03/21/05

Dutch Jazz Meeting

The best way to be immersed in the Dutch jazz scene is to attend the three-day musical feast in Amsterdam known as the Dutch Jazz Meeting. Every couple of years the Dutch Jazz Connection invites concert producers from around the world to experience the best jazz and world music groups in the Netherlands. Unlike typical commercial jazz festival performances, these are showcase concerts, with each group performing tight, 20-minute sets. It's an interesting sampler approach; the lesser acts are quickly finished and the most compelling groups leave you wanting more.

Most of the 27 shows this year took place at the recently reopened Bimhuis club, which has moved to a new location overlooking the IJ harbor. The comfortable room with hardwood floors, red chairs and a bar in the back, is laid out much like the old Bim---wide rather than long---which allows more intimacy for the audience. One important difference is that the new room has stunning floor to ceiling windows just behind the stage that provide a spectacular view of the harbor and train tracks. Ordinarily a glass wall like this would present acoustic compromises due to reflected sound. Fortunately the Bim has a good p.a. system and a staff of excellent sound engineers to meet this challenge. Not once during the three days of performances did I hear any feedback or distortion, and the instruments were well balanced no matter whether they were acoustic or amplified. The building will soon house audio and video studios in the basement, and next-door will be the 750-seat Muziekgebouw concert hall and the Gaudeamus Contemporary Music Center.

I arrived a day early to explore one of my favorite European cities. Amsterdam is beautiful, even on a gray, cloudy day, and I love any city with canals and streetcars. I boarded one of the trams in the late afternoon to visit the respected jazz critic, broadcaster and journalist Bert Vuijsje, who showed me his new book on the Dutch jazz singer Rita Reys. I can't read a word of Dutch but the stories Bert told me made me want to hear and learn more about this outspoken, cool-voiced, 80-year-old singer.

Wednesday night the Instant Composers Pool (ICP) Orchestra, co-led by pianist-composer Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink, was in fine form at the Bimhuis, with filmmakers capturing the action for a documentary. One little riff and off they went, improvising on the title track from their latest disc, Aan & Uit. Members of the group, including saxophonist Sean Bergin filling in for an absent Michael Moore, walked on and off amid the billowy sound clouds of "Ilaria's Aria." Trombonist Wolter Wierbos blew a raucous solo on Monk's "Criss Cross" connecting swing traditions to the avant-garde; Tobias Delius and Ab Baars ripped open the variations on "Perdido," while Bennink played both the floor and his trap set during "De Lachende Divers." At one point, Mengelberg stopped playing and encouraged the audience to randomly whistle along, which created a lovely interactive cacophony. The evening ended on a high note with the entire group making a joyful noise on the encore "Tzi."

The next morning I took a long walk along the canals and side streets to the Nederlands Jazz Archief (Dutch Jazz Archive), not far from Centraal Station. It's a wonderful resource center with a library, a large collection of audio and video recordings, sheet music, clippings and a listening area with a small studio. I was fortunate to find archivist Ditmer Weertman at his desk working on preservation strategies (with a photo of Albert Ayler on the wall). He was nice enough to show me some newly arrived private concert tapes and offer insights on the artists I was about to see that night at the Bimhuis.

In the evening things got off to an auspicious start with Cor Fuhler's nine-piece Corkestra mixing together avant jazz, prepared piano, heavy grooves, spacey textures (with large, hammer dulcimer), chattering percussion and demented swing. They were followed by alto saxophonist Paul Van Kemenade's Quintet, whose set was suffused with noir-ish melancholia. The rest of the evening brought the three-piece brass band De Jongens Dreist, playing a repertoire derived from Macedonian, Serbian, klezmer and Ghanaian high life traditions, and trombonist Joost Buis' Sun Ra-inspired Astronotes, which included a pianist playing the spokes on a bicycle wheel and one of the two drummers swinging a belt of bells over his head. Of his Sound Lee project, pianist Guus Janssen wryly pointed out, "We play the music of Lee Konitz but we play it our way." This was the first group of the evening to swing in a more or less conventional context while playing on changes. Big ups to the idiosyncratic pianist for this concept, and also to the tenor saxophonist Jasper Blom subbing at the last minute for the ailing Jorrit Dijkstra. The evening ended with Izaline Calister, a dramatic, expressive singer with a radiant smile who performs barefoot while performing the music of Curaçao with musicians from the Dutch Antilles.

