All Ears

December 1, 2003

Foaming Wife Hum/Line

Two bands for the price of one could be the come on for this two-CD set by All Ears, an international, but Amsterdam-based sextet of top-ranked players. For while the personnel on each disc is identical, the music takes on a completely different character whether the group’s playing the seven freebop compositions of its tenor saxophonist Frans Vermeerssen on LINE or the more detailed 12 tracks that make up pianist Michiel Braam’s FOAMIMNG WIFE HUM’s Foaming Wife Hum While both sets of tunes shows off the musicians’ outstanding ability to change mood, textures and tones with the roll of an euro, Braam’s more accomplished individuality, coupled with resonance borrowings from across jazz history ends up being more satisfying than Vermeerssen’s almost undiluted modernism. Not that either composer is less than professional, it’s just that the pianist, whose other bands range from a trio to the 13-piece Bik Bent Braam (BBB), is a musical theorist in the unparalleled heritage that includes jokesters like Misha Mengleberg and Willem Breuker. He gives equal weight to experimentation and entertainment.

The sextet is unquestionably able to play anything the two composers put in front of them. German reedist Frank Gratkowski has matched wits with everyone from German pianist Georg Gaewe to American drummer Gerry Hemingway. American drummer Michael Vatcher is a linchpin of the Available Jelly band, while trumpeter Herb Robertson, another Yank, has been on call for gigs as varied as American altoist Tim Berne’s combos to Italian percussionist Tiziano Tononi’s massive big band projects. Braam has led his own bands since 1989. Vermeerssen, who first played with Braam that year and who is a part of BBB, has his own combo and a coop quartet with trombonist Wolter Wierbos. Third Dutchman — along with the tenor saxophonist and pianist– bassist Wilbert de Joode, can find his place as easily in clarinetist Ab Baars’s jazz classicism as violist Ig Henneman’s mixture of so-called classical and improv influences. De Joode, along with others, also gets more chance to showcase his different persona on Braam’s tunes than Vermeerssen,’s more prosaic pieces. Usually on both parts of the set, his time is as firm and solid as a mantle clock, modernistically unflashy like Paul Chambers or Charlie Haden, but with more arco command. “Herbicidally”, for instance, allows him to reveal his inner Pops Foster, slapping away on a tune that recalls vaudeville pit bands. Robertson contributes some open horn bravado and wah-wahs à la Red Allen, Braam chords from his right hand like Fletcher Henderson and the saxes vamp as if they were Coleman Hawkins and Buster Bailey in one of Henderson’s bands from the 1920s. Vatcher’s trap work is so authentic that you almost expect him to emulate Gene Krupa and break out the splash cymbals and choke cymbal for novelty effects.

More closely related to the Dutch sense of the absurd, De Joode begins his arco solo on “Willy-Nilly” with what sounds like the intro from the Beatles “Day Tripper”. At first the buzzing and squealing horns riff, trill and slur every which way as if building up to play “Ascension” then coalesce into another Swing pastiche, surmounted by felt-hatted trumpet mutes. As the brassman toys with the theme in different pitches and registers, the pianist plows along as well, sounding notes that apportion themselves as semi-Ragtime, semi-stride and semi-Bop.Braam offers more tricks from his fingers as the suite runs its course. On the minute “Burry” he lightly exercises his right hand like Teddy Wilson, complemented by de Joode’s bowing, while on “All” the inflections are those of James P. Johnson, if the stride and Charleston composer would have explored different off-kilter octaves and arpeggios with a prepared soundboard. Then there’s the squeaky sound on “Bony”, alive with the pumping and bouncing syncopation some identify with improv from the Netherlands. Among rock-style paradiddles from the drummer are buzzsaw tenor sax slurs and a freight train’s timekeeping power from the bassist, Braam batters the keyboard with a touch more reminiscent of Hillbilly boogie king Roy Hale than Cecil Taylor.

Other features of the suite include some slinky film noir alto obbligatos from Gratkowski; horns riffing in unison in the form of a canon; a native Indian motif transmogrified in Braam’s contrasting low-frequency chord — perhaps transferred via de Joode’s unvarying syncopation from Baars who often does this sort of thing — and the final piece where the muted trumpet sounds as if it’s playing an adagio version of “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” mixed with a funeral march. For his part, Vermeerssen loosens up enough to participate. On “Tenorman” — perhaps named for drummer Lawrence Marable’s West Coast LP that featured James Clay — the saxophonist varies his Getzian timbres and trills with tongue slap, double tonguing, slurs and minor spetrofluctuation. The Wellian — or is it Breukersque? — arrangement includes brassy Dixieland plunger tones from Robertson and Braam jumping from honky-tonk echoes on the keyboard to investigation of the internal soundboard.

Braam’s writing may sometimes verge on pastiche, but with Vermeerssen’s LINE, the influences are much closer to the surface. Many of the pieces reflect what would have happened if the 1960s Jazz Messengers had concentrated on Ornette Coleman heads. Or if the West Coast’s Cool Jazzers had the guts to bring more abstract flourishes to mainstream standards.“Day See”, the longest composition, even sounds as if it begins with the intro from “A Night In Tunisia”, heavy on the bass playing and shifting polyrhythms. Robertson shows that if need be he can replicate a modified version of the Freddie Hubbard/Lee Morgan role, complete with chromatically ascending grace notes, Vatcher contributes a gentle shuffle and Gratkowski some New Thing style squealing.

It’s likely also the alto man who leads the round robin of tongue slaps, key pops, trills, false fingering and what could be balloons bursting that characterize the reed work on “18 Rabbit”. This is coupled with woody tugs from de Joode’s strings, plus growls and mouthpiece kisses from Robertson. It’s definitely Gratkowski who contributes the gentle, coloratura clarinet line and wavering glissando that sound harmonica-like on “As In”. Slow-moving and lullaby-like, Braam’s key shifting and pedal action give the reedist a harmonic cushion as Vatcher adds an irregular drum beat.

All and all, “Petersburg”, the last piece, seems to work the best, perhaps because the unison sounds relate to Vermeerssen’s experience with brass fanfare band. In this comfort zone, the tenor man has a proper setting for his hard-bop-leaning tone, as de Joode slaps the bass and Robertson spews out a speedy set of triplets. Sliding along the keys in a modified, rollicking Swing style, Braam sets up Vatcher’s rapid flams and ruffs and Gratkowski slurring out exaggerated tones without losing the theme. Yet when all the musicians pump out timbres every which way for an avant-garde ending, it sounds more like a symphony orchestra tuning up than any attempt to construct pinpointed and controlled group tumult as John Coltrane did with Ascension.Two bands for the price of one, all right. But most will be able to figure out which leader contributes the more interesting charts.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Hum: 1.Tenorman 2. Offers 3. All 4. Burry 5. Yammerheads 6. Willy-Nilly 7. Improved 8. Bony 9. Ears 10. Herbicidally 11. Up To 12. Drumming

Line: 1. Cherry Pop 2. Line 3. Day See 4. Break 5. 18 Rabbit 6. As In 7. Petersburg

Personnel: Herb Robertson (trumpet); Frank Gratkowski (alto saxophone, clarinet); Frans Vermeerssen (tenor saxophone); Michiel Braam (piano); Wilbert de Joode (bass); Michael Vatcher (drums)