Dutch Jazz & World Meeting 2010: December 1-3, 2010

Dutch Jazz & World Meeting 2010: December 1-3, 2010
John Kelman By

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Dutch Jazz & World Meeting
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
December 1-3, 2010
As difficult as it can sometimes be to appreciate how far jazz has evolved since making its first infant steps in the United States at the beginning of the 20th Century, it's equally remarkable to consider the scene in Europe. Beginning as a relative carbon copy of its partners across the Atlantic, jazz in the past fifty years inside the many countries that make up the European Union (and those that have opted not to belong) has evolved to add their own multifarious, multifaceted and multiplicious voices to a music that has long since gone from being America's music to being a truly global concern. And as more and more musicians hit the international stage, it also becomes increasingly clear that individual countries possess individual voices, despite being stylistically spread across the largest possible continuum, ranging from free improvisation and modern mainstream to edgy fusion, electronic and much, much more.

The Dutch scene, since emerging in the 1960s, has been defined by a combination of respect, irreverence and impish humor. Now-legendary artists like drummer Han Bennink may, half a century on, have a reputation based as much in the near-performance art of his live shows as in an unparalleled ability to do more with a single snare drum than most drummers do with an entire kit; but as his television performance with legendary guitarist Wes Montgomery, collected on the recent Jazz Icons Series DVD Wes Montgomery: Live in '65 (Reelin' in the Years, 2007) demonstrates, this is a drummer with no shortage of cred in the American tradition.

Were he to have continued on in such a straightforward and straight-ahead fashion, Bennink would have become nothing more than a fine mimic. Instead, as part of the emergent scene thoroughly documented in Kevin Whitehead's remarkable New Dutch Swing (Billboard, 2000), the drummer has become part of his own jazz iconoclasm in a scene that, with fellow creative spirits Misha Mengelberg and Willem Breuker, broke down a number of barriers to bring even further cross-pollination to a music defined by grand inclusion, all the while respecting many of the tenets that defined jazz in the first place.

More than many, the Dutch scene has incorporated a puckish sense of the absurd into the music, making it something that not only may have depth and linguistic complexity at its core, but something that also can be flat out fun. This quality ran as an undercurrent through the three-day Dutch & Jazz World Meeting, held in Amsterdam in early December when the continent was hit with a first blast of winter so severe that many airports were closed or significantly backed up, and the capital of The Netherlands experienced one of its coldest days in nearly two hundred years.

Dutch Jazz & World Meeting (DJ&WM), organized by MusicExport.nl, invited two hundred delegates from as far away as Canada, the USA, Brazil and Japan, for a two-day, three-night event aimed at exposing festival promoters, booking agents, record labels, journalists and others to a music scene that, in the past half century, has expanded to bursting point. The primary objective of the meeting was to encourage networking and knowledge amongst the delegates and musicians—directly, as well as through their record labels, managers and publicists—with the ultimate goal of finding new places in the world for these artists to bring their music. In addition to the two hundred delegates, it was possible to register and attend DJ&WM for a fee, and there were plenty of Dutch musicians and industry folks, along with those coming from abroad, ready to pay the registration fee in order to immerse themselves in the music for two days and attend a series of daytime workshops, including The Art of the Interview (for aspiring journalists), Focus on the USA (about the limitations and opportunities for touring in the United States), Jazz.X (an exciting new initiative intended to aggregate multi-lingual content under one virtual roof), Using Online and Social Media, and more. The daytime programs also included access to two floors of the Information Market—trade tables where delegates could meet with members of the Dutch scene—musicians, record labels, management companies and more, where it was possible to watch videos, listen to music and pick up the latest releases.

