Guus Janssen and his Orchestra

Dancing Series

Leo Cupyers

Zeeland Suite & Johnny Rep Suite


By Ken Waxman

Mythmaking abounds in improvised music – as much in European free sounds as in American jazz – after all, this genre has been the romantic music for more than 100 years.

Sadly, empirical research can reinterpret many of those fables as efficiently as it demythologizes other subjects. This brings up the tales of anarchistic Dutch jazz/free music. Since the majority of jazz fans – i.e. North Americans – didn’t start to pay attention to the Netherlands until late 1980s, it appeared as if the mixture of zany humor and serious musicianship that characterized high-profile aggregations like the ICP Orchestra and Willem Breuker’s Kollektief (WBK) was a universal concept. Later bands lead by composers like pianists Guus Janssen and Michel Braam seemed to confirm this.

In truth New Dutch Swing, as some call it, was the result of a painstaking musical process that matched the natural Calvinism of the Netherlands with provocations from American Free Jazz and the 1960s’ New Left. Simultaneously, Europeans had to evolve past their American musical models and sound pastiches to spin political instigation, Energy Music and 20th Century, so-called classical music into something original.

This involved a lot more than a single “Eureka!” moment, and you can trace this hit-and-miss evolution on the two CDs reissued here. Pianist Leo Cupyers, one of Breuker’s closest initial associates and co-founder of the Bvhaast label, reflects the growth pains of this maturing style in two landmark suites, recorded in 1974 and 1977 by similarly constituted septets. A generation younger, Janssen’s Dancing Series, recorded with an 11-piece ensemble in 1988, shows how this bravura procedure evolved and eventually intersected with assorted other sounds.

Just as the orchestral voicings of Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk hung over early New Thing advances, so, in a way, both these sessions pay homage to the ideas of both the WBK and the ICP’s chief conceptualizer Misha Mengelberg. Until he had a spat with Breuker, Cupyers was part of the WBK from its conception until 1979. Thus it’s no surprise to find Breuker, performing sideman duties featured on all tracks but two on the CD. Janssen, who has developed a parallel career as a so-called serious composer in the Netherlands, first had his talent confirmed by Mengelberg, with whom he studied in the 1970s. In fact, with its mixture of styles and jump cuts from one genre to another Dancing Series sound a bit like Mengelberg’s and Breuker’s earlier, more anarchistic compositions, not to mention John Zorn’s POMO pastiches, recorded around the same time.

From 1974, Johnny Rep Suite, the earliest tracks here, finds Cupyers leading a mostly WBK crew with the one ringer tenor saxophonist Hans Dulfer – Candy’s father – who doesn’t solo at all. The four tunes include a soccer anthem, driven by drummer Rob Verdurmen, plus other pieces that have more in common with American Free Jazz than the composer probably realized at the time. Most instructive are “Floris & Rosa”, “Kirk” and “Rank Jump” which join irregularly vibrated energy explosions with call-and-response reed lines and vocal screams. Mixing a faint flamenco beat and what sounds like “The Volga Boatman” into his solo on the second number, the pianist has to put up with a heavy drum backbeat and Breuker trying to emulate Rahsaan Roland Kirk playing two saxes at once. Sadly, unlike Kirk, he merely plays the theme on one sax and honks with the other.

Two humans playing one sax each – Breuker and altoist Piet Noordijk – fire trilling vamps and buzzing tongue flutters in broken octaves at one another on “Rank Jump”. Together they sound like what would have resulted if Ornette Coleman and one of his primary duplicators, say Byron Allen, had recorded together. Meanwhile Dufler and trombonist Willem van Manen expel the Netherlands’ version of circus sounds.

Only Cuypers is clearly his own man, with a Monkish piano exploration that includes pedal pumping and speed skating over the keys. A concluding duo with the drummer confirms this individualism, as he matches Verdurmen’s crashing cymbals with prepared piano-like action, soundboard string scratches and drumming on his instrument’s sides.

More audacious is the nine-part Zeeland Suite recorded three years later with mostly the same cast. The only changes are Martin van Duynhoven in for Verdurmen; Noordijk and Dulfer replaced by Bob Driessen on soprano, alto and baritone saxophones; and South African Harry Miller adding his bass to that of longtime WBK bull fiddler Arjen Gorter.

Both bassists are showcased on “Two bass shit” (sic), though the constantly hardening walking bass lines border on the Swing Era as much as the bebop tune parodied in the title. Cuypers’ piano voicing, set against the horn vamps brings up memories of Count Basie, not Bud Powell.

Enjoyable on the whole, Zeeland Suite’s one shortcoming is its constant musical shifts. A piece like “Memories” for instance, ratchets from mid-tempo Swing with Breuker’s bass clarinet in the lead, to a Phil Whitemanesque sweet ballad, to a finale that finds the reedist mocking the excesses of Energy Music, fragmenting his solo with body tube trilling and scratchy growls.

Intentional or not “Something else” cross breeds slick movie studio jazz with a feature for the ‘bone man where he mixes bebop’s speed with pre-modern coloration. Despite its title as well, “Joplin” is more Boogie than Ragtime with the pianist twisting out two handed bass lines and one of the saxmen – likely Breuker – using a dike-wide vibrato in a frenzied Illinois Jacquet homage. “No plooi at all Blues” is a cocktail lounge blues with the pianist’s licks more Floyd Cramer than Big Maceo Merriweather. Supplemental, almost-corny plunger tones from van Manen and a soprano sax solo that conjures up a vision of Sidney Bechet in a Nudie cowboy suit are added on top.

