André Goudbeek/Xu Fengxia/Joe Fonda

Separate Realities

Collectif ReFLEXible
disque flexible

Dry Speed
Dry Speed
No label

By Ken Waxman
January 24, 2005

Sort of like the country in which they live, Belgian improvisers don’t have a very high profile. Perhaps it can be expected in a land whose best-known musical export, the late singer/songwriter Jacques Brel, many think of as French.

Interestingly enough, despite Belgium’s bilingual status, it appears as if most of the hard core Free Music action takes part in the Flemish-speaking part of the country. Perhaps it’s a result of the fierce struggle by that group to hang on to its language and culture despite the encroachment of other civilizations. Whatever it is, it allows experimenters like Antwerp-based pianist Fred Van Hove to thrive.

That said, the veteran saxophonist who most typifies this same freedom is André Goudbeek a long-time associate of Van Hove. On the qt, though, you should know hat although he’s spent his professional life in Belgium, Goudbeek was actually born in the Netherlands. As a matter of fact, the Mechelen-based musician, who plays alto saxophone, bass clarinet and bandoneon — a German-made accordion-like instrument — was an on-and-off member of Willem Breuker’s Amsterdam-based Kollektief from 1982 to 1994. Before, during and after that time, he also found time to work with everyone from locals Van Hove and bassist Peter Jacquemyn to outsiders like vocalist Phil Minton and saxophonist John Butcher of the United Kingdom.

Separate Realities is a continuation of his cross-cultural experimentation. Here the reedist is matched up with American bassist Joe Fonda, who has worked with a clutch of innovators on both sides of the Atlantic, and the Shanghai-born, German resident Xu Fengxia, a guzheng player, whose improv partners have included Italian saxophonist Mario Schiano and British percussionist Roger Turner.

Fonda and Xu made a memorable duo session for Leo Records in 1999. Goudbeek’s presence expands the buffet even further, adding some Belgian Witloof —endive wrapped in ham with cheese sauce — to spicy Shanghai noodles and all-American T-bone steak. This could have been a recipe for indigestion, but it’s a credit to all three that the ingredients blend so appetizingly.

It would seem that none are food or music purists, however. The conservatory-trained Xu for one also played in a Chinese rock band. Here, the 25-string, multi-pitched chamber instrument sounds like a Bluegrass mandolin or scraped single-string sound source as frequently as it disseminates its Oriental nature.

Surprisingly, her vocalization is international as well. On a piece like “A separate reality” the overtones are what you would expect to hear in traditional Chinese opera, with her curious little girl’s-sounding voice all swoops and whoops in counterpoint to the saxman’s reedy bandoneon vibrations and the bassist’s ostinato expansion. Elsewhere, however, as on “The Wanderer - the desert of Old Souls” she warbles like an Oriental Julie Andrews. Her mumbles and throat yodels increase in volume and bounce from overtones singing with hocketing harmonies to more dainty, Westernized moments, balanced by ghostly squeeze-box timbres and bull fiddle shuffle bowing. Sometimes you could swear she was davening in a synagogue.

Sonic congruence is on show as well. While “The Wanderer - the valley of Tenderness” begins with Goudbeek tonguing grotty alto line with irregular vibrations on top of heraldic ponticello swipes from Fonda, part way through you realize the sax trills have been replicated and replaced by concentrated guzheng scratches. After Xu slides across her many strings as if she was chromatically playing a banjo, the bassist slaps his strings and begins humming along with the resulting tone. With the saxist’s reed-biting creating timbres far quicker than the other two can, Fonda turns to spiccato, low-pitched buzzes and Xu to falsetto cackles to try to narrow the gap.

Climax is reached with the 16-minute “Sightless in Gaza”, which mixes all these influences and more. With Fonda picking both sul tasto and sul ponticello, he works his way up and down the strings, first moderato then in modified swing style. Goudbeek contributes reed-biting diaphragm vibrations and flattement. Combing all 29 strings into a mini-chamber ensemble, Xu’s scrapes complement Fonda’s pedal point bowing — even when he pause for a bit of col legno string smashes. Xu then chirps vaguely simian-like as Goudbeek’s reed echoes her with cheeps and coos. Other places the reedman showcases what could be called traditional improv actions including smeared alto lines and lowing bass clarinet overtones.

In spite of this multicultural meeting, Goudbeek hasn’t lessened his commitment to the freest pitches locally. In 2002, for example, he was the musical director of the BIO (Brussels Improvising Orchestra), composed of a younger generation of Flemish improvisers. Dry Speed and Collectif ReFLEXible are two of the combos into which some of the BIO members have organized themselves since then.

Dry Speed consists of alto saxophonist Thomas Olbrechts, who works frequently with Jacquemyn, as well as with his own bands; trumpeter Joachim Devillé, who has improvised music for short films and played with touring Korean avant-garde musicians; plus drummer Dirk Wauters, who recorded with multi-instrumentalist Koen Vermeiren, as well as with Goudbeek’s combo featuring Minton and Jacquemyn.

