dOeK Festival #9: Amsterdam, The Netherlands, December 4, 2010

dOeK Festival #9: Amsterdam, The Netherlands, December 4, 2010
John Kelman By

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dOeK Festival #9
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
December 4, 2010

While the majority of the 200 international delegates who attended Dutch Jazz & World Meeting 2010, in Amsterdam, struggled with flight delays due to an early and tremendously severe arrival of winter and, for some, the impact of an air traffic controller strike in Spain, a small subset—including journalists from abroad, and representatives from festivals including Molde Jazz, the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival, Sunfest and Jazz em Agosto—made the decision to stay an extra day, in order to attend dOeK Festival #9 at the city's legendary Bimhuis club. It was the right choice on more than one level. First, by the time this one-day, left-of-center festival was over, the weather had cleared, and flights leaving Schiphol airport, the following day, were largely back on schedule. Second, and far more important, it was an opportunity to catch a number of established and/or up-and-coming improvised music groups (all from The Netherlands, with the exception of the closing group, Norway's The Thing), and hear the collective 18 musicians, from these five groups, come together for brief, without-a-safety-net musical collaborations in a wide variety of permutations and combinations.

That's because dOeK is a festival with a concept, and one that sets it apart from other improvised music festivals. In between group performances—this year including The Ambush Party, Available Jelly, The Gap, Wollo's World and The Thing—a series of encounters, called Mix and Match, were organized; ten-minute exchanges by musicians who may or may not have been meeting for the first time, but who almost certainly had never come together in these very combinations before.

dOeK is, at its core, a musicians' collective, based in Amsterdam, that focuses on improvised music. Its genesis dates back to 2001, when its five founding members—trumpeter Eric Boeren, reed/woodwind multi-instrumentalist Tobias Delius, pianist/guitarist Cor Fuhler, bassist Wilbert de Joode, and trombonist Wolter Wierbos—came together with a common vision regarding improvised music, and the founding idea of sharing their collective knowledge with other musicians. dOeK—from de Oefening de Kunst which, in turn, references a Dutch phrase reducing down to "practice makes perfect"—has, since that time, engendered a philosophy that improvised music needs to be practiced, both in the rehearsal hall and the concert stage. It's a concept that may, perhaps, seem antithetical to the very spontaneous foundation of the genre, but one which actually makes perfect sense. It may be extemporaneous music, but making it is still as much craft as it is art, which means that it needs to be honed through practice—both in rehearsal and on the concert stage. The not-for-profit organization has since grown to include a roster of 22 musicians, and its annual festival is an opportunity to bring most, if not all, of them together, for an evening of consolidation, exploration, evolution...and, occasionally revolution.

The five groups and numerous Mix and Match teamings made it clear that there's much more to improvised music than "everybody in the pool," and that knowledge of its own long history and of other traditions including jazz and classical music, are essential to creating music of substance and import. If there was any single lesson to be learned from the eight hour festival, it was this: to break the rules, first one has to know them. And, perhaps, one more: when it comes to improvised music—especially when it's absolutely unplanned and unpremeditated—success isn't always a given; but, sometimes, the journey to a destination can be as important and compelling as the destination itself.

Chapter Index
  1. The Ambush Party
  2. Mix and Match #1
  3. Available Jelly
  4. The Gap
  5. Wollo's World
  6. The Thing

The Ambush Party

Having literally just received copies of its self-titled debut CD on the de Platenbakkerij label that afternoon, The Ambush Party's pianist and spokesperson, Oscar Jan Hoogland, enthusiastically introduced the quartet's performance as its CD release party. But those looking for a typical celebration would have to look elsewhere, as this group of intrepid free improvisers wouldn't have lived up to its name, had it made any attempts to actually recreate the music on the disc.

From left: Oscar Jan Hoogland, Harald Austbø

Instead, The Ambush Party did what it does best: work together as an extemporaneous collective, in search of sound and color, mood and, occasionally, melody, amidst the various nooks and crannies each of these musicians provided in a set that demonstrated no shortage of listening skills amongst these instrumentalists. In addition to Hoogland's work inside the piano box and out—also employing a variety of preparation techniques, including small fans and a slide, to expand the instrument's sonic potential—tenor saxophonist Natalio Sued ran the gamut from droning, circular breathing to tremendous control in the upper register. Not content to bow or pluck the strings of his cello, Harald Austbø also strummed furiously at times, while Marcos Baggiani's drum kit was expanded to include a variety of hand devices, and some small blown instruments, including a harmonica and a kazoo.