Then there’s the take on the classics – a long-standing WBK jape – entitled “Bach II and Bach I”. This gives the pianist scope to burlesque Baroque inventions and, before the sped-up tune ends with a contrapuntal dissolve, both soprano saxists build fruity glissandi to a double-tongued line mid-way between “Rhapsody in Blue” and a whine.

Even so, Cuypers’ own compositions – like Mengelberg’s and Breuker’s congruent attempts – sometimes end up more like Frankenstein’s monster than breakthrough experiments. But you can certainly praise him for musical audacity. By the time Dancing Series was recorded a decade later, POMO pastiche was expected as a matter of course from advanced bands from the Netherlands. In his case then, it’s a tribute to Janssen that some of his pieces sound as original as they do.

Using an expanded palate, the pianist has four orchestral sections at his disposal. Trumpeter Herb Robertson, trombonist Wolter Wierbos and hornist Vincent Chancey made up the brass section. Ab Baars on soprano and tenor saxophones and clarinet plus alto saxophonist Paul Termos are the reeds. Violist Maurice Horsthuis, cellist Ernst Reijseger and bassist Raoul van der Weide are the string contingent. Added are former ProgRocker Jacques Palinckx on guitar and Janssen’s brother Wim on percussion.

Janssen’s compositions also apportion more solo space than WBK or ICP numbers do, and the trombonist and alto saxist make the most of it. Best-know for his work with the ICP, Wierbos brings a distinctive primitivist-modern style to his outings. While Termos (1952-2003), who died of pancreatic cancer, was a longtime associate of Janssen, he’s mainly known as a notated chamber composer. Here, nonetheless, he plays whatever part is necessary to elevate the tune.

Consider and contrast “JoJo Jive” and “Mambo” for instance. On the former, the 11-pieces get a polyphonic sound not unlike Duke Ellington’s early Jungle band, most obviously borne on Wierbos’ tailgating trombone and in Baars’ spiky solos. Even though there’s a similarity between this tune and “East St. Louis Toodle-oo”, Janssen himself –like his mentor Mengelberg – solos with more modernist Monk-Nichols inflections, themselves extensions of Ellingtonia. Complementing these piles of ringing reed cadences and two-handed, flashing arpeggios are Termos’ alto – sounding like a florid and smooth Johnny Hodges – until he too initiates reed squirts and duck quacks.

Before the horse whinnying trombone coda, the entire horn section vamps, van der Weide slaps his bass like Pops Foster, the drummer produces heavy bass drum accents and snare tap dances, while the pianist breaks up the time.

If this piece sounds like Paul Whiteman at his loosest – an admitted influence on Cupyers and Breuker as well – then “Mambo” could be right out of Perez Prado’s book. With Termos coming on like the lead player with Machito and Wim Janssen hitting his cowbell and applying friction to other Latin percussion, the rest of band vocalizes Indian war whoops – and ersatz Spanish interjections.

On top of a shifting rhythm, Termos extends his solo in double-time. Of course the rub and rattle of the percussion and the vamping call-and-response in double or triple counterpoint from the sections don’t mask the tune’s POMO characteristics. Janssen for one, melds allegro rhythmic vibrations and a right-handed, Latinesque melody that’s as Monkish as it is montuno. Leaping gnome-like over the keys, he pumps the beat more rapidly, racing along the keys from the very highest level to the lowest.

Although at almost 12½ minutes, the performance is overlong, Janssen maintains excitement in its penultimate minutes by banging conga-like on the wood of the piano’s back and bottom frame, soundboard and trusses, an – emulated? – technique favored by Cuypers as well. Finale is a thematic reprise by the pianist followed by rest of band, climaxed with a high-pitched flourish from all concerned.

Elsewhere the orchestrations are organized to produce versions of everything from a weaving fox trot to two versions of punk rockers’ leaping pogo dance, with most tunes the musical equivalents of cinematic film cuts, replete with many false climaxes. Janssen also isn’t afraid to expose other band members’ talents, often playing off different sections and pressing contrapuntal lines against one another. Palinckx’s distorted flanging has as much prominence at one point as the Horsthuis-lead collated strings – sounding out a legato melody – do at another. Former Arkestra-member Chancey has scope for his burnished tone, but most of the other oral oscillations include reed and brass mouthpiece kisses, braying trombone timbres, trumpet triplets and quaking reed lines.

To boot, the pianist, whose own output includes knuckle-dusting high frequency action, isn’t averse to compositionally exploiting the false fingering and ghosts tones of the horns as well as the sul tasto, sul ponticello and just plain instrument rib and belly scratching actions of his string players.

In hindsight, though, Dancing Series’ weakness is that by 1988 these pastiches were usually predictable in most Netherlands’ improv sessions, with Cuypers’ hit-and-miss creations replaced by POMO professionalism. Perhaps that why younger Dutch players are now exploring pure swing, electronica and formal composition.

Still both these discs are valuable souvenirs of – and contain memorable sounds from – two specifically historical musical times and places.