December 1, 2003
Foaming Wife Hum/Line
CDBBB 3 & 4
Two bands for the price of one could be the come on for this two-CD set by All Ears, an international, but Amsterdam-based sextet of top-ranked players. For while the personnel on each disc is identical, the music takes on a completely different character whether the groups playing the seven freebop compositions of its tenor saxophonist Frans Vermeerssen on LINE or the more detailed 12 tracks that make up pianist Michiel Braams FOAMIMNG WIFE HUM
While both sets of tunes shows off the musicians outstanding ability to change mood, textures and tones with the roll of an euro, Braams more accomplished individuality, coupled with resonance borrowings from across jazz history ends up being more satisfying than Vermeerssens almost undiluted modernism. Not that either composer is less than professional, its just that the pianist, whose other bands range from a trio to the 13-piece Bik Bent Braam (BBB), is a musical theorist in the unparalleled heritage that includes jokesters like Misha Mengleberg and Willem Breuker. He gives equal weight to experimentation and entertainment.
The sextet is unquestionably able to play anything the two composers put in front of them. German reedist Frank Gratkowski has matched wits with everyone from German pianist Georg Gaewe to American drummer Gerry Hemingway. American drummer Michael Vatcher is a linchpin of the Available Jelly band, while trumpeter Herb Robertson, another Yank, has been on call for gigs as varied as American altoist Tim Bernes combos to Italian percussionist Tiziano Tononis massive big band projects. Braam has led his own bands since 1989. Vermeerssen, who first played with Braam that year and who is a part of BBB, has his own combo and a coop quartet with trombonist Wolter Wierbos. Third Dutchman — along with the tenor saxophonist and pianist— bassist Wilbert de Joode, can find his place as easily in clarinetist Ab Baarss jazz classicism as violist Ig Hennemans mixture of so-called classical and improv influences.
De Joode, along with others, also gets more chance to showcase his different persona on Braams tunes than Vermeerssen,s more prosaic pieces. Usually on both parts of the set, his time is as firm and solid as a mantle clock, modernistically unflashy like Paul Chambers or Charlie Haden, but with more arco command. Herbicidally, for instance, allows him to reveal his inner Pops Foster, slapping away on a tune that recalls vaudeville pit bands. Robertson contributes some open horn bravado and wah-wahs à la Red Allen, Braam chords from his right hand like Fletcher Henderson and the saxes vamp as if they were Coleman Hawkins and Buster Bailey in one of Hendersons bands from the 1920s. Vatchers trap work is so authentic that you almost expect him to emulate Gene Krupa and break out the splash cymbals and choke cymbal for novelty effects.
More closely related to the Dutch sense of the absurd, De Joode begins his arco solo on Willy-Nilly with what sounds like the intro from the Beatles Day Tripper. At first the buzzing and squealing horns riff, trill and slur every which way as if building up to play Ascension then coalesce into another Swing pastiche, surmounted by felt-hatted trumpet mutes. As the brassman toys with the theme in different pitches and registers, the pianist plows along as well, sounding notes that apportion themselves as semi-Ragtime, semi-stride and semi-Bop.
Braam offers more tricks from his fingers as the suite runs its course. On the minute Burry he lightly exercises his right hand like Teddy Wilson, complemented by de Joodes bowing, while on All the inflections are those of James P. Johnson, if the
stride and Charleston composer would have explored different off-kilter octaves and arpeggios with a prepared soundboard.
Then theres the squeaky sound on Bony, alive with the pumping and bouncing syncopation some identify with improv from the Netherlands. Among rock-style paradiddles from the drummer are buzzsaw tenor sax slurs and a freight trains timekeeping power from the bassist, Braam batters the keyboard with a touch more reminiscent of Hillbilly boogie king Roy Hale than Cecil Taylor.
Other features of the suite include some slinky film noir alto obbligatos from Gratkowski; horns riffing in unison in the form of a canon; a native Indian motif transmogrified in Braams contrasting low-frequency chord — perhaps transferred via de Joodes unvarying syncopation from Baars who often does this sort of thing — and the final piece where the muted trumpet sounds as if its playing an adagio version of East St. Louis Toodle-oo mixed with a funeral march.
For his part, Vermeerssen loosens up enough to participate. On Tenorman — perhaps named for drummer Lawrence Marables West Coast LP that featured James Clay — the saxophonist varies his Getzian timbres and trills with tongue slap, double tonguing, slurs and minor spetrofluctuation. The Wellian — or is it Breukersque? — arrangement includes brassy Dixieland plunger tones from Robertson and Braam jumping from honky-tonk echoes on the keyboard to investigation of the internal soundboard.
Braams writing may sometimes verge on pastiche, but with Vermeerssens LINE, the influences are much closer to the surface. Many of the pieces reflect what would have happened if the 1960s Jazz Messengers had concentrated on Ornette Coleman heads. Or if the West Coasts Cool Jazzers had the guts to bring more abstract flourishes to mainstream standards.
Day See, the longest composition, even sounds as if it begins with the intro from A Night In Tunisia, heavy on the bass playing and shifting polyrhythms. Robertson shows that if need be he can replicate a modified version of the Freddie Hubbard/Lee Morgan role, complete with chromatically ascending grace notes, Vatcher contributes a gentle shuffle and Gratkowski some New Thing style squealing.
Its likely also the alto man who leads the round robin of tongue slaps, key pops, trills, false fingering and what could be balloons bursting that characterize the reed work on 18 Rabbit. This is coupled with woody tugs from de Joodes strings, plus growls and mouthpiece kisses from Robertson. Its definitely Gratkowski who contributes the gentle, coloratura clarinet line and wavering glissando that sound harmonica-like on As In. Slow-moving and lullaby-like, Braams key shifting and pedal action give the reedist a harmonic cushion as Vatcher adds an irregular drum beat.
All and all, Petersburg, the last piece, seems to work the best, perhaps because the unison sounds relate to Vermeerssens experience with brass fanfare band. In this comfort zone, the tenor man has a proper setting for his hard-bop-leaning tone, as de Joode slaps the bass and Robertson spews out a speedy set of triplets. Sliding along the keys in a modified, rollicking Swing style, Braam sets up Vatchers rapid flams and ruffs and Gratkowski slurring out exaggerated tones without losing the theme.
Yet when all the musicians pump out timbres every which way for an avant-garde ending, it sounds more like a symphony orchestra tuning up than any attempt to construct pinpointed and controlled group tumult as John Coltrane did with ASCENSION.
Two bands for the price of one, all right. But most will be able to figure out which leader contributes the more interesting charts.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Hum: 1.Tenorman 2. Offers 3. All 4. Burry 5. Yammerheads 6. Willy-Nilly 7. Improved 8. Bony 9. Ears 10. Herbicidally 11. Up To 12. Drumming
Line: 1. Cherry Pop 2. Line 3. Day See 4. Break 5. 18 Rabbit 6. As In 7. Petersburg
Personnel: Herb Robertson (trumpet); Frank Gratkowski (alto saxophone, clarinet); Frans Vermeerssen (tenor saxophone); Michiel Braam (piano); Wilbert de Joode (bass); Michael Vatcher (drums)