Lest We Forget

Willem Breuker (1944-2010)
By Ken Waxman

The blend of anarchism, precision and humor suggested by Willem Breuker Kollektief (WBK), the name of the ensemble the Dutch saxophonist/composer led for 36 years until his death from lung cancer on July 23, 2010, underlined the fascinating contradictions in his music. A collective has everyone on equal footing no matter how skilled, yet this Kollektief had Breuker as the undisputed boss of a group of first-class soloists. Furthermore the sly joke in this wordplay was also reflected in the WBK’s on-stage horseplay. Breuker not only ensured that the unmistakable modern jazz played included themes by notated composers such as Kurt Weill and George Gershwin, but also a large helping of physical and instrumental comedy that might culminate in the vocalizing of a ’20 ditty like “Yes We Have No Bananas”.

Amsterdam-born on November 4, 1944, Breuker, who usually played tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, had established himself as a free jazz player par excellence before he was 25. In 1967, he, drummer Han Bennink and pianist Misha Mengelberg founded the Instant Composers Pool (ICP), and he worked with variations of that group until 1973. However Breuker was never committed to any single project. Even before he acrimoniously split with the ICP in 1973 to form the WBK, he had already been featured on three European free jazz classics. He, alongside tenor saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, was part of pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach’s first Globe Unity disc in 1966; he, plus saxophonist Evan Parker is on Brötzmann’s Machine Gun from 1968; and vibist/bass clarinetist Günter Hampel’s The 8th of July 1969 had him matching wits with multi-reedist Anthony Braxton.

Later on the 10-piece WBK gave Breuker the scope to feature his own musical ideas, over the years utilizing the talents of star sidemen such as trumpeters Andy Altenfelder and Boy Raaymakers, trombonist Bernard Hunnekink, saxophonist André Goudbeek, bassist Arjen Gorter and vocalists Loes Luca and Greetje Bijma. Besides writing music specifically for the band members, who in many cases remained with the ensemble for years, some of Breuker’s more than 500 compositions were designed as theatre, opera or film scores, written for brass bands, chamber music ensembles, fanfare or symphony orchestras, and even for carillons or barrel organs. Starting in the ‘60s he organized improvised music workshops wherever he toured; and from 1977 to 2005 curated an Amsterdam music festival. In short, Breuker was involved in so many projects and created so much music on his own and with the WBK, that listening to even a wide selection of his discs only roughly approximates the extent of his talents.

—For New York City Jazz Record October 2012