Like many Dutch groups—an endemic characteristic stemming from the cosmopolitan nature of The Netherlands, in general, and Amsterdam in particular—only one member of The Ambush Party was actually Dutch (Hoogland), with Sued and Baagiani hailing from South America (Brazil and Argentina, respectively), and Austbø, from Norway. But together as The Ambush Party, origins become more or less superfluous, though Baggiani's use of harmonica did, in the freest way possible, create the minutest of links to folk music of the Argentinean rainforest. Passages so quiet it was almost necessary to lean forward to hear them, were juxtaposed with occasional dramatic bursts, as Sued demonstrated an ability to evoke consonant multiphonics rarely heard outside of Norwegian saxophonist Hakon Kornstad, while Austbø's pizzicato created, at times, an ostinato, leading to contrapuntal intertaction with Hoogland that, if not less than extreme, provided, at least, some of the set's more accessible moments.

It was a challenging set, but as much as the music possessed an air of gravitas, Hoogland's enthusiastic behavior before, during and after the set made clear that the feeling that this was all so serious was a misperception; not so surprisingly, The Ambush Party's music was about having fun, and if anyone was being ambushed, it was the audience, which was certainly confronted and confounded by the group's relentlessly exploratory nature.

Mix and Match #1

The first set of Mix and Match sessions brought together a variety of configurations, ranging from duo to quartet, and from the semi-regularly configured to more unorthodox contexts.

Available Jelly saxophonist Michael Moore—an American expat living in The Netherlands for the past three decades—and The Thing's drummer (and ubiquitous star in his own right, a frequent collaborator with Ken Vandermark, Peter Brötzmann, and a member of the longstanding Scandinavian group, Atomic), Paal Nilssen-Love came together for a short encounter that focused on the purity of Moore's tone and the value of motivic development in free improv. It also demonstrated why both players are so highly regarded in this space: the listening quotient was high, making the twists and turns taken by the duo, if not exactly predictable, then at least understandable, in the context of where they were going being based on where they were coming from.

From left: Cor Fuhler, Oren Marshall, Mats Gustafsson

More eminently visceral was a quartet combining Available Jelly's tubaist, Oren Marshall, and drummer Michael Vatcher (another three decade American expat), The Gap's Cor Fuhler (on piano), and The Thing's Mats Gustafsson—whose constant physical motion, as he tilted his tenor saxophone up and down, mirrored the sounds emanating from his horn. This was, at times, the musical equivalent of spontaneous combustion, as Gustafsson proved here, and throughout the evening, to be a player of near-relentless energy, but again without sacrificing the ears needed to make even the most reckless abandon somehow find its way to oblique form.

A third collaboration, this time between two bassists (The Thing's Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, The Gap's Jan Roder) and two drummers (The Ambush Party's Marcos Baggiani and The Gap's Steve Heather), may have seemed like it would emphasize the low end of the sonic spectrum, but with Baggiani playing as much harmonica as he did percussion, there were upper end sonics as well...and, with Baggiani sporting strange, brass-like headgear, the levity factor was also in full flight. Håker Flaten swirled his hand around the strings while Roder bowed furiously, as Heather and Baggiani pulled textures from their kits and sundry extras that were, quite simply, completely unexpected.

From left: Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, Marcos Baggiani, Jan Roder

Finally, Håker Flaten, Wollo's World pianist Kris Defoort, Available Jelly trumpeter Eric Boeren, and Ambush Party cellist Harald Austbø, and saxophonists Natalio Sued came together for a more curious exploration. Boeren's muted horn and Sued's long, low tones created a gentler backdrop for the near-chamber combination of bass and cello.

Available Jelly

The final set, before a two-hour break for dinner, was delivered by Available Jelly, dOeK Festival's group with the longest history, having formed nearly three decades ago, when reedman Michael Moore and drummer Michael Vatcher emigrated from the United States to The Netherlands. The group's lineup has changed—in fact, only Moore and Vatcher remain from the group that released its self-titled, Ramboy debut in 1984, and the quintet's most recent recruit, tubaist Oren Marshall, was cited as having joined the group "about six hours ago." Still, the underlying premise of Available Jelly remained.

