The cosmopolitan state of improvised music today is really nothing new. Artists have been playing mix-and-match in jazz for decades, while musicians originating in other genres have continued to approach it from a host of different angles. British bassist Hugh Hopper may have started out in 1960s psychedelia with Wilde Flowers, but by the time the early 1970s had arrived, his association with the legendary genre-busting Soft Machine found the group morphing from post-Dadaist pop to edgy free improvisationalbeit with an intrepid rock-edged approach and volume that echoed similar goings-on across the Atlantic.
Still, a certain distinction differentiated Soft Machine and other Canterbury bands: a certain pop-like sensibility, as well as clearer influence by classical form, often of a more contemporary nature. Hopper left Soft Machine in 1972, and following a series of solo projects, he fell silent in the early 1980s. When he returned, his longest-lasting and arguably most personal project was the "Franglo-Dutch band, which remained together for fifteen years, releasing a number of fine jazz-rock discs, including Meccano Pelorus and Alive. Despite a variety of personnel changes, Dutch woodwind player Frank van der Kooij was a constant in this group. His own free-thinking blend of styles, still ultimately revolving around an extemporaneous aesthetic, seemed a perfect fit for Hopper's own broad-minded approach to creating unique aural contexts where looping and sampling integrated with rock-based but jazz-inflected environs for improvisational exploration.
Hopper's band ultimately dissolved at the beginning of the decade, but his association with van der Kooijs continued, and so when van der Kooijs was putting together his own project to explore a more personal atmospheric approach, Hopper was an ideal recruit. Enlisting two other Franglo-Dutch alumnitrombonist Robert Jarvis and drummer Pieter Bastalong with guitarist Niels Brouwer and keyboardist Paul Maassen, NDIO is something that could only have emerged from Hopper's continued aegis. Yet the band and its debut record, Airback, differentiates itself from Frango-Dutch projects by its more finely-detailed structural constructs, richer atmospherics, and even greater resistance to stylistic pigeonholing.
Take van der Kooij's "Last Night of the Prawns. Opening with a weighty, melodramatic theme that is pure Van der Graaf Generator, it breaks down into a brief free section until Bast's light kit work introduces the lengthy syncopated theme, segueing into a more rock-based two-chord vamp for Jarvis' solo and extroverted interplay with van der Kooijs. And all this in a brief five minutes. "Mr. Barn is initially a chamber-like tone poem until its middle section, where Brouwer's guitar synth and Hopper's bass pattern deliver a darker complexion, with Bast's brushes and Maassen's jazz-centric piano ultimately lightening the mood.
Tight ensemble work, a product of van der Kooij's broad outreach, blends seamlessly with improvised passages and a rhythmic approach that rests somewhere between rock and jazz, but never precisely resembles either. Airback will appeal to fans of the Canterbury sceneand, for that matter, anyone looking for progressive music that avoids the trappings of bombast and instead aims for texture and focused openendedness.
Personnel: Frank van der Kooij: tenor and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet; Hugh Hopper: bass, samples (1, 7); Pieter Bast (drums); Niels Brouwer: guitar, nylon string acoustic guitar, guitar synth (3, 8), samples (6,8); Paul Maassen: piano, Hammond organ; Robert Jarvis: trombone; Michael Banabila: samples (2, 6).