The first evening featured a hosted a dinner for invited delegates from abroad at the large venue that also houses the second incarnation of Amsterdam's legendary Bimhuis club, and special opening night performances by a duo of saxophonist Lee Konitz and pianist/composer Guus Jansen; the post-punk world music-centric group, The Ex; and a DJ set from American expat saxophonist Michael Moore. The next two main evenings of the event were reserved for a series of showcases featuring 16 artists each night, at staggered times in four venues, at the converted Melkweg cinema and Sugar Factory club, located across the street. Two trade dinners before each evening's series of showcases—one for primarily world music delegates, the other for those more closely associated with the jazz world, though the lines between the two often blurred—encouraged the free exchange of ideas as Senior Project Manager Cees de Bever encouraged everyone to "mingle, throw your business cards around, and get some business done."

Dutch Jazz & World Meeting Information Market

The result was a tremendously dense couple of days where new relationships were forged and existing ones strengthened, all within the context of hearing groups that ranged from the relatively new (pianist Harmen Fraanje's Avalonia trio, vocalist Simin Tander, and the stunning and as-yet-unrecorded Lenneke Van Staalen) to the longer-standing (pianist Cor Fuhler's Corekestra, trumpeter Eric Vloeimans' Gatecrash, guitarist Anton Goudsmit's The Ploctones, and saxophonist Benjamin Herman's Quartet). If there was any one complaint, it was: too much to do, and nowhere near enough time.

And the weather didn't help. The 200 delegates were largely put up in two lovely hotels—the Eden Amsterdam American and Eden Amsterdam Rembrandt—but to get to the daytime and nighttime venues, it was necessary to either walk in the bitter, wind-driven cold, or take a cab, which proved, at least on one occasion, to be a terrifying experience. Eco-friendly bicycles have right of way in Amsterdam, but when snow began to fall on Friday and then kept up through Saturday in a city with no real infrastructure to handle it, it became a life-threatening experience to be in a cab—bicycles swerved in front of a vehicle with no snow tires and a driver with no experience in this kind of weather, as the narrow Amsterdam streets became a rollercoaster of fishtailing cars, careless bicycles, and intrepid pedestrians.

Still, the weather was only a minor deterrent for an event that provided plenty of opportunity to become immersed in the music of the Dutch scene, and whether inclined towards jazz, world music, or both, it was an exciting and compelling couple of days.

Chapter Index
  1. December 2: Jasper Blom Quartet
  2. December 2: Harmen Fraanje Trio
  3. December 2: Benjamin Herman Quartet
  4. December 2: The Ploctones
  5. December 3: Simin Tander Quartet
  6. December 3: Eric Vloeimans' Gatecrash
  7. DJ&WM Wrap-Up

December 2: Jasper Blom Quartet

First up at the Melkweg Cinema, saxophonist Jasper Blom and his quartet played a relatively brief performance, drawing on the quartet's two Mainland Music releases: Statue of Liberty (2008); and Dexterity (2010). With showcase sets limited to approximately 45 minutes, Blom's group still succeeded in delivering a strong performance and a thorough cross-section of its varied musical interests.

Blom's guitarist, Jesse van Ruller, may be the best-known of the group on an international level, with albums on the Netherlands-based Challenge and Criss Cross labels—the latter not only supporting the Dutch scene, but a variety of established and up-and-coming American artists, such as guitarist Lage Lund, trumpeterAlex Sipiagin and pianist David Kikoski. Van Ruller's own Criss Cross releases, including 2002's Here and There and 2003's Circles, largely fit in the modern mainstream arena, and while the same description could apply to Blom's group in its subsuming of swing and familiar vertical harmonies from the American tradition, van Ruller's performance with Blom at DJ&WM was a more than pleasant surprise, as he employed an array of effects to lend a John Scofield-like edge to songs like Dexterity's fiery "Knor," where the guitarist blended tart linearity with harsher voicings.

Blom, too, had his own arsenal of effects, controlled by hand on a table beside him while he employed some interesting textures rarely heard on saxophone, including pitch shifting, delay/looping, and even at one point, oblique, ring modulator-like timbres. The fact that he had to take one hand off his tenor in order to effect changes or trigger devices, made some of the transitions less than seamless, but it is a small quibble, especially on complex tunes like "The Least of Your Worries," which traversed surprising turf for its relatively brief (less than ten minute) duration.

