Rhythm Section + Fred Van Hove

Hear here now
(K-RAA-K)3 K055

Søren Kjægaard/Ben Street/Andrew Cyrille

Optics

ILK 140 CD

Both Northern European-North American collaborations, these piano trios not only demonstrate how these trans-Atlantic meetings evolve, but also inadvertently pinpoint the mainstreaming of improvisation among some prodigiously technically equipped European players.

Antwerp-based pianist Fred Van Hove was born in 1936, putting him firmly in the first generation of European Free Music innovators, a status confirmed by his on-and-off work with German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, including 1968’s monumental Machine Gun LP. Putting Optics, the other CD in a historical continuum, Machine Gun was recorded a decade before its featured keyboardist, Copenhagen-based Søren Kjægaard, was born.

Over the years Van Hove has played with nearly every important figure in EuroImprov and began experimenting with the accordion, an instrument he plays on one track here. The reason for Hear here now’s unexpected reverse billing is however, is that the Rhythm Section of 45-year-old Flemish bassist/sculptor Peter Jacquemyn and young Japanese-born, Pennsylvania-based percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani often tour as a duo. They hooked up with the pianist for this one concert in Hasselt, Belgium.

Optics on the other hand is under the direction of Kjægaard, who wrote or co-wrote all the tunes. Winner of numerous European jazz prizes, the pianist has written for film as well as touring as part of Canadian saxophonist Michael Blake’s Blake Tartare and American trumpeter Herb Robertson’s band. Still, this New York date is a first-time meeting between him and two Yanks: young bassist Ben Street, who works with pianist Danielo Pérez and has recorded with octogenarian saxophonist Sam Rivers; and drummer Andrew Cyrille – only three years Van Hove’s junior – whose best-known associations include pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Oliver Lake.

Moving back to Europe at first, on Hear here now, Van Hove approaches the squeeze box with the same originality that he brings to the keyboard. Pumping and pulsing, works the accordion’s actions so that they smear jam-like opaqueness over the sound field, reverberating and highlighting supplementary overtones and denoting the instrument’s sonic resemblance to an organ. Meanwhile Nakatani knocks snaps and rolls different parts of his kit, as the bassist moves from near-silent singular string rubs to rampaging sequentially from all points of his bass’s compass, crafting jagged timbres as the bow almost literally bounces off the strings. Nonetheless, Van Hove’s finesse on the keys, buttons and bellows is so dominant that is output never masks the others’ contributions.

Cognizant of – but never in debt to Cecil Taylor’s piano style – Van Hove’s undulations and cross-pulsations are given full reign on the other tracks, especially the almost 32-minute “Hear”. Beginning with contrasting dynamics he soon turns to sweeping glissandi, then slips and recoils across the keyboard. As high-frequency harmonies unfurl, Jacquemyn responds with spiccato squeaks and plucked double stops. The percussionist adds to the polyphony by ringing a miniature bell, repeatedly thwacking his snare and grating a thick drumstick across an un-lathed cymbal. Each man’s contribution is so in synch that, for instance, there are points where it’s impossible to attribute a slide-whistle-like tone to the bassist’s bow thrust or the drummer’s stick movement.

As the piece evolves, Van Hove accelerates the tempo to TGV train-like speed, and then retards it, as he digs into the piano’s innards with low-frequency chording. The pianist’s stop-time, kinetic string ratcheting causes Jacquemyn to rework his bass pattern to atmospheric angled sul tasto sprawls as Nakatani smacks his toms and pings his cymbals. Chromatically strumming a final keyboard variation, the pianist locks into passing chords from the other two to climax with two-handed pressure.

If the interaction between Van Hove and Jacquemyn is most pronounced on the first CD, then the sonic transfer between Cyrille and Kjægaard – outwardly a less experimental pianist than the Belgian – on Optics is that much more profound. In fact, “Mallets” and “Work of Art”, two duos, are the CD’s most notable tracks.

On the later Kjægaard ranges over the piano with lean assurance as Cyrille pops his cymbals and pummels his drum tops. With keys flashing, fanning and clipping, the pianist builds up to a powerful interlude of practically out-of-time improvising, until the drummer’s pumps, drags and bounces impart a different rhythmic feel to the double counterpoint. Exposing every part of the tune’s exoskeleton in the climax, Kjægaard’s technical command is such that his subsequent solo contrasts penetrating naked note clusters with a processional flow of legato single notes.

Similarly on “Mallets”, the pianist expands the tune’s dynamic range with a series of arpeggios and glissandi as the drummer beats his toms with mallets. Digging in with harder cross-pumping and tough, metronomic voicing, Kjægaard first subtly doubles the tempo, and then decelerates it to a raggy, stop-time by the finale.

Scholastic, learned conservatism seems to inhabit many of the trio tracks however. Most notable is “Radio House Requiem”, a lament for Danish Radio’s lessening commitment to jazz and improvised music. Although Kjægaard sounds relaxed enough as he strums pressured chords backed by Street’s thumping bass and Cyrille’s gentled taps, the entire performance is eerily reminiscent of Lennie Tristano’s “Requiem” from 1955.

On the other hand too many of the other tracks are unfocused or impressionistic inching towards less-strained improvising, but held back by formal pianistic inhibitions. Some passages may be contrapuntal and others skitter towards multiphonics, but a large number merely skirt prettiness. Even the title track – a four-part suite – may showcase stair-step-like chromatic piano lines, pumping Jimmy Garrison-style string stretching from Street and Cyrille’s most rhythmically confined beats – he played with a clutch of mainstreamers as well as innovators like Taylor – but the end result is too romantic and muted. It’s like Bill Evans’ style lacking his without the buried hard core.

Still Optics should hold interest for piano trio fanciers, Cyrille followers and those who want to hear a technically equipped pianist at the beginning of his career. On the other hand, Hear here now is a triumphant example of assured, hard-core improvisation. Remember that Kjægaard still has another 40-odd years to attain Van Hove’s mastery after all.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Hear: 1. Hear 2. Here 3. Now

Personnel: Hear: Fred Van Hove (piano and accordion); Peter Jacquemyn (bass) and Tatsuya Nakatani (percussion)

Track Listing: Optics: 1. Optics 2. Dear Mr. Sear 3. Cyrille Surreal 4. Elegy 5. Mallets 6. Gyamtso 7. Work of Art 8. Radio House Requiem

Personnel: Optics: Søren Kjægaard (piano); Ben Street (bass) and Andrew Cyrille (drums and percussion)