Holland's Bik Bent Braam is a 13-piece group that's been around for some 13 years, either of which facts may explain their latest CD title. Led by pianist Michiel Braam, the group is reminiscent of the Willem Breuker Kollektief, but with less slapstick and more showbiz polish. Braam, who writes all the arrangements, is obviously a big Ellington fan, though he seems to be a devotee of almost all big-band music, up to and including the Sun Ra Arkestra.
Whereas previous Bik Bent Braam recordings have featured mostly original material, 13 consists entirely of cover versions-and what a bizarrely eclectic bunch they are! Compositions by Gershwin, Ellington, Prince and Deep Purple nestle alongside work from George Wallington, Henry Mancini, Jacques Brel and three pieces from Disney's The Jungle Book. Most are treated with an extravagant sense of invention that sometimes verges on parody, though the array of birdsong-from cuckoo to rooster-that accompanies "Sometimes It Snows in April" is the only laugh-aloud moment.
There's variety aplenty. Wallington's tricky "Lemon Drop" is played at manic speed, with some breathtakingly sharp ensemble passages; "Mood Indigo" is an affectionate saunter through a classic that takes a couple of distinctly odd turnings; "The Pink Panther Theme" magnifies the original's mix of sly humor and brash aplomb. Braam elicits a full, strong sound from the band when required; throughout, ever-shifting ensemble textures are rich in rococo detail and spiced with vivid solos.
Not everything works well. "Child in Time" remains a fundamentally dull tune, despite the attention Braam lavishes on it, and three pieces from The Jungle Book may be two too many. Also the profusion of ideas can seem just too much, as if he can't quite control his restless creativity. But, for the most part, 13 is a highly entertaining set; striking arrangements, superbly executed.