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

John Kelman By

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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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