Blom's tunes orbited around the contemporary American axis to include references to drummer Brian Blade's influential Fellowship Band on the opening "Waltz for Magnus." There were also periods of unabashed, straightforward swing, while the saxophonist's writing also brought hints of the Orient, and gentler but more harmonically ambiguous impressionism on the balladic "Homecoming"—all bolstered by the spare but note-perfect support of bassist Frans van der Hoeven and delicate but powerful-when-needed drummer Martijn Vink, who demonstrated, in this performance by the Jasper Blom Quartet, early evidence of a stylistically unfettered breadth that would only become clearer later the same evening when he performed as a member of The Ploctones.

December 2: Harmen Fraanje Trio

Sometimes a single experience can be enough to elevate a group to the next level. Pianist Harmen Fraanje is a relative youngster who is gaining increased international attention for his work with trumpeter Eric Vloeimans' Fugimundi trio with Ploctones guitarist Anton Goudsmit (heard earlier this year as part of the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival's 2009 Fall-Winter Concert Series), and who was the subject of a public interview, along with Vloeimans, as part of DJ&WM's The Art of the Interview workshop the following day. The addition to his small but strong discography of Avalonia (Challenge, 2010) represents a significant stylistic shift for the 34 year-old pianist, as he deserts the structured compositional environs of his quartet and quintet records—2003's Sonatala and 2006's Ronja, both also on Challenge—for the more liberated intimacy of a piano trio.

It was this trio with bassist Clemens van der Feen and drummer Flin Van Hemmen that Fraanje brought to the same Melkweg Cinema venue as Blom. But while the group's unmistakable chemistry and gentle, restrained approach to risk-taking has been slowly, inexorably evolving on its own, a recent series of live dates, with Fraanje inviting American saxophonist Tony Malaby to flesh things out to a quartet, has resulted in a palpable quantum leap of faith and freedom. In a set that exemplified how a trio founded on unshakable trust could turn relative sketches into extended free improvisation of not-quite-reckless abandon, their playing was all the while rooted in contexts of melody, harmony and pulse, but with an ever-present sound of surprise. On record, in fact, the trio's performance of Avalonia's "Roundabout" never actually makes it to the written theme, but its existence drives the trio's direction as it works its way to a place never actually reached, the journey being far more important, in and of itself, than the destination.

While Fraanje's influences are clear—touchstones like Brad Mehldau, and Paul Bley, by way of Keith Jarrett—his own voice is emerging with increasing confidence and clarity. A pianist for whom the act of not playing is as significant and intended an action as the act of playing, Fraanje could be seen, as often as not, with his hands raised above the upright piano (no room for a grand, here), singing quietly and waiting for just the right moment to descend with anything from a spare chord to long, serpentine, but ultimately elliptical motifs. It created a tremendous sense of tension and unpredictability that made this a model set of largely improvised music.

The comfort level shared by each of the trio's members was such that when, immediately prior to the set, Fraanje pulled out a piece by classical composer Paul Hindemith, it was a given that the trio would simply use it as yet another starting point for collective free play, and without a moment's rehearsal. That some of the music felt like it had a more defined structure—even as it was clear that this was a trio pulling melody, harmony, rhythm and color out of the ether—only spoke to the connection that this trio, now a couple years old, shares amongst its members, but at an even deeper level than before its handful of dates with Malaby.

That Malaby wants to bring the trio to New York to collaborate again only speaks to the clear strengths of these players, collectively and as individuals. There were few displays of overt virtuosity, though van der Feen did demonstrate both lithe pizzicato dexterity and soaring arco lyricism, while van Hemmen moved effortlessly from rubato, Paul Motian-esque color to more defined but still refined pulse. But what was most immediately striking about this performance from Fraanje's Avalonia Trio, was its rarified air of discovery, and the implicit value of a bond so strong that every one of its members clearly felt comfortable with risk, safe in the knowledge that there was no such thing as a mistake; rather, it was nothing more than an opportunity to morph the music into yet another shape.



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