From left: Oren Marshall, Walter Wierbos, Eric Boeren Michael Moore, Michael Vatcher

Unlike The Ambush Party's completely spontaneous music, Available Jelly does work with structure—at times, even complex form. But the improvisational prowess of its current lineup, which also includes trumpeter Eric Boeren and trombonist Walter Wierbos (two of the dOeK collective's five founding fathers), meant that even predictable constructs were delivered with unpredictable behavior. The group's music was almost encyclopedic in its referencing of jazz history; with such a brass-heavy frontline—tuba replacing acoustic bass, and no chordal instrument—Available Jelly sometimes sounded how the early jazz of New Orleans might have, had it been twisted and turned, pushed and pulled, and sent through a dense prism.

The groups most recent release, Bilbao's Song (Ramboy, 2004), is a quirky collection of original music and idiosyncratic takes on music by Hoagy Carmichael, Burt Bacharach and Kurt Weill, and the group dipped even further back into its early repertoire with "Wigwam," from Monuments (Ramboy, 1993), and forward with plenty of new music like "Chill, Chill Sun," a particularly beautiful piece where the horns delivered a melody in a staggered fashion, to turn its simple melody into a rich, vertical harmony, with Vatcher's bowed saw adding to the otherworldly landscape.

Amongst a group as accomplished as this, where the collective whole transcended the sum of its individual parts, Marshall and Wierbos were particularly noteworthy, if only for the trombonist's stunningly ability to mine the truly vocal nature of his instrument, and the tubaist's surprising timbral breadth. Free improvisation blended with strong written music, with sometimes the subtlest of cues signaling the shift from one to the other, to create a short set that was, for those hearing the group for the first time, a compelling reason to make sure they didn't make it their last.

The Gap

After the dinner break, dOek Festival #9 resumed with The Gap, an as-yet unrecorded group built around two members of pianist Cor Fuhler's Corkestra—the leader, and reedman Tobias Delius—along with bassist Jan Roder and drummer Steve Heather, an Australian expat now living in Berlin. The biggest single shift, other than the group's reduced size (Corkestra, a octet or nonet, who performed at the 2008 Ottawa International Jazz Festival), was Fuhler's shift from piano to guitar. Sometimes learning a new instrument—and, even more, writing for it—can shake an artist out of his/her comfort zone; not that Fuhler was anything resembling tired or predictable, but clearly his switching to a different instrument in the formation of this group has shifted its compositional sound, though in some ways it still clearly retains the oblique and curious nature of his writing for Corkestra.

From left: Cor Fuhler, Steve Heather, Jan Roder, Tobias Delius

With its smaller size and Fuhler's unprocessed, low-tech hollow body guitar, The Gap is also a darker, more brooding group, with Fuhler's sometimes repetitive patterns creating a harmonic foundation over which Delius, on clarinet, was often the quartet's most visible soloist. And with everyone still reading from charts, it was clear that Fuhler's constructs required no shortage of concentration, as Roder and Heather bucked tradition and, while occasionally providing a collective pulse, just as often contributed to The Gap's darker textures, implying time as much as actually playing it.

Fuhler may be using The Gap to push himself into new directions, and he has clearly evolved some facility on guitar, but what was less than clear was just how deep a comfort level he has on his new instrument. Some of the music loosely resembled the knotty idiosyncrasies of Bill Frisell's Quartet (Nonesuch, 1996), though Fuhler is clearly not as broad-reaching as the well-known American guitarist. Still, it's early days for The Gap, and what will be most intriguing will be to see what this group manages to come up with, should he ultimately decide to record.

Wollo's World

A second round of Mix and Match encounters was highlighted by a horn-heavy meeting of trumpeter Eric Boeren, saxophonists Mats Gustafsson and Tobias Delius, trombonist Wolter Wierbos, and tubaist Oren Marshall, that ranged from the high energy, high octane blowing expected from Gustafsson, to gentler moments of near-classicism. Marshall—tuba between his legs and bent over so far as it was hard to believe he didn't topple over—gradually brought his instrument onto the ground, as he dragged it back and forth on the stage, creating a weird optic that was as much a poster for the unfettered abandon of the dOeK festival as anything seen or heard to that point. Clearly anything was possible, and nothing was forbidden.

