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November Music 2015

Henning Bolte By

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November Music
s'Hertogenbosch
November 5-8, 2015

November Music is a yearly festival held in the medieval town of s'-Hertogenbosch in the southeast part of The Netherlands. s'-Hertogenbosch (also called Den Bosch) is the hometown of well-known Dutch painter Jheronimus Bosch (1450-1516). The festival is a festival of contemporary music, new music in the broadest sense: in addition to the core of contemporary composers' music, there is room for neighboring branches, such as experimental pop, sound art/sound installations, as well as jazz and free improvised music. This music is presented during five days in the first week of November. Concerts are spread throughout the city, with the transformed old rusk and cookie factory of Verkade at the center. The festival went along with the factory's transformation in 1993. It opened with a new opera of Dutch-Greek composer Calliope Tsoupaki "Mariken in de Tuin der Lusten (Mariken in the Garden of Earthly Delights)" based on the medieval miracle play "Mariken van Nieumeghen," and finished with a show of Finish hyper accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen who teamed up with famous Dutch all female Ragazze String Quartet for this occasion.

November Music has a special focus on young up-and-coming composers (this year: Florian Magnus Maier and Wilbert Bulsink), as well as arrived composers. There was a day with works of German composer Helmut Lachenmann, attended by the composer himself. Works of Kaija Saariaho, Arvo Pärt, Veljo Tormis, Claude Vivier and Dutch composer Jan van der Putte were performed by the Asko|Schönberg Ensemble and Nederlands Kammerkoor, under Estonian conductor Tonu Kaljuste. November Music zooms in on jazz and improvised music on Friday and Saturday, and offers its music route (kunstmuziekroute) on Sunday. This article focuses mainly on the jazz-related parts of this year's program, with a few side steps.

Near East

Oriental or Near Eastern Music is a regular at November Music. This edition presented three concerts in that vein. Two by American musicians of Mesopotamian origin and one by a Dutch high profile mixed ensemble of jazz musicians, musicians of contemporary composed music joined by a string player (kemenche) from Istanbul.

Amir El Saffar

Amir ElSaffar, American born musician of Iraqi origin, plays trumpet and the santoor, a traditional Mesopotanian hammered dulcimer played with soft or hard mallets. Together with Khaled El Hafez, a traditional oriental vocalist, and Belgian Tana String Quartet, a contemporary classical Western ensemble with much crossover expertise, El Saffar performed a newly composed piece in traditional vocabulary based on the mysticism of Ibn Arabi's 13th century poem "Turjuman Al-Ashwaaq." It was a beautiful performance and a good introduction to the later performance with his 'modern' Two Rivers ensemble. Strings are quite common accompanying instruments in oriental music. Here the string quartet had a more central role. The strings of Tana, however, did not fully adapt to Eastern modal music, but operated at the intersection of oriental modalism with its quartertones and Western tempered music, which induced a productive subtle tension and friction.

Later, in the evening, Amir El Saffar performed with his complete Two Rivers Ensemble. The name of the ensemble refers to the two great Mesopotamian rivers, Euphrates and Tigris, as well as the 'in-fluences,' the influx of oriental music and jazz. Its music has been released by the prestigious American PI Recording label (amongst others Henry Threadgill, Steve Coleman). The ensemble showed a line-up of four string instruments, double bass, buzuq, ûd, santoor and two woodwind instruments (trumpet and saxophone), Eastern percussion and drums. This kind of pairing can already be found in the Hard Bop era (think of Ahmed Abdul-Malik, the bassist of Thelonius Monk, Yusef Lateef, and many more), was continued during the free jazz era and found new approaches and forms in the 80s and 90s of the last century (think of CoDoNa, Keith Jarrett, Nana Simopoulos, Rabih Abou-Khalil, Jon Hassell, and many more).

Maybe it was the combination of the trumpet and Iraqi reference that drew extra attention and added extra nuance. Apparently it was perceived and received as an uncommon thing, triggering extra quality and sensation. The group indeed produced a massive, loud, and sometimes ponderous sound of its own, a sound that clearly delighted and ravished the audience. Maybe it was this massiveness with clarion blasts and screaming horns—from time to time it overwhelmed and buried ûd and/or buzuq—that appealed to the audience. It was counter-balanced when El Saffar switched to the santoor with its more delicate sound and its reference to the Al-Ashwaaq piece. Both elements together ensured that the performance was well received.

Like many others also El Saffar harks back to the golden Middle Ages, the bright Andalusian era when the Orient was prospering, whereas Europe had a lesser civilization, culture and technological level. It is good and legitimate to celebrate the splendid art and culture of those times. Is it a retreat on safe(r) territories, consolation, hope, a nostalgic utopia? For Western concertgoers and listeners it is double exotic: from afar, a far away era and a different (far away?) culture. What does it mean for their perception, and image of the Orient? And what does this mean for the bearers of culture and arts from various regions of the Near East? Is it a fruitful approach to gain common ground?

