Festival Report

Doek ABC
By Ken Waxman

With many parts of the Netherlands reclaimed from the sea over the centuries, the Dutch have long been adroit recycling, reusing and repurposing. So it’s no surprise that except for the soft-seated Bimhuis, with its magnificent waterfront view, most venues for this year’s Doek ABC Improvisation Festival in Amsterdam, April 29 to May 4, had initially been built as schools, warehouses and even a dungeon. These locations were particularly pertinent for this year’s fest which united local improvisers (A) with visitors from Berlin (B) and Chicago (C). The festival also demonstrated how different musicians repurpose the jazz and improvised traditions.

Probably the most spectacular instance of this repurposing came in the three ‘round midnight performances by Hook, Line & Sinker (HLS) at the Spinhuis. A former dungeon located beneath the Multatuli Bridge, the cramped, subterranean space was an ideal setting for the unique sensibilities of slide trumpeter Axel Dörner, tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Tobias Delius, cellist Tristan Honsinger and bassist Antonio Borghini. Seeming at time either performance of Waiting for Godot or a vaudeville act, the performance relied as much on verbal as instrumentalist improvisation. Usually sparked by Honsinger, the verbal wordplay often evolved into skits, with the four continuously changing places in the room, singing pseudo sea shanties or acting out neo-Dadaist playlets. Euphonious as well as entertaining, innate musical sophistication allowed Delius to slurp pre-modern styled balladry and post-modern screeches with the same conviction he used to deflect the cellist’s puns; and Dörner to growl split tones from his bell or rhythmically advance a tune blowing raspberries sans trumpet.

Another musician who epitomized rhythm and humor was South African reedist Sean Bergin (1948-2012), an Amsterdam resident from 1976 until his death. His music was celebrated as the climax of the festival’s five-stop bicycle tour at De Ruimte, an abandoned factory converted to a café. The packed house swayed and sometimes danced along to Bergin tunes that repurposed kwela jive into swinging jazz. Celebrants representing all three cities were cornetists Eric Boeren and Josh Berman, trombonists Jeb Bishop and Wolter Wierbos, tenor saxophonists John Dikeman and Delius, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, bass guitarist Jasper Stadhouders and drummer Frank Rosaly. In this line up, contrasts between Bishop’s contemporary gutbucket and Wierbos’ polished emotionalism were clear, as was Delius’ creamy tone stacked up against Dikeman’s frenetic New Thing-like textures. Adasiewicz’s energetic clanking sparked the ensemble, as he did in subsequent match-ups at Zaal 100, a school converted to music space, while Rosaly cannily suggested steel pan vibrations plus African drum beats.

Other drum distinctions were confirmed at a rare showcase in the Bimhuis bar the next night featuring Amsterdam’s Onno Govaert, Berlin’s Christian Lillinger and Chicago’s Mikel Avery. Lillinger, whose immense energy and jerky, marionette-like motions were prominently paraded in other ensembles during the fest, and showcased with comfortable cohesion during an earlier Bimhuis set with his long-running Hyperactive Kid trio featuring tenor saxophonist Philipp Gropper and guitarist Ronny Graupe, swept and slugged every implement in sight that night while chopping the beat into tinier particles. Avery, whose playing appeared fragmented and tame as part of Amsterdam pianist Oscar Jan Hoogland’s otherwise all Windy City quartet of tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson and bassist Josh Abrams, which ran through abrupt versions of Monk and Herbie Nichols tunes following that Hyperactive Kid set, was a revelation in the Bimhuis percussion discussion. His illusion of sluggishness was in fact restraint and that night Avery scored with modest motions: rubbing a mini cymbal on the snare, balancing a small tin on a drum stick, shaking a bell and intermittently setting up hypnotic press rolls. Faced with a choice between extremes, Govaert chose the middle course, using mallets, stick and brushes to alternately complement the German’s bluster or stimulate the American’s rhythmic latitude.

Hoogland, who emceed most performances and participated in terpsichorean plus musical fashion in some of the meetings between instrumentalists and seven dancers during the festival, distinguished himself directing a salute to Sun Ra’s music during an earlier bicycle tour stop at a permanently moored boat converted into an arts space. Playing mostly clavichord and synthesizer, Hoogland was joined by Dörner, Lillinger, bass clarinetist Jason Stein, bassist Abrams and drummer Mike Reed. As ebullient as the keyboardist’s personality, the wiggling foot-tappers from Ra’s ‘50s and ‘60s period were perfect melodies for a sunny afternoon and additionally demonstrated that the trumpeter, who was seeing the charts for the first time, was as effective playing in a near-mainstream context as with experimental music.

Experimental sounds were paramount at Zaal 100 on the festival’s penultimate day with a band featuring Bishop, Dikeman, Borghini, Lillinger and pianist Kaja Draksler. Barefoot and bellicose, with the exaggerated moves of an arena rock guitarist, Dikeman produced reed splutters and cries that at times may have seemed random and epileptic. But he relaxed into an unexpectedly melodious interlude during the set’s final minutes. Lillinger worked up a continuous sound barrage from behind his three-cymbal kit during the proceedings, launching as many sticks in the air as hit drum tops. Meanwhile, the bassist vibrated a stick between his strings and whacked the instrument’s bridge with his bow for maximum percussiveness, and even Draksler used mallets to wham the piano’s sting set sporadically when she wasn’t providing continuum with focused chording. As in other situations, whether using noises to blend with dancers’ improvisations, or interpolating straight-ahead melodies while pacing the festival’s ABC big band, Bishop was in his element that night, as he shook out elongated smears to match Dikeman’s expositions. More mannerly contemporary improvisation followed this set in a quintet that united Chicagoans Reed, Adasiewicz and alto saxophonist Greg Ward with hosts Boeren and bassist Wilbert de Joode whose every move nailed the compositions’ expositions. Tuneful where the previous band had been spiky, this quartet blended cornet, vibes and bowed bass tones, with Ward’s unexpected smoothness contrasting nicely with Reed’s rugged rim shots. The most memorable moment though comes when Boren uncorked a perfectly constructed unaccompanied solo that was both audacious and admirable.

Boeren and Draksler were two of the eight Amsterdam residents who provided a variant of new Dutch swing at the festival’s opening Bimhuis concert. Featured was alto saxophonist/clarinetist Michael Moore’s Bigtet that included Wierbos, baritone saxophonist Giuseppe Doronzo, guitarist Jorrit Westerhof and, in their only festival appearance, former-Willem Breuker Kollektif stalwart, bassist Arjen Gorter and long-time ICP Orchestra drummer Han Bennink. Settled into a band role and seemingly docile in his solos compared to the likes of Lillinger, Bennink epitomized with the festival’s cooperative theme, adding a Big Sid Catlett-like momentum to Moore’s compositions. Transmitted by horn riffs to which Draksler sometimes added melodica harmonies, Moore’s compositions alluded to Tin Pan Alley ditties, boogie blues, Duke Ellington-like elegance and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Flawlessly executed, if lacking an edge, the presence of so venerable a Dutch improviser as Bennink and one as young as Draksler in the same band, confirmed the continued vitality of the Dutch improvisational scene.

Other performances than these took place during the six-day Festival, confirming both the bounty and universality of this Netherlands-based repurposed music. It also shows why the Doek festival manages to be impressively different every year.

—For The New York City Jazz Record June 2016