A concept that was easily applied to the final two performances of the evening. First, the duo of Wollo's World—trombonist Wolter Wierbos and pianist Kris Defoort—delivered an all-improv set that posits Wierbos as one of the most accomplished trombonists in improvised music. Between a surprisingly broad range of extended techniques that turned the trombone into an almost impossible sound controller, from vivid melodism to blaring brashness and percussive punctuations. A number of mutes and plungers were swapped in and out at near-light speed, further expanding Wierbos' palette; and if that weren't enough, Wierbos' approach to the instrument's more conventional range bordered on the frightening, as he made clear that his command of the instrument transcended even the extremes of virtuosity, as he made full use of its expressive tone; as close to the rich variations of the human voice as any instrument.

Wolter Wierbos of Wollo's World

In the face of Wierbos' knockout performance here (and throughout the festival), Defoort's pianism was, perhaps, overshadowed, though he proved himself a sensitive partner as he moved inside and outside the box, with a more eminently selfless stance than the commanding Wierbos, who avoided any kind of superfluous "look at me" excesses, yet was impossible not to watch, nevertheless. The other strength of the performance was its relative brevity: at somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes, it never became tired or overdone, when a typical, longer performance might have done just that. Here, with its limited time, Wierbos and Defoort's set was a marvel of improvisational ingenuity, and one that never lost either focus or direction, as the music moved from extremes of quiet and economy to those of power and frenzy.

The Thing

As has been the case with previous dOEK festivals, space was reserved to invite one non-Dutch group. This year, it was Norway's The Thing, the tremendous improvising trio of saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. Something of a supergroup—since each one of these players is a leader in his own right, and a busy collaborator in a collective C.V. that includes Atomic, Scorch Trio, Ken Vandermark, Circulasione Totale Orchestra, Peter Brötzmann, Fire!, Trygve Seim, and Håkon Kornstad—The Thing's M.O. is free improvisation, and of a generally raw, visceral and cathartic nature, and this performance was no different. Gustafsson was, as in his earlier Mix and Matches, just about impossible to pin down, a player in constant motion; and while his trio mates were a little less so because of the inherent limitations of their larger, less portable instruments, they nevertheless matched Gustafsson in incendiary energy.

The Thing, with Special Guest Joe McPhee From left: Paal Nilssen-Love, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, Joe McPhee, Mats Gustafsson

That's not to say The Thing doesn't demonstrate dynamics; its most powerful moments made even more so by, if not exactly quiet segments, then certainly more subdued ones. One of the set's most potent moments, was the growth of a repeated, three-note saxophone phrase that Gustafsson began at a low level, with Nilssen-Love using mallets around the kit to create a more tribal vibe, as Håker Flaten exercised his own restraint before gradually joining Gustafsson, to build the ostinato to a fever pitch.

A fever pitch made all the more heated by the guest appearance, shortly after the set began, of Joe McPhee, who'd showed up earlier during a Mix and Match on trumpet, but this time on saxophone, doubling Gustafsson; and, as the ostinato continued to build, departing into improvisational extremes of his own. With Gustafsson alternating between tenor and a baritone that almost took the roof off Bimhuis, it was an expanded but acoustic version of The Thing that was also significantly different than the electrified energy of Bag It! (Smalltown Superjazzz, 2009).

But, given the largely acoustic flavor of dOeK Festival's other participants, it made better contextual sense, and was certainly no less exciting. The attendance at dOeK was a little down, thanks to the inclement weather of an early winter storm that had paralyzed much of Europe over the past few days, but the smaller audience was no less vocal, and no less insistent that The Thing return for an encore. To keep the festival on track, other acts weren't permitted to return, but since the evening was at an end, it was possible. After the lengthy explorations of its 40-minute, continuous set, The Thing then proved capable of spontaneity in a shorter timeframe, as it delivered a roughly five-minute encore that perfectly capped off a fine day of music without a safety net.

Visit The Ambush Party , Available Jelly, The Gap, Wollo's World, The Thing and dOeK Festival on the web.

Photo Credits

All Photos: John Kelman




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