Rush Hour
EWM Records 75106

Seemingly modest to a fault, Dutch bassist Eric van der Westen has come up with a CD under his leadership where bass solos are conspicuous by their absence. But considering he wrote all the tunes, co-produced the session, released it on his own label, and was even responsible for some of the photography, maybe he felt he had enough input.

Certainly the result is a well-balanced slab of contemporary EuroJazz, featuring engaging heads, relentless movement and almost effortless, technically impressive work from all members of his Quadrant quintet. If there’s a criticism, though, it’s that a lot of the disc is too clean. The sweating excitement that comes from risk taking and experimentation is missing. Cleanliness may be next to godliness in Holland, and, if so, then RUSH HOUR often resembles those relaxing picture postcard views of tulips and windmills that some associate with the Netherlands. Despite the title, though, the messiness of big city anxiety seems to be missing.

Born in Zierikzee, a small town in Holland’s southwest, and a frequent visitor to Africa, perhaps one shouldn’t expect an urban sensibility from the bassist. As a matter of fact, his duo with Zimbabwean guitarist Louis Mhlanga is a best-selling World Music act throughout that continent. Actually, the most memorable — and usually longest — tunes here reflect a South African or blues sensibility. Earlier albums with other Quadrant line-ups — 1997’s DIEPKLOOF (HLM-007) and 1995’s IT IS WHAT IT IS (EWM 75077) featuring vocalist Norma Winstone — also worked best when atmospheric freebop meshed with African highlife and the blues.

“Could It Have Happened” for example, seems to be a perfect marriage between heavy Cannonball Adderley-style funk in its first half and highlife in the second. This foot tapper features one of van der Westen’s brief, unobtrusive solos, which is then succeeded by a modal exploration of the theme by pianist Jeroen van Vliet, a Quadrant member from its beginning. As the beat doubles, propelled by the rhythms of German drummer Thorsten Grau, the tune turns anthematic, with van Vliet unleashing gospelish piano chords. Soon Dutch tenor and soprano saxophonist Mete Erker, who has played on and off with the bassist for a decade, and Belgium tenor and soprano saxophonist Erwin Vann, another longtime Quandranter, cast aside the refinement that has characterized their playing on most other tunes. Unveiling some forceful rawness, the two convert trills to reed biting, double timing and even throw in a few polite honks.

Turning from a piece that could have been written by Abdullah Ibrahim, to “The Winston Walk”, Erker and Vann attack it the way tenor duo Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt used to masticate the blues. Characterized by a hard, harsh and lively

(South) African beat, the saxists pass the theme back and forth and then combine

into a giant multi-keyed woodwind. All the while, the piece is being moved forward with the thump of der Westen’s bull fiddle and Grau tasteful percussive imput.

Finally there’s “Do As You Please”, with a feel that’s midway between French bal musette and one of Chick Corea’s Latin tunes. Featuring some stop time playing from all involved, the pianist fingers out a Spanish vamp at one point, while one of the saxophonists brings a wiggling Joe Farrell-like authority to his soprano playing.

Unfortunately, too many of the other numbers are impressionistic and romantic, with the sound of too perfect West Coast jazz competence. Many are also too short to let the frequently excellent ideas advanced germinate to fruition. At one point for instance, van Vliet starts to echo and interpret the traffic noises that are added to the distinctive title track. But the propulsion of the unison horns and steady drum patterns is cut short before the breezy tune can make more of itself.

Other tunes are either soft and sad at the same time, or in contrast, lightly flowing with a constant beat and the sort of effortless swing that sums up undemanding happy jazz. Obviously an accomplished writer, one wishes that van der Westen had stretched himself still further here with longer, more complicated compositions.

RUSH HOUR will likely impress those who have followed the history of the band and the bassist so far. Despite its shortcomings , there is much to like here. It’s just that on the superhighway of jazz, this rush hour seems to take place in a laid-back country lane, while real explorers are roaring along a multi-lane freeway.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Number One 2. What’s New Anyway 3. Rush Hour 4. As It Were A Dream 5. Could Have Happened 6. Tall Trees 7. Flow 8. Try Next Door 9. The Winston Walk 10. Do As You Please 11. The Walk Home

Personnel: Mete Erker (tenor and soprano saxophones); Erwin Vann (tenor and soprano saxophones); Jeroen van Vliet (piano); Eric van der Westen (bass); Thorsten Grau (drums)