Goes Bonsai

Firmly in the eclectic tradition of other biggish Dutch bands like the ICP Orchestra and Willem Breuker’s Kollektief (WBK), the 13-piece Bik Bent Braam (BBK) is not only musically adventurous, but also performs with a sense of humor.

As noteworthy, many of the band members, most especially their leader composer/pianist Michiel Braam are a good generation younger than established figures such as Breuker and the ICP’s Misha Mengelberg. All of which means that despite the inroads made into the scene by Dutch neo-cons in recent years, there are still enough conservatory-trained mischief makers like Braam around to expand upon the anarchistic tendencies of the best outside sounds from the Netherlands.

GOES BONSAI is a perfect example of this. During its nearly 77-minute duration the band works out on 14 different, open-ended tracks, with every member at certain points responsible for indicating the tempo and dynamics of a tune. Once that’s done the rest of the band members develop their own improvisations, often simultaneously, and which can even reference other pieces. An extension of Mengelberg’s theory of instant composition, the results can involve one or many soloists and be as conventional or experimental as wished.

Along the way it sounds as if the resulting spontaneous surprise and discovery bows to such earlier jazz masters as Duke Ellinngton, Count Basie, Charles Mingus and Lennie Tristano; not to mention the WBK, early Swing era bands, mood music, movie musical and show band kitsch, military marches, ragtime and boogie-woogie piano and the sort of large R&B aggregations that Johnny Otis led in the early 1950s.

Sometimes a clutch of these influences are cited and deconstructed in the same tune. The results while diffuse are never dull and are frequently brilliant.

Case in point: “Play” with an intro resembling “Take the A Train”. Soon the rubato piano line is joined by drum and bass playing in odd metres which attaches itself to “Possible”, a quasi-boogie-woogie. After truncated muted trumpet and unison sax lines, one of the trombonists — Joost Buis? — steps forward for a guttural tailgate extravaganza slip sliding all over the tune. Following some jump band style drumming and carefully modulated horn riffs one trumpeter or cornettist — Eric Boren? — does a sky-high Cat Anderson emulation, while Frans Vermeerssen comes across like one of those mellow, mid-range Swing era tenor saxophonist’s like Erskine Hawkins’ band’s Julian Dash.

“Some”, on the other hand, begins as if BBK is a classical symphonic orchestra gradually tuning up, at least until the massed instruments sounds are interrupted by tango style rhythm courtesy of pianist Braam himself. The tune melds into “This” a brief (1:26) exercise in exaggerated, Bert Kaempfert-style, touch dancing, with trumpet taking the lead.

Or take “Other”. False fingering and key pops from the reeds, half-valve effects from the brass and the pianist scurrying mouse-like along the keys, soon gives way to a sprightly Charleston-like melody that arrives from left field with the drummer producing a clave pattern as he punishes his instruments’ rims. While the saxes ripple as if they were employed by the Casa Loma Orchestra or maybe Sun Ra’s Arkestra in an historical recreation, Vermeerssen steps forward again for a mainstream outing, punctuated by high-pitched shouts from the brass. When he — or does altoist van der Ham add to this — begins honking and double timing, Braam introduces some right-handed stride as the piece gradually fades.

The entire miasma come to head on the nearly 16-minute “Today” — an apt title if there ever was one. Joop van Erven’s understated, so-called children’s drum really proves its definition here as the entire horn section vamps as if it was directed by Count Basie circa 1938. Soon however, one reedman — van der Ham? — begins honking and smearing his part with a tone midway between Eric Dolphy’s (!) altissimo squeals and Yakety Sax man Boots Randolph’s (!!) tone. Trombone obbligatos stretch the lines out into another Swing riff where both the tenor and the tenor tuba and even Wilbert De Joode’s bass can be clearly heard. Before this pseudo jitterbugers’ special ends, Braam switches from laid-back Basie finger style to speedy bebop run to reprise the theme.

Trying to itemize the other influences on the disc, which seem to range from medieval motets to 19th century parlor ballads and from the tight funk that Nat Adderley used to write for his brother Cannonball’s quintet to brassy ducal features for the hornmen emulating Tricky Sam Nanton and Bubber Miley can be exhausting.

Let’s just say that Braam and his band have proven their versatility and improvisational smarts with this session. And there’s no doubt that BBK joins WBK and ICP as a must hear and see Dutch musical export. OK?

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Any 2. Can 3. Desire 4. In 5. Make 6. Order 7. Other 8. Play 9. Possible 10. Some 11. This 12. Today 13. Wish 14. You

Personnel: Eric Boeren (cornet); Angelo Verploegen (trumpet); Hans Sparla, Joost Buis (trombone); Peter Haex (tenor tuba); Patrick Votrian (bass tuba); Jan Willem van der Ham (alto saxophone and bassoon); Bart van der Putten (alto saxophone and clarinet); Frans Vermeerssen (tenor saxophone); Frank Nielander (baritone saxophone); Michiel Braam (piano); Wilbert De Joode (bass); Joop van Erven (children’s drum)