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Loos: Armstrong

Business cards can say a lot. Take the Dutch ensemble Loos: theirs is an etched lead wafer.

Often, reviews of avant garde music assert that committed listening will be rewarded. With Armstrong, that’s not a guarantee. This is a ponderous, often abrasive program.

Loos’ leader, reed player and composer Peter van Bergen, first came to many U.S. listeners’ attention through his work with Maarten Altena’s sterling octets of the ’80s. A persuasive tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist, van Bergen forcefully extends the stringent, compressed Andriessen/Altena compositional lexicon of minimal phrase shapes and long silences.

On Armstrong, he also uses texts in a confrontational way. The opening track, “FTE.1 (Damnila),” begins with more than three minutes of electronically manipulated dialogue in Italian before the first tone row is played. Other pieces uses quotes from Louis Armstrong that vocalist Dennis Rudge (who is black) renders in an exaggerated manner that some will find offensive (in the liner notes, van Bergen calls Armstrong “a great artist” in the same line as Sun Ra, Braxton and Stockhausen).

Van Bergen skillfully uses the ensemble’s instrumentation to push and prod at every turn. The precision with which pianist Gerald Bouwhuis, electric guitarist Huib Emmer, electric bassist Patricio Wang and drummer Johan Faber renders van Bergen’s very specific charts are essential to the overall prickliness of the music. There are not great expanses for improvisation in van Bergen’s compositions, but he does manage to solo trenchantly at points during the program.

Loos throws a bucket of icy water on the idea that the Dutch scene is all zany antics and recombinant swing pastiches. Armstrong is a daring statement, perhaps too daring except for a committed few.

Originally Published