Ottawa Jazz Festival Day 7: June 27, 2007
In 2005, TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival Executive Director Catherine O'Grady introduced the Improv Invitational series, intended to bring a diversity of groups whose focus was on collective improvisation to the festival lineup. It's been a successful series and, while some past performances have been of the completely free variety, bassist John Geggie's show this year on Day 5 demonstrated that even so-called "free jazz" is not just about unstructured free play. Instead, many of the artists use unconventional constructs to help motivate the more unfettered explorations. This balance between structure and freedom could not have been more evident than on Day Seven of the 2007 OIJF, when the Dutch ICP (Instant Composers Pool) delivered a ninety-minute set that was at times paradoxically exhilarating, subtle, richly arranged and filled with reckless abandon.
Founded in the late 1960s by woodwind multi-instrumentalist Willem Breuker, pianist Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink, the group has been something of a revolving door with some of the best of the Dutch avant-garde scene passing through over the years. Breuker is no longer with ICP, but Mengelberg and Bennink are, currently surrounded by an unorthodox group that includes a violinist/violist, cellist, double bassist, trumpet, trombone and three saxophonists/clarinetists. The orchestration provides for plenty of color, and some unusual instrumental subsets, as on the opening piece (a Mengleberg arrangement of a Herbie Nichols composition), on which trumpeter Thomas Heberer soloed in tandem with cellist Tristan Honsinger.
A book called New Dutch Swing (Billboard Books, 1998) describes the distinctive Dutch jazz scene as "Jazz + Classical + Absurdism," and it's no surprise that the cover features Bennink, truly one of the greatest improvising drummers alivea combination of staggering technique, unerring feel and, at times, complete musical madness. Mengelberg also gets considerable attention, as he's been equally instrumental in developing an instantly recognizable approach that takes even the most familiar material and puts it through a prism that refracts it in new and unexpected ways.
The rest of the group consists of a number of younger but equally notable playersthe cream, in fact, of the Dutch crop. Reedmen Michael Moore, Ab Baars and Tobias Delius (the latter two performing at both the 2007 Festival International de Musique Actuelle Victoriaville (FIMAV) with pianist Cor Fuhler's Corkestra, and trombonist Juis Boost's Astronotes at the 2006 OIJF) are equally notable, as are Honsinger, trombonist Walter Wierbos and bassist Ernst Glerum. Violinist/violist Mary Oliver (who also acted as MC to the audience, announcing the material) and trumpeter Thomas Heberer are more recent luminaries on the Dutch scene, but no less impressive than their better-known bandmates.
l:r: Mary Oliver, Tristan Honsinger, Ernst Glerum, Walter Wierbos, Han Bennink, Tobias Delius, Ab Baars, Michael Moore
ICP is all about juxtaposition. At any given moment a seemingly anarchistic series of open-ended and bombastic improvs can morph into a defined pulse that makes the aggregation's debt to the jazz tradition crystal clear. An arranged woodwind chamber ensemble delivers something more closely related to contemporary classical music, but suddenly dissolves into a chaotic exchange, with everyone in the group back in the pool. Mengelberg's largely spare but no-less-twisted approach contrasts with Wierbos,' who delivered one of the set's most thrilling solostaking the extended techniques that are commonly heard amongst trombonists and magnifying them exponentially.
The music was beautiful at times, jagged at others, but the skewed sense of the absurd definiing much of the Dutch avant-garde scene was never far from the surface. While it was a little tight fitting the dectet on The Fourth Stage's relatively small platform, its members made great use of the space. During this largely acoustic performance (only the piano, violin and viola were miked, with Glerum plugged into a bass amplifier), one frontline member would solo while the remaining musicians could be found at the back of the stage, creating shifting sound mixes naturally, much as reedman Peter BrÃtzmann's tentet did at the FIMAV in 2004.
As outstanding as Mengelberg's charts were (including an idiosyncratic take on Duke Ellington, in sharp contrast to UMO Jazz Orchestra's performance on Day Five), and as strong as every band member was, it was hard to take one's eyes off Bennink, who combined virtuosity and entertaining showmanship. If there's one musician to define what New Dutch Swing is, it's Bennink. Moving practically instantaneously from using the kit as an orchestral instrument to swinging hard, he delivered a relentlessly creative and energetic solo towards the end of the performance that may answer the question "How does he do that?" on many drummers' minds but won't go any further in helping them to actually reproduce it. Bennink would rapidly put one leg on his kit (then, athletically, quickly switch feet, a remarkable feat for anyone, let alone a 65- year-old man), using it to change the pitch of the drum it was on, not to mention provide yet another object for the intrepid drummer to hit. Yelling out at times, he bounced a drumstick off the floor, hollering "Got it," "Got it again" and, finally, "Didn't get it," before moving on.
Mengelberg, on the other hand, stayed mostly in the background, leaving most of the solo space to his fellow musicians. When he did solo, it was spare and abstruse. With everyone in ICP, there's no denying each musician's understanding of both jazz and classical traditions, the entire stylistic spectrums and chronologies of both musics. But it's that third component, the absurdity, that made ICP's performance another festival highlight, a resoundingly convincing demonstration that it's possible to challenge and entertain at the same time.
Tomorrow: Dr. Lonnie Smith and Dhafer Youssef.
Visit ICP Orchestra and the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival on the web.