When Marc Mommaas graduated as a Communications Major from his hometown university in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, he rewarded himself with a trip to New York and took his tenor saxophone with him. He hung around for a few months, and knew that his life had changed forever: "While I was doing nice enough in Holland, I knew that at the time I was not ready and free enough to express myself. I had to change and make a move." He settled in New York and paid his dues, from the bottom up. After a few difficult years, he slowly but surely started branching out and building a reputation for himself. He graduated as first in his class on a full scholarship from the Manhattan School of Music, although he entered the program somewhat reluctantly: "At first I didn't want to do it, but then I thought, what do I have to lose, and it helped out with my visa too". He received a prize for his composing work, has two well-received CD's with his Global Motion under his belt (see review
), and works with several groups on the fringes of jazz. An articulate and thoughtful musician who definitely is in it for the long run, he discusses the virtues of hard work and determination, the concept of style and doing your own thing, and how the New York experience can bring you back to your own roots.
Listening to Mommaas' music, one cannot escape the notion that there is a lot going on there. Straight-ahead unison themes to improvise over mix freely with intricate multiple-rhythm through-composed sections. It is as if he is carefully steering a jigsaw through a piece of plywood, creating a puzzle with multiple pieces both big and small. But for Mommaas it is not about cramming as much stuff into his pieces as possible. "No matter how complex the music is, I guess in the end I am always looking for a beautiful melody; the melodies should just flow no matter what. It shouldn't sound complex."
Absent though, is any reference to popular music, be it in a nostalgic manner, or alluding to more recent pop and rock-type concepts or material. While others are on a mission to keep jazz free from 'impure' elements, for Mommaas it is a natural result of the music surrounding his childhood. Unlike most of us, he simply didn't grow up on pop music. "My mother is an opera singer and a pianist, and my father is an expressionist painter, so around me were the colors of classical music and the freestyle of the paintings of my father. I grew up with the notion of practicing, applying yourself and focusing on one hand; but on the other hand, let knowledge be a tool for your intuition, rather than go for knowledge itself. As a kid I heard a lot of the well-known classics, like Schumann and Mozart and all that stuff. My mother was teaching a lot and when I was lying in bed I could hear the students hack through those pieces - which I enjoyed actually."
But when Mommaas picked up the saxophone as a teenager in Holland, he just wanted to be a jazz tenor player, and was digging deep into Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, and lots of Coltrane. It was in New York that some of the pieces of his own puzzle started to come together with the realization that being the practitioner of a certain acclaimed style is at best a very relative thing. "In Holland, musicians often feel they have to make a choice and not touch the other side. People play either bebop or free. But in New York you have people who are part of the free scene, and who also play bebop extremely well." This was a real eye-opener, and he took this as a cue to discover his mission. "I found there should be no reason for playing just free or just bebop; that it's all about expression and developing your tools. I really believe in the power of the individual and getting a couple of good guys together to share thoughts with, and come up with a beautiful story. Who cares what style it is."
The pieces of Mommaas' own puzzle are rooted in classical music and jazz on a more or less equal footing. For him the two exist within the same universe, where they gel into one singular expression. When he started composing, from the first note he put on paper, something surprising happened. "All the classical music from my childhood started to come back. And then my composing started to redirect my playing. That was a big turnaround for me." It all came together when, on the Manhattan School of Music, he took a composing class with Ludmila Ulehla. "When Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was brought up in class, it really, really knocked me out. It reminded me of the impact a Kandinsky painting had on me as a 14-year old, it went straight to my heart. But first and foremost, I am still an improviser."
One of the more classical concepts that he brings to his own music is what he expects from the listener. "I play for anyone, as long as he or she has the willingness to sit down and listen. My music does not really cater to being background music for dinner and a nice chat." So if he would have a choice to present his music in either the Avery Fisher Hall, or the Village Vanguard, which setting would he prefer? "I think it really would work in both settings, I just would make some adjustments to deal with the acoustics."
Mommaas is very confident about his own group and music. He never entertained the typical dream professed by many young jazz musicians to be a sideman for their favorite idol. "I really never thought about that. My ideal group is my own band. What inspires me in the musicians I play with, is an ability to stretch the boundaries of harmony. With that I don't mean complex chords; I mean the willingness of musicians to stretch the boundaries of their own playing. To allow themselves to be deeply influenced from all directions, with the ultimate goal of finding the harmony between all those styles, the ultimate synergy."
So, having come to New York seven years ago with the vague idea of becoming a jazz player, he actually found something much more important: his own artistic self that was rooted in his childhood in rural Holland. "You have to know where you come from to know where you are going. It is much more important to find yourself, and be honest with yourself. To be in balance with your own expressive voice, that is the largest achievement. What kind of style it is doesn't matter, what matters is how it sounds; it's all about honesty and expression."
Visit Marc Mommaas on the web at www.mommaas.com .
The Global Jazz Art Collection by Henk Mommaas