Ere Ibeji
Bvhaast CD 1401

Add the name of Martin Fondse to the short list of composer/arrangers who are able to create a multi-part suite with sections that are melancholy without being mawkish and celebratory without being frivolous.

Written to honor Fondse’s deceased twin sister, ERE IBEJI, is based on the language and rituals of the Yoruba people in Africa, who use the ere ibjeii or carved twin figures to bridge the gap between the living and the dead and the seen and unseen world.

In the 13 compositions here, the Dutch composer uses his 10-year-old, 10-member Oktemble in a similar fashion. The delicacy and voicing of some tunes brings to mind similar low-key work for comparable ensembles led by Northamericans Teddy Charles and Gil Evans. Conversely, the sense of fun that radiates from other pieces relates to the jocund musical expressions of Europeans such as Italian Gianluigi Trovesi or fellow Dutchman Willem Breuker.

Fondse, who also teaches composition and leads jazz and improvisation workshops, shows his American influences most strongly on “Kehinde”, with some Lee Morgan-style trumpeting from Eric Vloeimans and hard bop drumming from Pieter Bast. Vloeimans, who has worked with American big band colorists like Bob Brookmeyer and Maria Schneider and in smaller groups with Italian bassist Furio Di Castri and British pianist John Taylor, easily moves between open horned triple tonguing that morphs into horse neighing, and growling split tones here.

Despite its title, which is in Yoruba, as are the names of all the other tunes, “Ibeji” also appears to celebrate rock-ribbed Americana. This praise song for twins’ strong right-handed, classical style piano theme is interrupted by Ernst Reijseger’s virtuoso cello work. Probably the best-known soloist here following his stints in the ICP Orchestra and Clusone Trio, the cellist introduces a touch of atonality to his solo as he instantaneously switches from strumming his instrument so that it sounds like a blues guitar to bowing it like a C&W fiddle. Similarly “Ejire”, a scraped cello and piano duet, has an infectious, folksy melody borne on glissando string flourishes. But it’s a melody that seems to be Western American or European not African.

Later, baroque intimations issue from the cello on “Beji, Beija La”, which features the sound of the horn section played off against Fondse’s piano. This five-minute piece also contains what appears to be a through-composed theme featuring the clip clop of cowbell and drums joined with unison clarinet and soprano saxophone.

Musicologists has always noted a connection between Yoruba praise ritual and early jazz and this is made most clear on “Taiyewo”, the CD’s longest tune, which translates as the celebratory “come taste life”. Here the twined saxophone lines of Miguel Boelens and Mete Erker work in perfect counterpoint as one or the other probes the skies. With simple, but effective piano chording linking muted but distinct background contributions from the rest of the horns, German trombonist Nils Wogram then moves to the foreground. Wogram, whose experience encompasses a quartet with Russian-American pianist Simon Nabatov, at different times comes across like a combination of urbane, melodic Lawrence Brown with Duke Ellington and gutbucket plunger Al Grey with Count Basie.

If there is one clinker here, though, it’s Louis Mhlanga singing of “Abiku”, a poem by Wole Soyinka. Unlike the other musicians who besides Wogram and American woodwind player Michael Moore are all Dutch, Mhlanga is really African, from Zimbabwe. But his heavy accent somehow inadvertently reduces the words to sound, while his soft-spoken delivery seems to owe more to California vocalists like Michael Franks than anyone living near the Yoruba’s home in Nigeria, Benin and Togo.

All in all, despite its leitmotif, ERE IBEJI is impressive because of what Fondse does with the conception, not how true he is to its source. Pieces like “Oriki” subtitled “song of praise in honor of twins” may get their titles from Africa, but the result is pure jazz. Blowtorch saxophone solos and stratospheric trumpet barrages here are certainly not from the African tradition and when the composer’s version of 19th century drawing room piano rhythmically surges forward it turns to so-called American Black classical music, not anything else.

Fondse bookends his achievement with a first and final composition both subtitled “Inhale/Exhale”. They provide the perfect frame for an epic session that should awaken the world beyond Holland to another deep-thinking composer.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. EMI I: Inhale/Exhale 2. Ibeji 3. EMI II: Evanescent 4. Kehinde 5. Emi III: Silent Respiration 6. Beji, Beija La 7. Abiku 8. EMI IV: The Joy of Living 9. Ejire 10. Taiyewo 11. EMI V: Lamentation 12. Oriki 13. EMI VI: Inhale/Exhale

Personnel: Eric Vloeimans (trumpet); Nils Wogram (trombone); Michael Moore (clarinet and bass clarinet); Miguel Boelens (soprano and alto saxophone); Mete Erker (tenor and soprano saxophones); Martin Fondse (piano); Ernst Reijseger (cello); Eric van der Westen (bass); Pieter Bast (drums, vibes); Louis Mhlanga (vocals)