Up North

The concert entitled Near East Up North raised great expectations as well as skepticism; skepticism, because there are too many well-meant East-West, Orient-Occident divans around nowadays, expectations because of the Dutch high profile line-up meeting kemenche player Derya Türkan from Istanbul and percussion master Jarrod Cagwin , formerly also residing and teaching in Istanbul, currently living in Catalonia. Derya Türkan formed the link between a group of Dutch jazz musicians comprising award winning pianistJeroen van Vliet, bassist Eric van der Westen and saxophonist Mette Erker on one side and members of Asko|Schönberg-Ensemble, the most prestigious Dutch Contemporary Music Ensemble and this year's ensemble in residence, a unique collaboration with high musical potential under the secure direction of Dutch composer/arranger and pianist Martin Fondse, one of the busiest and most sought-after leaders in the Dutch musical community, and also known for his collaboration with Brazilian rock star Lenine.

Three elements came together here and melted: a versatile occidental musician, Derya Türkan, with an instrument that has a very special and delicate Eastern sound, a jazz component, a component of contemporary composed music, and a percussionist who is experienced in all three worlds, able to ignite and rhythmically lead and guide a group into and through new sonic territories. Fondse and Cagwin complemented each other as they managed to melt both sides whereas Türkan was able to unfold the enchanting sonorities of his instrument that subsequently where deepened and highlighted by both parties. Fondse and Cagwin—he acts as rhythmic coach of famous German Ensemble Modern—are familiar with both worlds.

Occasionally both parts also switched roles. The jazz part then played the score and the members of the new music ensemble made a couple of serious improvisational attempts. Both parties delivered a tight and airy, straightforward, and vertically expanding performance. It resulted in a brilliantly performed piece full of deep grooves, delicate soundings, shining sound colors, and a wonderful outflow—a memorable concert.

Ambrose Akinmusire/Lunatree

Ambrose Akinmusire is a self-conscious young musician who did not need to push himself into the foreground. He is also observant, and fosters the interplay of his fellow musicians. His trademark is a full deep tone from which he can whizz into high register tones very quickly, if functional and necessary. His tone, use of registers and dynamics shared some of the characteristics of the great Bill Dixon, one of the key figures of the New York avant-garde in the 1960s and '70s.

At this year's November Music he appeared in two collaborations: his own quartet together with the Dutch New Music ensemble Lunatree and in a trio with vocalist Theo Bleckmann and Dutch pianist Harmen Fraanje. Akinmusire has collaborated with Bleckmann as part of his own group for a while now. Bleckmann—a high-profile vocalist and singer who has worked with the likes of Meredith Monk, Uri Caine and John Hollenbeck—is no ordinary or straightforward jazz singer. His voice has a very distinguished timbre and he has the ability to curve with his voice like a figure skater, which often allows him to use his voice more like an instrumentalist manifested in Akinmusire's fully confluent trumpet-voice-sax-frontline. The ability to achieve that, to allow space for strong contributions like Bleckmann's to fully unfold, seems a special talent of Akinmusire as a leader. New for him was the collaboration with Dutch ensemble Lunatree and the collaboration with pianist Harmen Fraanje.

Akinmusire and Lunatree devised a special way of alternating importation and interplay. Both groups alternated their performance on stage and at certain points shared the stage fully or partly. It was a sympathetic trial with some highlights and good ideas, but it remained a bit pale. It became no grand guignol, yet no smoldering session either.

Colors of Improvisation

A good concert performance is a specifically appealing merging of opposites—like the composition of a dish by a creative chef. This in mind assists to convey the following musical impressions of mine.

The formula of matching a Dutch musician or group with a well-known group or musician from outside has been applied to the jazz programming of the festival, in particular, for many years now. This year it worked out fairly well in two concerts. There was real rapport between the musicians and far reaching engagement in each other's sound worlds, temperaments, and kind of energy. The approaches were different, clearly contrasting and challenging for the musicians and the audience.

Ambrose Akinmusire had signaled to the festival his wish to collaborate with a Dutch pianist. Fraanje is one of the internationally most profiled Dutch jazz musicians witness for example his role in the highly successful Dutch-Senegalese trio of cellist Ernst Reijseger and vocalist Molla Sylla, in the Norwegian formation Rubicon of bassist Mats Eilertsen, as well as in Eilertsen's trio. The addition of German born New York vocalist extraordinaire Theo Bleckmann seemed a logical step and apt choice. Bleckmann and Akinmusire have been collaborating for quite a while and Fraanje has been working in a format with vocalist intensely for years (Fraanje and Bleckmann are both signed with prestigious German label Winter&Winter). As a vocalist and composer, multiple and multidisciplinary cross-genre collaborator Bleckmann has been a mainstay of the New York scene for now more than 20 years now and his most prominent role is maybe his work with the legendary vocal group of American maverick composer and vocalist Meredith Monk. Meredith Monk has barely performed in The Netherlands whereas Bleckmann does so on a more regular basis, but the Dutch audience is quite unfamiliar with his voice and his approach. Hence the teaming-up of this threesome was overdue, challenging and promising.

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