Beyond the edge

By Ken Waxman
December 20, 2004

Contrast between sonorities has always been one of the constructs involved in performing serious improvised music. Yet the veteran, but little-known, Dutch band O.BA.O sparks friction even more by regularly adding freeform reed players to perform along with what in other situations would be a modal-oriented piano trio.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary with this release, the band members — pianist Herbert de Jonge, bassist Michiel Czn Dhont and drummer Hans Houtman — welcome even more dissonance in the person of Den Haag-based tenor saxophonist Luc Houtkamp. When he isn’t experimenting with computer-based electronics, Houtkamp is a ferocious abstractionist close in style to the original New Thing players. It’s this divergence between his frenzied hotness and the glacial coolness of the others — especially pianist de Jonge — which makes the CD’s title so fitting and the album so memorable.

Formed more than a quarter century ago by Czn Dhont, who is also a visual artist and teacher and the other two after experience in more conventional settings, O.BA.O — whose name has no particular meaning — has challenged itself welcoming different reedists on board for extended periods. Among the saxmen who have played with the three are Hans Dulfer and Ab Baars from the Netherlands, England’s Elton Dean and Americans Joe Giardullo and Joe McPhee.

Among the 16 [!] instant compositions on this nearly-68 minute CD are those which seem to be dominated by Houtkamp’s atonal aesthetic and others where the pianist’s more extravagant influences take centrestage. The suspicion remains that without the reedman, de Jonge — who shouldn’t be confused with Henk de Jonge, pianist in Willem Breuker’s Kollektief — would nudge the other two towards a flowing romanticism, reminiscent of Keith Jarrett’s or Bill Evan’s trios. This is confirmed on a couple of tracks where the saxman isn’t present. His presence, however, justifies the band’s “plus one” strategy.

Left on his own, the keyboardist favors high intensity, feathery fingering, glissandi and cascading piano patterns. Stop time, flutter-tongued phrasing and honks from the reedist supply the needed contrast. Houtkamp also brings out the best in the others as well. On the final, untitled track, with the tempo slower than largo, his reed shredding tone presages a similar attack on his bow hairs by Czan Dhout.

That piece, recorded live at Amsterdam’s Bimhuis, is wrapped up in less than three minutes though, which pinpoints the CD’s only weakness. This abundance of tracks means that many ideas don’t reach full maturity; they’re hacked off at a two, three or maximum six-minute growth spurt.

Elsewhere, Czan Dhout favors a Scott LaFaro-like woody tone to complement the pianist’s swirling, impressionistic patterns. But again Houtkamp’s stop-time tone, pitchsliding rasps or grainy, hocketing smears sandpaper the smooth surface and produce an altogether more impressive picture. While a tune like ‘3Angle” — sans sax — shows that de Jonge can adapt Monk-like power voicings to speed up the performance and meet woodblock slaps, side by side “2Gether” and “Short Talk” are more interesting and instructive.

The first, unsurprisingly only by the pianist and bassist, unrolls on a carpet of swelling, Evans-like intense piano patterns. The later, featuring sax, bass and drums, erupts all over the place, as if Archie Shepp at his fervid 1960s peak had suddenly marched into the studio. Houtkamp smears out split tones as if possessed, Czan Dhout bows mad spiccato and Houtman ricochets timbres all over his kit.

Fusing exploratory saxmen to the methodical musical amalgamation worked out over time by the trio reveals why O.BA.O (plus one) has managed to stay vibrant all these years. Since the band records so infrequently, this is probably the only example of its work currently available. Luckily the addition of Houtkamp’s flutter tonguing and other extended techniques makes it an exemplary illustration of what the band can accomplish.