Friday night began with a sound collective called Electric Barbarian, with electric bassist and leader Floris Vermuelen, and featuring a headphone-wearing trumpeter who kept one hand on his mixer, a turntablist named Grazzhoppa and a drummer prone to mock bodybuilder poses. After an opening instrumental with washes of sound and a pseudo tribal beat, Gylan Kain, one of the founding members of the Last Poets, wailed and ranted his piece about "My Niggaz" with textured accompaniment. At one point he came out into the audience and recited in the face of an audience member who was moved to get up and leave, but not before Kain followed the poor man up the aisle. "Kicking Mickey Mouse in his house," indeed.

The hard-nosed, seriously swinging Yuri Honing Trio followed with an intense set including an incendiary "No Man's Land" and an arresting arrangement of Chico Buarque's "Atras da Porta." It's the first time I've heard this terrific saxophonist in person, but I made a note to look for his recordings the next day.

Vocalist Monica Akihary is a beautiful woman with a small, pleasant voice whose band Boi Akih, with tabla, guitar and cello, draws on Moluccan Islands roots and world-beat exoticism. Highlights of their set included Ernst Reijseger's down and dirty cello strummed and picked across his lap like a guitar, and a group vocal jam. The string quartet Zapp played a Thad Jones composition with walking cello, and an appealing piece that combined African high-life and disco. One of the great surprises of the entire weekend was the performance by trumpeter Eric Vloeimans' group Fugimundi with cellist Ernst Reijseger and loose-limbed guitarist Anton Goudsmit. They played with a high-wire sense of adventure and such an infectious spirit of joy that it made the 21-piece Columbian salsa orchestra Rumbata Big Band that followed them seem anti-climactic.

Unfortunately, I had to miss the Saturday afternoon shows at the Wilhelmina with Peter van Bergen's Loos Ensemble, violinist Maartje Ten Hoorn, the computer and electronics driven POW Ensemble, guitarist Wife Hijmans and Trio Luc Ex. Instead, I arranged to do a Before & After interview with the inimitable Misha Mengelberg. It was well worth it though, as you'll see in the June issue of JazzTimes.

Just before dinner we were entertained outdoors by Javanese violinist/vocalist Luluk Purwanto and Trio Van Helsdingen playing on a makeshift stage built into the side of their bus. It was a chilly evening for the audience---I could only imagine what those temperatures do to the fingers of the pianist and string players.

After dinner in the Museum Werf 't Kromhout it was back to the Bim for the final night's blow-out beginning with an eclectic, improvising folk, country and free jazz octet called Bite the Gnatze. Their most memorable selection featured banjo, lap-steel guitar and two wailing clarinets. Next up was a nine-piece string ensemble Maurice Horsthuis' Jargon that included some youngsters who may have looked a little wet behind the ears but played with great maturity. Was it jazz? Who cares! They played in tune with a lush, full sound.

Many locals in the audience were waiting for Fra Fra Sound and the Surinamese septet didn't disappoint with their thick, bubbling rhythms, hip piano montunos, sing-song horn lines and a funky, rock solid drummer. It's too bad there wasn't a dance floor because this is a band that gets people up on their feet. Another nice surprise was the 13-piece Bik Bent Braam, led by pianist, composer Michiel Braam. At various times dreamy and chaotic, BBB had band-mates cuing each other with call and response, heavy back beats and structured freak-outs. The two-fisted stride piano and dissonant big band riffing were irresistible.

Han Bennink, bassist Ernst Glerum and pianist Michiel Borstlap then offered up a highly entertaining trio set, with Bennink smacking his single snare drum, the floor, underneath the piano and anything he could strike with his stick. Borstlap and Glerum played telepathically, spurred by but somehow detached from Bennink's antics. Their encore, based on the changes of "Yours Is My Heart Alone," was exhilarating, in part because Bennink really got down to business and the group explored the complex beauty of the "rhythm wave." It's hard to follow such a display, but Benjamin Herman's New Cool Collective kicked it into high gear with funky-butt polyrhythms, slinky tempos and an overheated timba-time encore. Big fun!

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