BRÖTZMANN/VAN HOVE/BENNINK

Balls
Atavistic Unheard Music UMS/ALP 233CD

FRED VAN HOVE
Complete Vogel Recordings Collection
Atavistic Unheard Music UMS/ALP 229 CD

All good things must come to an end. Thus it was no surprise that in 1976

the pan-European trio of German saxophonist Peter Bötzmann, Belgian pianist Fred Van Hove and Dutch drummer Han Bennink (BVB) dissolved their partnership after nine years.

Although the band was highly influential during its lifetime, with discs like BALLS, listening to it in tandem with Van Hove’s solo and duo discs from the same period you can hear why things had to come to an end. The trio was renowned for its pure power, most obviously expressed in the saxophonist’s overblowing and the drummer’s manhandling of a giant kit. The pianist often seems like the odd man out and the reason he gives for BVB’s demise was that any attempts at intricate playing on his part was drowned out by Bennink’s battery of percussion.

On the two-CD VOGEL RECORDINGS from 1972/1973/1974, his solo excursions explore other options than were available with BVB. Also, self-evidently, it wasn’t Bötzmann’s wild man woodwinds that bothered him. On eight duo selections here he’s partnered by Cel Overberghe, a fellow Fleming, whose tone and expression are often more over-the-top than the German saxophonist’s.

Along with the a quartet session with trombonist Albert Mangelsdorf, 1970’s BALLS is one of the seminal small group sessions Bötzmann led at that time. Part of a body parts trilogy, along with NIPPLES and TSCHUS, it featured the saxophonist and drummer in all their unrestrained, hairy-chested glory — check the photos of a stripped-to-the-waist Bennink for confirmation of this. Furthermore, the LPs’ original four selections have been augmented with two newly discovered untitled tracks from the same date.

Throughout, the CD could be heard as a dictionary definition of so-called Free Jazz. Overblowing, smearing and screaming from his keys and reed, Brötzmann, who sticks to tenor saxophone, produces nephritic cries and internal buzzing trills, at times sounding like American saxist Rev. Frank Wright at his most unhinged. Not content with that, on one of the untitled tracks he extends his improvisations into the baritone range, honking more fervently than any bar-walking R&B soloist. Besides this, he exhibits an extended a cappella section on the last of the original LP’s tunes.

Bennink, who is described as playing “voice” as well as miscellaneous percussion implements, introduces a few clamorous mumbles and cries to the proceedings. Elsewhere it sounds as if he has emptied the contents of junkyard filled with metal shards into his studio space, at one point appearing to pound an aluminum sheet with a hammer, and at another sounding like he’s noisily testing a work bench full of tools. That, however, doesn’t stop him from worrying the sides, rims and drumhead surfaces of his kit with bells and cymbal tones, mixed with pummeling of his oversized bass drum.

Interestingly enough, his style on the first of the new untitled tracks is in variance to all this. He sounds his stack of so-called little instruments like an Art Ensemble of Chicago member and pecks away at his rims and cymbals as if he were at Britain’s Company Week, not involved in the Göterdämmerung of a German-centric session. Perhaps the tenderness of this response was so in conflict with what he and Brötzmann wanted to project at the time that it was decided to leave that improvisation in the can.

Convincing Van Hove of Bennink’s tenderness may have been more difficult at the time, of course. As early as the title track when the pianist tries to introduce what sounds like a half-prepared (piano)-half romantic theme, it’s all but is buried under the percussion strokes, screams and shell-blowing of Bennink. It’s almost the same story on “Garten”, as the pianist gradually increases his dynamics and introduces high frequencies just to be heard, so that his arpeggios soon turn to glissandos to match Brötzmann’s smears and renal shrieks. Behind, the drummer seems to be hitting everything in sight. On those and other tracks, it appears that Bennink’s sense of cooperative dynamics couldn’t compare with those of Sunny Murray playing with Cecil Taylor and Jimmy Lyons, an obvious antecedent for this trio. Still Van Hove plows ahead, deepening his keyboard dips and relying on note playlets and tremolos.

Tension shouldn’t be confused with inferiority however and it’s this creative tension that makes BALLS, the first LP commissioned by the nascent FMP label, so outstanding. As a matter of fact that sort of quivering ferment is missed in the two-thirds of the VOGEL RECORDINGS where Van Hove plays solo.

