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Bik Bent Braam (Michiel Braam): Growing Pains

From a freewheeling band like Bik Bent Braam, pianist and bandleader Michiel Braam gets a remarkably controlled sound. Part credit goes to his able band, but Braam earns credit for the rest himself with his clever compositional and performance method. On Growing Pains (Bik Bent Braam), a recording culled from live performances in Holland and Belgium, the band follows a strategy of Braam’s he calls bonsai-ing. In something like a cross between John Zorn’s Cobra and Duke Ellington, Braam’s method involves composing two themes for each member of his band, tailored to the individual player and worked out in advance by the group. Braam sets the final list of material in advance, but the order and the tempi are all worked out in the moment. Once a performance begins, a player may attempt to cut through the collective sound and cue one of their two themes. Once the band commits to a player’s theme, the band then gives it a good six or seven minutes and then waits for the next persuasive cue. It may sound like the sort of improvisational game that produces terribly abstract music, but the results are far from it. This band is so practiced at this, and the themes themselves are so portable and adaptable that the band moves gracefully and seamlessly between the bonsais, which Braam distinguishes with rumbling ostinatos, spirited shouts or tight-as-a-knot cartoon swing. The music feels loose and organic, even a little volatile, without sounding at all unruly. Its strength becomes its weakness over the course of this double-disc recording, however. Braam’s themes, designed for on-the-fly utility, aren’t the most distinctive, and by the time that nearly every band member has a go at both of their bonsais, the effect wears a little thin.

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