Willem Breuker Kollektief

With Strings Attached

i compani



By Ken Waxman

Tributes, recreations and interpretations appear to fascinate advanced improvised musicians in the Netherlands even more so than in other places. Part of the reason is that instead of numberless CDs dedicated to Miles, Monk and Ellington, Dutch jazz and improv players and composers extend their accolades to other spheres.

Saxophonist Bo van de Graaf for one, has made the cornerstone of his work with the i compani band, multi-media tributes to Italian director Frederico Fellini and Nino Rota, who composed most of the soundtracks for that director’s films. Featuring rearrangements of Rota tunes, plus original works by van de Graaf and other members of the 11-piece ensemble, Fellini demonstrates how you can honor your influences without having to be a slave to existing material.

With Strings Attached goes even further. Consisting of a never-before-released performance of a new piece by the Norwegian composer Alfred Janson as well as a series of reissued numbers from 1982 to 1995, it’s part of Willem Breuker’s ongoing determination to carve a unique niche for himself in the world of modern music. Featuring a more-or-less consistent line up of about 10 musicians plus an orchestral-sized string section of violas, violins and cellos, it’s not quite jazz, but certainly not so-called classical music either.

Compositions designed to illustrate Breuker’s distinctive worldview, the material is a mixture of familiar and out-of-the-ordinary. The pieces include George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, Erik Satie’s “Parade”, “Metropolis”, by Paul Whitman’s arranger Ferde Grofé, Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas’ “Sensemayá”, plus Leroy Anderson’s novelty “The Typewriter”. Then there’s the premiere of the collaboration with Janson. “Passacaglia Vendetta”, features the whole 18-piece group with the composer himself sitting in on accordion [!] and vocals [!!] and the other chief soloists Norwegian trumpeter Ole Edvard Antonsen, who works in both improvised and notated music, Breuker on soprano saxophone, and Kollektief (WBK) member Alex Coke on tenor saxophone.

The almost 21-minute showpiece leads the band into new territory, since Janson’s accordion playing and vocals add a folkloric quality to a score already informed by his background as a jazz pianist and orchestral composer. Playing triplets, but with a legato tone, Antonsen’s horn provides counterpoint to Janson’s primitivist squeeze box textures. Brass flutter tonguing arches on top of orchestral harmonies, then the composer’s veloce but rubato accordion slurs presage orchestral passages built up like a renovator’s addition to a small house.

Breuker’s atonal, double-tongued sax solo is first framed in horn riffs, then polyharmonic string passages that soon descend to syrupy romanticism. Antonsen’s muted, half-valve solo is backed by a swinging band section that could have come from the pen of Neil Hefti, and soon he’s slurring out rubato grace notes. With the Norwegian brass man cast as Buck Clayton, American Coke, a legitimate Texas tenor, snorts and blasts, loosening the tune from its formalism, and introduces an accordion solo that’s all extended reed sounds. Oscillating string lines frame the trumpeter’s conservatory-oriented flares, but its brassiness is buried under cat yowling string dissonance. With drummer Rob Verdurmen pressing the backbeat, the level of excitement and controlled chaos rises — closer to “Rites of Spring”, than “Ascension” — as sound shards break up, reaching a climax of spraying contrapuntal discord that finally relaxes into harmonic orchestra color as the finale.

“Passacaglia Vendetta” is an important reification of the band’s status in premiering New music compositions. But Breuker seems to want it all. The other 20th century pieces on the CD appear to have been picked to situate the WBK within a certain tradition. Outside of the “The Typewriter”, which is pure good-humored fun, the other pieces stride the fine line between composition and improvisation and sometimes fall over into the legit area, with a results that are more serious than may have been imagined.

Especially noteworthy is Breuker’s championing of work initially played by Paul

Whitman’s symphonic jazz band of the 1920s. For a start, pianist Henk de Jonge, a powerful two-handed player proves himself a better soloist than most classical formalists when it comes to “Rhapsody in Blue”. With a swinging left hand, control of dynamics and the ability to add a Latinesque tinge to interpolations of cascading arpeggios, he brings a quirkiness to the melody and the WBK responds in kind. Plus Breuker gets to play the famous descending gliss that launches the piece.

“Metropolis” is more problematic. Because Grofé was a professional dance band arranger, he tried to knit too many musical strains into this semi-classical fantasia from 1928. This is symphonic jazz that gives equal prominence to a tinkling celeste (de Jonge) and raucous tuba (Bernard Hunnekink). Transitions are often awkward, some of the string climaxes sound as if they come from Silent Movie cartoon soundtracks, and de Jonge’s low frequency piano playing awash with over-emphasized dynamics occasionally resembles the style of Frédéric Chopin more than Ferdinand LaMonthe aka Jelly Roll Morton.

Symphonic, quasi-Dixieland, the score often has the band breaking into a fox trot, while 19th century style romantic strings dripping emotionalism and zart face off against Broadway theatre-type themes and staccato novelty percussion. At one point, for instance, the strings are outlining a quasi-romantic passage while the pianist gets hot on “Japanese Sandman”.