Still, as soon as he’s on his own, both his classical training in theory and harmony and his knowledge of the jazz tradition become obvious. On the first disc, for instance, many of his keyboard excursions sound like what would be produced if you mixed the modern experimentation of Jaki Byard or Mal Waldron with the rent party boogie woogie of Little Brother Montgomery or Jimmy Yancy. At a time when BVB seemed to be tearing down musical structure, here was Van Hove on his own coming up with more pre-modern piano references than any American pianist of his age would create.

This traditional inventiveness, mixed with the purity of his classical tone is more evident on “Boven alle verdenking verheven”, the title of which may mean a lot more to Flemish speakers. Melding higher and higher frequencies with tremolos and repeated arpeggios his approach is definitely two-handed with spraying note crescendos helping to make his point. On the next track, does the ear detect a quasi-parody of “God Save the Queen” in between those cadenzas that could have migrated from a Cecil Taylor session? Even more surprising is “Better grounds”, that at the beginning appears to be a tender ballad treated the way Hank Jones or Red Garland would play it. Complete with a swinging staccato passage, the tune mostly centres around tremolos, with the occasional excursion into lower frequencies. Finally, in the penultimate section, he begins reaching inside and using the duplex scale to produce sympathetic vibration as he plinks and plunks the copper wires.

A couple of years later a live recital offers “Sprookje: ridders, draken, olifanten, kasteel, prinses [schrappen wat niet past]”, a fantasia taken andante where the dynamics vary according to the hand used and vibrations and high frequencies define the piece. Later on there are times he seems to be gliding across the keys, while a part of “Muziek bij stomme film” has enough pedal action and ragtime/stride references to suggest a tribute to Tin Pan Alley and 1930s film music.

More pointed, the eight tracks with Overberghe, who appears to have vanished from the music scene since then, finds a freer Van Hove ready to mix “Chopsticks” and Chopin with his cadenzas. Probably the strangest track is “Beter tien vogels in de lucht”, where the (surely overdubbed) bowed bass notes and shuffle drumbeats are attributed to Overberghe, who also plays saxophone. Squealing Albert Ayler-style military marches view for supremacy with what sounds like a minstrel show ditty and it’s possible the pianist isn’t even present. Elsewhere, as on “Wie heeft dat vogeltje”, during which church bells seem to sound or “Bas la police (lope lope de gardevil)” — how’s that for a 1960s-style title? — the saxist’s snaky, snarkey pitched tone roams between the avant garde and vibrato-laden blues. Van Hove responds with speedy high frequencies featuring a honky-tonk tinge at one point and what could be a classical étude elsewhere.

Overberghe — who introduces the musique concrète sounds of a jackhammer and a moving tram to a couple of tracks, adding more anarchy to those times that he and the pianist seems to be playing in different modes — has Van Hove working the organ on “Alle eendjes” More circus calliope than church accompaniment, the pianist’s touch is such that you can hear individual notes sound as the tenor man squeals and trills, expanding his tone with lip vibrations.

No way as concise and focused as BALLS, time dated novelty vies with musical dexterity on the VOGEL RECORDINGS. But they too showcase a seldom seen side of the usually staid Van Hove when European free music was being forged.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Balls: 1. Balls 2. Garten 3. Filet Americain 4. De daag waarop sipke eindelijk zijn nagels knipte, en verder alle andere a moten voor hem openstonden I.C.P. 17 5. Untitled 1 6. Untitled 2

Personnel: Balls: Peter Brötzmann (tenor saxophone); Fred Van Hove (piano); Han Bennink (drums, gachi, shell, voice)

Track Listing: Vogel: CD 1: 1. Suite 1.2.3/1 - ahisma: het streven Om geen schade aan Te richten 2. Gusts rock 3. Boven alle verdenking verheven 4. Suite 1.2.3/2 - het streven om niet vertrapt te worden 5. Better grounds 6. Het is de hoogste tijd 7. Wie heeft dat vogeltje+ 8. Beter tien vogels in de lucht+^ 9. Ons lijsternestje+ CD 2: 1. D’er was een vogeltje+ 2. Alle eendjes*+ 3. Vogeltje gij zijt gevangen+ 4. Kreem gelas+ 5. Bas la police (lope lope de gardevil)+ 6. Intrede 7. Sprookje: ridders, draken, olifanten, kasteel, prinses [schrappen wat niet past] 8. Speel doosje speel 9. Compositie met toonladders 10. Pauze met accordeon 11. Pling plong 12. Tussenspel 13. Discussie tussen links en rechts waarbij natuurlijk klappen vallen 14. Muziek bij stomme film 15. Woordenschat

Personnel: Vogel: Fred Van Hove (piano, Hammond organ*); Cel Overberghe+ (tenor saxophone, bass/drums^)