Bik Bent Braam

Growing Pains

By Ken Waxman
January 10, 2005

Combining conservatory training, historical musical knowledge and an often infectious sense of humor, composer/pianist Michiel Braam, 40, is the late Baby Boom successor to sound codifiers from the Netherlands like Misha Mengelberg and Willem Breuker.

Comfortable in settings including trios, duos, solo work and a sextet, Braam’s most memorable creations have been with the 13-piece band he calls Bik Bent Braam (BBB). This two-CD live set demonstrates this truism once again. Supposedly featuring nine compositions on the first disc and 15 on the second, each titled with “Bonsai”, a musician’s name and a number, what you actually have are two suite-long sets recorded in Brugge, Belgium and Amsterdam in early 2004.

The tunes put the individual idiosyncrasies of the players on show in pieces that, on the first CD mix improvisational and notated music elements, and on the second conjecture a small big band environment that has Sun Ra’s futuristic Arkestra and Fletcher Henderson’s pioneering ensembles as its historical boundaries.

Working with a group in which all the reeds and some of the brass double or triple, Braam has a wider than usual color scheme available. Not only that, but unusual tints are apparent as well. Patrick Votrian plays bass tuba and Peter Haex tenor tuba and trombone, while Jan Willem van der Ham plays alto saxophone and bassoon.

Cologne’s Frank Gratkowski — the Dutch band’s only ringer and who also plays in Braam’s sextet — brings his alto saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet to the date, while Bart van der Putten plays alto saxophone and clarinet and Frans Vermeerssen tenor and baritone saxophones. Trombone chores are split between the celebrated Wolter Wierbos and Hans Sparla, high brass between cornetist Eric Boeren and trumpeter Angelo Verploegen, while Braam himself, drummer Joop van Erven and veteran bassist Wilbert De Joode make up the rhythm section.

Braam’s variations on jazz history and the stylistic echoes of other musics are made clearer on the second and superior disc of the set. At points his keyboard work swings from hard bop comping into showy piano concerto flourishes. At others you could swear that the man behind the keyboard was stride master Willie “The Lion” Smith or Rockabilly “killer”, Jerry Lee Lewis. The band itself winds up in stop time episodes that bring Count Basie’s original Kansas City aggregation to mind as easily as it slips in and out of a quasi-formal ballroom persona to produce lumbering waltzes.

A few pieces stand out. “Bonsai Jan Willem 4 theme”, for instance features some rickety-tick ragtime piano filtered through the style of modernist Herbie Nichols, coupled with a shuffle rhythm from the drummer and a creamy pre-modern alto line — from van der Ham — sort of how Don Redman would have played with Henderson. The brassy trills and rippling reed lines may also reference early big bands, as does van Erven’s tap dancing bounces on his drum tops. But rather than revivalism, the end product is re-creation filtered through modernity, as Charles Mingus or Sun Ra did when they wrote similar pieces. Consider Vermeerssen’s whimsical reed slurs mixing with stride rhythms, or what sounds like a military tattoo from one trumpet bisecting the pianist’s glissandi.

Boeren and Verploegen get even more of a workout on “Bonsai Joop 4”, where their window pane-busting cadenzas recall both Cat Anderson’s stratospheric jumps with the 1950s Ellington band and earlier plunger brass specialists from the Duke’s jungle band period. Braam’s unabashed, but hesitant, broken chords introduce multi-part counterpoint featuring Gratkowski’s screaming split tone alto backed by hulking trombone snorts as well as swing riffs from the reeds.

“Bonsai Joop 5” on the other hand, is one of those turn-on-a-dime arrangements, where stop-time breaks precede a gash of plunger tuba sprawls and enough burbled lips reed riffs to test the most determined jitterbugger. The pianist builds up Albert Ammons-like boogie woogie with one hand and atonal rumbles with the other. Mewling sax lines can suggest Lester Lanin’s society orchestra, that is if the man who often played at The White House had included a brass section that featured a tailgate trombonist and trumpeters skilled with plunger mutes. Then there’s the less-than-three-minute “Bonsai Fans 5”, that manages to conjure up visions of snake dancers doing the Charleston to the drummer’s paradiddles and flams, while the fruity vibratos from some of the saxes combine to pump out tango rhythms.

Among the Gene Krupa-like bass drum bomb-dropping and cowbell rattles, not to mention Eastern European clarinet slurs, are veneration of more exotic sounds. Dutch fanfare band-like brass notes and Arabic reed slurs unite in an exciting marriage of convenience at one spot. Saxophone honks and cornet plunger tones add supplemental color elsewhere. And at various times Braam’s contrasting dynamics, full frontal smacks and high intensity attacks recall Cecil Taylor’s playing when he fronts larger groups.

Rank experimentation produce some odd juxtapositions on CD2, but the nine-part concerto that makes up the first CD sags under the weight of disproportionate formalism. Individual solos may be just as inventive as on the other disc. But when the lines coalesce into legato mawkishness that almost becomes an eclogue, the dainty, sentimental theme material often appears too repetitive.

There are bellows from the high and low-pitched tubas, high intensity pianisms enlivened with passing tones plus flutter tongued and squeaking reed work, polyphonically framing clarinet glissandi. But as the ensemble lines swell, the curt, skittering melodies and contrapuntal dialogue between sections seem excessively polite. One of the final pieces even has a trombone lead that emulates an alp horn. The chasms that instrument faces are wider than the valleys between Swiss mountains, and colder than the sounds you’d expect to hear from an aggregation that’s so comfortable with POMO references to jazz history on the other CD.

Some pieces, like the finale, “Bonsai Wilbert 5”, are a little more adventurous however. De Joode, the dedicatee, exhibits some sul ponticello and spiccato legerdemain here, while peeps and whistles in the reeds’ highest register add a certain recklessness to the proceedings, and presage a muted ending.

Another tune leads van Erven’s drumming from 1920s two-beat, heavy on the hollow wood blocks, to an emphasized back beat, as if he was powering the theme song of a 1960s’ cop show. It even adds mobile, Rock music-like horn charts, giving the brass and reeds trills that build up in broken octaves to polyrhythms.

Overall though, no matter how many interesting melody fragments skitter across the piano keys or how often Gratkowski’s alto saxophone-led smears and flattement break up tunes into component parts, this disc, titled Fist Set come out second best to CD2.

Still, the appropriately titled Growing Pains is an interesting set to hear in order to catalogue the evolution of Braam’s writing and its interpretation by the 13-piece band. On reflection, the second disc gives you hope that when both he and the band reach full maturity there will be few other groups who will be able to match BBB’s inventive and stylistic range.