Collectif ReFLEXible omits Wauters, but adds pianist Stefan Prins, who has played with Van Hove, Spanish trumpeter Ruth Barberán and British trombonist Paul Rutherford; plus bassist Nicolas Rombouts who also performs spirituals, gospel, blues and originals with vocalist Gregory Frateur.

Almost immediately, especially in Dry Speed, recorded in 2002 and 2003, you must make allowances for the musicians’ age. Olbrechts especially, appears to rely a little too much on his altissimo squeal. Other places though he gets a more comfortable, almost Arabic buzz from his reed, and shows on “Kafka B” — an Aylerian ballad recorded at he café of the same name in Brussels — that he can adopt a smoother tone to meet Devillé’s slithery, low-frequency buzzes. Some of the other pieces resemble the sound of the original Ornette Coleman quartet sans bass. Yet these Euro improvs feature a suspended time sense and a more advanced, cross sticking rumble from Wauters’ snares and cymbals.

Centrepiece of the disc is the more-than-28 minute “Chezelle”, named for the club in Lovain-la-Neuve in which it was recorded. Commencing slowly with the percussionist exploring his bells and cymbals, the piece accelerates as the altoist slurs out irregular lines on top of Wauters’ rumbles and bangs. Turning to double counterpoint the horns take turns resonating timbres at one another. While Devillé’s quivering solo is all burrs and grace notes, Olbrechts’ snorting overblowing brings up images of the saxophonist vibrating notes against a metal plate until he slips into tenor-sax range. This exercise in pointillism continues as each hornman daubs and smears different overtones that combine into a whole.

Often the collectivity finds the reedist snorting sharp, abrasive notes using pitch vibrations, and which are leavened slightly by as the trumpeter’s cultivated grace notes. All the while, the drummer is producing drum top resonation, stick-on-stick nerve beats and bounces and rebounds that gradually intensify. Among the wandering broken chords, the overall effect resembles those times altoist John Tchicai and trumpeter Don Cherry played together; in short, extended techniques grounded in tradition.

For a climax, Wauters pulls a single drumstick across the ride cymbal for maximum screeching resonation, while Devillé bubbles out the occasional off-centre run and quack, and Olbrechts studs his solo with honks. Finally the cacophony abates into body tube and valve meandering polyphony, gradually fading out into isolated smacks, blurts and overtones.

All five musicians only play together on three — including the two longest — of disque flexible’s nine tracks. During the course of the other instant compositions, all recorded in Antwerp in late 2003, the players divide into duos and soloists. This is admirable in one way, since Prins and Rombouts get more of a showcase. However the solo sections could have been excised without much loss.

Instructively, Devillé fares best. Working mostly in mid-range or lower pitches his carefully textured muted plunger slurs move from rubato to wider and more abstract tones. Showing off his plunger prowess with whinnying wah-wahs, he often exits with carefully articulated half-valve runs. Prins’s solo is practically soundless, except for internal clinking and clacking, and reaches its high point when an entire chord is sounded. Olbrechts modulates between grainy, mid-range slurs and bird-like altissimo smears, while Rombouts’ solo seems to turn inward, mating mid-range rattled spiccato, shuffle-bowed bold strokes and color sweeps in the highest bass strings.

Prins’s duet with Devillé features a more cerebral use of pauses and silences, while confirming that he’s unafraid of improvising at an unhurried pace. When the pianoman resonates metallic overtones from his stopped internal strings, the trumpeter swells a meandering elliptical line with moaning plunger work. Rombouts’ duo with Olbrechts features the bassist spinning out a spiccato bass line into double stops as the saxist piles up shaded arpeggios that garble and rumble in mid- and higher ranges.

More atonal and minimalist than anything else, the final and second-longest, quartet piece begins with pianissimo tones sounding for the first couple of minutes until disconnected aviary reed squeaks appear, followed by a deliberate keyboard dynamics. By the time Rombouts introduces a steady walking bass beat, Prins’s piano keys are pumping more quickly. Olbrechts’ grainy alto textures intensify, and Devillé tongues bubbly trumpet growls, presaging a climax of high frequency arpeggios from the pianist.

Track 5, at more than 13½ minutes is more of the same, coupling tinkling piano patterns and harmonically perfect grace notes from the trumpeter. With keyboard phrases starting to resemble palindromes, an occasional peep arises from the reedist. Ponticello timbres from the bass add to the phrases inaugurated by the pianist, whose instrument’s innards are soon reverberating with coarse cadences. With theme variations exhausted, Olbrechts’ flattement and Devillé’s plunger work modify, while Rombouts’ funereal bowing helps ease the performance back to low-key horn cadences and more internal piano plinks.

Trying to incorporate as many textural strands in their performance as possible — including some actions more attempted than accomplished — the members of Dry Speed and Collectif ReFLEXible prove that the spirit of improv exploration thrives in Belgium. At the same time, Goudbeek, one of the movement’s founders, refuses to stand pat and continues to instigate new challenges, as his CD shows. All these sessions are worth investigating.