Live at Free Music XXVII Antwerp, 2000

Over the past couple of decades, the growing acceptance of electronics among inquisitive musicians has meant that many have developed two quite separate improvising personas.

Case in point is Luc Houtkamp of Holland. Largely self-taught on alto and tenor saxophone, he has had a career as a reedman that encompasses solo concerts, duets and group work with the likes of pianist Misha Mengelberg, drummers Gert-Jan Prins and Han Bennink and trombonist Johannes Bauer. Around about the same time, he became interested in electronic composition and computer music. After studying and experimenting with it, he now works extensively in that genre as well. Thus the two most recent CDs on his own X-OR label expose both sides of his bifurcated musical personality.

Recorded at a festival in Antwerp, Belgium, the first disc is one of those cross-border, all-star affairs that were a feature of EuroImprov long before the introduction of the EU or the euro. Joining Houtkamp’s two saxes are Belgian Fred Van Hove, one of the pioneers of this type of music, and his close associate drummer and fellow countryman Ivo Vander Borght. Rounding out the quartet is expatriate American trumpeter Herb Robertson, whose exceptional skills and talents have never been fully appreciated this side of the Atlantic.

Most of the sounds on the three compositions that make up this 51-minute disc advance in a sort of round-robin effect. Each musician comes up with his version of the proceedings and the others either follow, accompany, or comment upon what has been produced. The saxophonist, for instance, concentrates on echoing, long-lined trills, multiphonics, smears and key pops, while the trumpeter makes growls, bugle call reveilles and auxiliary slide whistle tones. Van Hove contributes tiny keyboard ballets, while Vander Borght, except for the odd accent, pretty much stays out of everyone’s way.

This is most obvious on “Four Iterations”, the longest track, at more than 19 minutes. Here the sequential repetitions involve lip trills, spit kisses and rolling single notes from Robertson, as the saxophonist’s reed biting and squeaking eventually resolve themselves into a constant, single pattern.

When at one point, Van Hove produces what could be a thematic romantic exposition, the trumpeter plays a mocking quasi-military rondo around and on top of it. Later, when the pianist unlimbers his right hand by having it create recurring motifs around the keyboard, that unleashes an aviary section from both horns, with one — Houtkamp? — suddenly devising what seems to be the cry of a wounded moose.

Van Hove’s organ-like accordion style provides a distinct interlude on the final track. Because of it, Robertson counters with some unabashedly pretty trumpet lines, leavened with only a touch of dissonance. Meanwhile using what appears to be only a saxophone mouthpiece, the reedman gets as many different tones out of the subsequent reverberating shrieks as soul singer Wilson Pickett could create from a single scream.

Released in a limited edition of 500, this particular X-OR field recording is really something that should be sought out by interested improv fans.

EXERCISE IN SWING is something more atypical. Despite its title, the almost 48 minute disc has about as much to do with Benny Goodman and his ilk as Dutch herring has in common with hamburger. In the booklet it announces that “this music was conceived, grown, mixed and permuted in the digital domain between February - May 2001. No samples were used.” Throughout you can perceive a certain internal logic as the signals resemble coffee percolating at higher and lower heats, a crackling electronic fire and buzzes ascending for inaudible to consistently discernible.

It may take even more imagination to hear Cole Porter’s “Everytime We Say Goodbye” as the final tune, though that’s how Houtkamp assigns the copyright. Those who though Chet Baker’s choked, off-key vocalizing on the standard was odd, may be hard pressed to link the melody to the highly electric tones here that could as easily be outer space radio signals or the creaking of an office chair.

Certainly for very specialized tastes, the CD may be more palatable in smaller doses, however. One can’t quarrel with Houtkamp’s vision, but in the main it seems that the most successful improv of this type involves digital signals mixed with acoustic instruments. Maybe that’s something he should consider for his next outing.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: F.I.: 1. First interpellation 2. Four iterations 3. For if

Personnel: F.I.: Herb Robertson (trumpet, flutes); Luc Houtkamp (tenor and alto saxophones); Fred Van Hove (piano, accordion); Ivo Vander Borght (percussion)

Track Listing: Exercise: 1. Exercise in swing 2. In tilting motion - two voices - negative version 3. Fon Mall - Piobaireachta 4. Gugelhupf stomp 5. Trapped nervous system 6. In tilting motion - three voices 7. Everytime we say goodbye (major to minor complex)

Personnel: Exercise: Luc Houtkamp (digital pulse conglomerations)