X-OR CD 013

Maarten Altena has managed to put together the first ghost band where the ghost is still alive. Using the name of such departed stars as Glenn Miller, Count Basie or Art Blakey, ghost bands are designated by the star’s heirs to travel around playing the familiar repertoire. But Dutch composer/bassist Altena has turned the idea on its head. On this CD, at least, the Maarten Altena Ensemble (MAE) features neither its very much alive namesake in its ranks nor performs any music written by him.

Perhaps no stranger than the experiences of former jazzers who abandon the music once they find pop success, or religion, or studio work, Altena’s career path has followed a unique archetype compared to that of many other creative musicians in the Netherlands

Born in 1943, initially he was a committed free jazzer who played with the likes of American saxophonists Marion Brown and Steve Lacy, Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg and British guitarist Derek Bailey. By the 1970s he moved away from jazz proper and was more involved with quieter, European-oriented, free music. When he organized his own groups in the 1980s jazzmen of the stature of drummer Michael Vatcher and trombonist Wolter Wierbos were on board, but the focus was on the interpretation of notated compositions. Soon he was using classically trained vocalists and recorder players and was acknowledged as a bona fide so-called serious composer. By the end of the century Altena, who has said his ideal is to have “a repertory group that presents life as its lived in the city”, had formed the MAE which did just as he wished. Few of the players had jazz experience and he no longer played bass with the ensemble.

This doesn’t diminish the worth of this CD however, which features the ensemble performing works by six young composers, born between 1961 and 1971, who studied at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. It’s probably instructive, though, to note that only one, New Zealand-born violinist Alison Isadora, who composed the fast-moving interlude “No 6”, had been a longtime member of the MAE. That said, as other have noted, while the MAE doesn’t play jazz — whatever that is — it wouldn’t exist without the improvisations and experimentations jazz brought to 20th century music.

Furthermore, the very first piece on the CD, Cypriote composer Yannis Kyriakides’ “Don’t buy sugar, you’re my sugar”, is constructed out of the eight-bar bridge in Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose”. Featuring repetitive rhythmic layers and variations on Waller’s jivey piano style, snippets of the jazzman’s original vocal are present as well. Dutch composer Jan-Bas Bollen’s “Zoab” is described as “obviously influenced by ‘gabber’ house music of the 90s”. Yet the performance, with its slinky piano tremolos, unison horn work and wooden stick and conga drum-like percussion underpinning from Hans van der Meer seems to draw on an earlier African-American dance form — jazz — as well.

Jazz has also always included “that Latin tinge”, which Colombian composer Ricardo Giraldo utilizes for his ostinato rhythmic pattern on his composition “W”. Plus the solos on it offered up by Wiek Hijmans’ electric guitar with a wah-wah pedal attachment; Pieter Smithuijsen’s squeaking arco bass; Anna McMichael skronky violin slides; and the honks and swoops of baritone saxist David Kweksilber and plunger trombonist Koen Kaptijn certainly wouldn’t be out of place in many improv sessions. Percussionist van der Meer even appears to be playing standard bebop accompaniment throughout.

While neither of the disc’s vocalists could be mistaken for Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, nor could many contemporary improvisational singers such as Phil Minton or Shelly Hirsch. Israeli composer Rachel Yatzkan’s “Be in your own World” and Dutch composer Piet-Jan van Roussum’s almost 21½-minute “Are you going out?” are obviously program music, but with improvisational tinges. The former is built around a spoken text in Hebrew; while the later features the MAE commenting, sometimes rhythmically and often with suspense film themes, on the repetitive tape narration. Yet many so-called jazz composers such as Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill and even Sun Ra have toyed with New music concepts like these. Not one of these men limited himself to standard theme-solo-theme compositions.

There’s no point trying to oversell GENERATIONS as the jazz CD that it assuredly isn’t. However, it is absorbing as an example as how a well-organized and rehearsed ensemble tackles new compositions from promising newcomers. Still if you detect some influences from the “j…” world on it, don’t say you weren’t warned.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Don’t buy sugar, you’re my sugar 2. No 6 (from Nachtvlinders) 3. Be in your own World* 4. Zoab+ 5. W* 6. “Are you going out?”

Personnel: Koen Kaptijn (trombone); David Kweksilber (C-melody and baritone saxophones, clarinet, bass clarinet); Toshiya Suzuki (recorders); Anna McMichael (violin); Reinier van Houdt (piano); Wiek Hijmans (electric guitar); Pieter Smithuijsen (bass); Hans van der Meer (percussion); Noa Frenkel (voice*, keyboard pre-composed samples+); Dirtzen Rinkleff (voice^ ); pre-recorded tape^; Jussi Jaatinen [tracks 1-5] or Otto Tausk [track 6] (conductor)