of their own."

They are ready for that for sure. Their dynamic live show feels like it effortlessly accelerates from lush harmonies into colorful mixtures of dense rhythms and fierce improvisation. We will certainly see them again this coming festival summer or in a dark music venue, like many other artists we saw over the weekend. Super-Sonic jazz was a bull's eye in many respects, and even under these difficult circumstances, it manages to program exciting acts that each in their own way advances the broad genre that is jazz.

SMANDEM. - Tijmen de Nooy Photography

SMANDEM. & Yussef Dayes - Shali Blok Photography


James Brown
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