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Frank Van Bommel Quartet: A Crutch for the Crab

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Dick Twardzik’s death at 24 in 1955 created an enduring “What if?” thread of speculation among those who recognized his budding genius. His sides with baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff revealed a pianist who goofed on concert hall bluster one moment, and ripped through spiky runs similar to the earliest jazz advances of Cecil Taylor the next. Though only five of his compositions were recorded during his lifetime, they all had the stuff of classics: Twardzik had an uncanny ability to portray shifting emotions and their sub-texts. Subsequently, Twardzik’s is a legacy that cannot be approached by just anyone; it requires a kindred spirit.

Dutch pianist Frank van Bommel is such a kindred spirit. Though no biographical information about him is provided on A Crutch for the Crab, a program that combines the five recorded Twardzik compositions with seven of his own, the liner photo of van Bommel conveys the same quiet intensity of the few extant performance shots of Twardzik. It gets spookier: this is van Bommel’s first professional recording, a fact that is increasingly hard to believe as this album unfolds.

But believe this: Frank van Bommel is for real, both as a composer and a pianist. His compositions don’t have the polished veneers and raw pulp of Twardzik’s. They convey simpler emotions in a more declarative syntax, whether the issue at hand is a smoldering ballad like “Nighthawks” or an insouciant mid-tempo theme like “Met Titel.” Frequently, van Bommel is stylistically akin to Mal Waldron in his streamlined comping and his use of a jabbing left hand to propel motive-laced solos.

Yet the tinge this approach gives his treatment of the Twardzik tunes is consistently effective, particularly on “The Fable of Mabel,” which contains a pedal-to-the-metal interlude. Despite such departures from the original recordings, van Bommel does great justice to Twardzik. He simply nails the morphing of rhythms and mood that makes tunes like “The Girl From Greenland” and “Yellow Tango” instantly memorable. And he knows that playing it straight milks the wry humor of “Albuquerque Social Swim” and the title tune to the max.

Van Bommel has a quartet that is essential to the album’s success. Tobias Delius is one of the few tenor players who knows the Hawkins-Shepp connection inside out, and can easily slip from authentic swing to cogent outside blowing. Best known for his work with the Willem Breuker Kollektief, Arjen Gorter is one of the great under-heralded bass players on the international scene. And Martin Duynhoven is an all-round excellent band drummer, who continually kicks the music into the next gear.

The only troubling question arising from this album: What can Frank van Bommel do for a follow-up?