Not only do these Liberace-like tinkles distract, but half way through, Breuker on lead vocal and others must pretend to be the Rhythm Boys with Bing Crosby and do some rhythmic scatting.

Theme recapitulations come from a Dixieland trumpet and clarinet duo, rasping brass, mulched reeds and tuba burps, plus pit orchestra harmony. By the finale, the simple call-and-response section and variations show their age, with frantic bass drum and cymbal smashes and over-the-top flying grace notes, polyrhythms and counter harmonies on show, rather than smooth section work. Before a finale of sweeping, string harmonies, overt orchestration is transparent, its diffuse textures suggesting a movie score.

The Satie recreation, with its oddball instrumental passages and room in the score for sirens, gunshots and the like, may be interpreted by the WBK with more confidence, since its European avant-garde conceptions are close to what Breuker himself often creates. When polyharmonic and polyphonic climaxes feature everything from pistol discharges and typewriter clacks, the Kollektief’s links to vaudeville and the Art Ensemble’s tradition of little instruments are never clearer. Referencing “The Marine Hymn”, a waltz and a hornpipe in its penultimate selection also make more natural transitions than those in Grofé pastiche of Hot Jazz. Additionally, the speedy orchestration features the strings in a finale of straight sweeps.

With less of an agenda than Breuker’s CD, Fellini’s sole aim is to honor van de Graaf’s influence one more time. The band has been performing a Fellini/Rota program since 1985, along with other projects that included a stint, from 1989 until 1997, accompanying the Theatre of Utrecht’s celebrated International Christmas Circus, and a 1997 multi-media production called Gluteus Maximus, whose central theme was buttocks.

Van de Graaf has also played in trombonist Chris Abelen’s 6-tet, the Bik Bent Braam big band and in a trio with pianist Michiel Braam and i compani’s drummer Fred van Duynhoven. Van Duynhoven was part of violinist Ig Hanneman’s Tentet. Martin Van Duynhoven — relationship with Fred unknown — who plays electric drum set here, has worked with everyone from pianist Misha Mengelberg to reedist Ab Baars. Pianist and Wurlitzer organist Jeroen van Vliet plays in bassist Eric van der Westen’s band. Other band members are trumpeter Jeroen Doomernik, Frank Nielander on alto and tenor saxophones, Tessa Zoutendijk on violin, Hans Hasebos on keyboards and samples, Carel van Rijn on bass, Pieter Douma on bass guitar and vocalist Simin Tander.

Dispensing with the latter first, boasting a delivery that moves from little girl-like warbling to lyric soprano, Tander is rather underutilized, unless you understand Italian. Mostly she functions the way Laura Biscotto did on John Zorn’s The Big Gundown, which reinterpreted Enrico Morricone movie scores incidentally. She provides breathy, kitschy “sexy Italian vocals” and recitations.

Other places the exaggerated focus of the entire group is weakened with faux swing violin parts, curt rhythms and a Latinesque dance routine that collectively ends up sounding more like dramatic cues than composition.

To be honest when the bands strays farthest away from Rota’s somewhat baroque and overwrought themes with its original arrangements it sounds best. Case in point is the almost 11½-minute, five-part “Dolce Vita Suite”, and van der Graaf’s reworking of the main themes from “La Strada” and “Milano e Nadia”.

Drawing as much on the (Dutch) fanfare as the (Italian) banda tradition, for the first, the band blends walking bass and comping piano with long, clean staccato lines from an altoist. Along the way it moves from Rome to a “Parisian Thoroughfare” via suggestions of Charles Mingus and Max Roach, and ends with some fruity tenor sax lines, plunger brass and rippling piano arpeggios that wouldn’t be out of place in a pre-war Berlin cabaret.

The cabaret influence is also felt on “La Strada”, as a speedy tarantella-like tune built on high-pitched clarinet and wah-wah trumpet features the rhythm section aiming for a rock’n’roll beat. Fellini’s most instrumentally impressive track, it showcases van Vliet applying darker, low frequencies with heavy pressure to the piano keys and both [?] drummers showering hard and heavy rebounds and clattering ratamacues before ending with press rolls.

Another 1960-composed artifact, “Milano e Nadia” features mocking riffs from the horns, a bluesy piano section and abstract counterlines from the trumpet that lob bent notes into the stratosphere. When the double-timed, strummed chords from the piano pair up with shimmering electric keyboard waves, the variations nearly push the theme into indolent near stasis. It’s then up to a smeared soprano saxophone to loosen up the sounds. Changing character completely “Milano...” is taken out with some forced Bubber Miley-like blusiness from Doomernik.

Other pieces depend more on skittering piano chords, sampled accordion and electronics, brassy trumpet pops, dance rhythms and either galloping or rubato reed vibrations.

Overall, if the vocals and some of the more frantic output are put to one side, Fellini’s almost 69 minutes provide the more consistent vista. Still the more than 76 minute panorama that is With Strings Attached shows that after more than 30 years on the road, Breuker and the Kollektief are still after new challenges.