Lefty Hobbyists and Junketeers

Kevin Whitehead

Ronald Snijders                                                                                                ©Eric van Nieuwland 2012

In the EU, austerity rules: the economy’s bleeding jobs, so bleed it some more. Budget cuts in Holland (as elsewhere) have been particularly brutal to arts and culture, rebranded by the right-wing Freedom Party as “leftist hobbies,” a label that stuck. In decades past, the veteran Dutch jazz critic Bert Vuijsje says, conservatives who groused at funding inanities like modern art and improvised music at least championed traditional culture. Now art museums dispense with nightwatchmen, letting thieves make off with a Monet under either arm, as in Rotterdam in October.

About a quarter of Dutch arts funding had evaporated by 2011, taking dance companies and established classical ensembles with them. In June, Radio Netherlands Worldwide terminated its English language service – the same Radio Nederland whose Mike de Ruyter had introduced thirsty international listeners to Willem Breuker, Misha Mengelberg, Maarten Altena and more, decades ago, via broadcast series distributed on LP to radio stations around the world.

Holland’s once vaunted subsidy system – modest funding for musicians, gigs and venues – was hobbled long before the anti-hobbyists’ revolt, but cutting has continued. In 2011, Utrecht’s SJU Jazzpodium, one of the progressive linchpins of the Dutch club circuit, was starved to death at age 34.

Still, a few halls and groups retain funding, like Amsterdam’s Bimhuis, Stichting dOeK – the umbrella foundation supporting projects by bassist Wilbert de Joode, trombonist Wolter Wierbos, cornetist Eric Boeren and others – and Misha Mengelberg’s ICP Orchestra. There is some hope that if other services can hang on another two years – jazz on VPRO radio, the electronics institute STEIM, storage for the national jazz archive’s collection – funding will start trickling back. But it’s not easy, resuscitating the dead.

ICP’s mandate stipulates a certain number of concerts per grant period, even as stages foreign and domestic disappear. Which is why, one week in mid-September, they were performing daytime gigs at old folks’ homes and Alzheimer Cafes around the country. (The grim tie-in: Mengelberg’s own bouts of memory loss, which he discussed in an interview at one concert.)

Thursday afternoon found Misha’s orchestra in Huizen, a half hour east of Amsterdam, performing a long set in the cafeteria at a geriatric home, for a hundred or so residents and locals – perhaps the oddest of umpteen ICP sets this correspondent has witnessed in 20 years. They played gorgeously mild three-minute versions of the most melodic pieces in their book (Mengelberg, Ellington, Carmichael), punctuated by raucous tenor sax outbursts from Ab Baars or Tobias Delius. Bassist Ernst Glerum, who’s done a ton of children’s concerts, introduced the pieces and explained the concepts in the gentlest, most considerate way. One resident catcalled him, as he set up a Ducal ballad with a little who-remembers-the-big-bands: “Don’t patronize us!”

The following morning, most of the 10-piece orchestra flew off to Brazil – Misha and Glerum stayed home, with Guus Janssen and Joe Williamson filling in – for a single concert and a couple of workshops in São Paolo. In the end their long-anticipated South American tour had been whittled down to one stop, as various would-be promoters failed to come through. The crap economy is global.

Two Thursdays after their gig in Huizen, ICP’s Han Bennink and Michael Moore were across Amsterdam harbor in Koog aan de Zaan, rehearsing for an Eric Boeren album release concert at the Bimhuis the following week. Bennink was still agitated about Brazil, all that expensive travel yielding meager gains: the musicians had been reduced to “junketeers,” he scowled – implicitly comparing them to international freeloaders like myself, already descending on A’dam for the weekend’s Dutch Jazz and World Meeting.

On a more positive note, all week Bennink had been telling anyone who’d listen that Boeren’s new Coconut is the best recording/documentation of his crisp crackly brushes on snare “by far.” That’s the only drum he brings with the quartet, setting a non-threatening dynamic level. After a decade’s honing, the foursome are extraordinarily cohesive; they’ve thoroughly internalized each other’s timing. The bittersweet meld of Boeren’s cornet and Moore’s alto harks back to Available Jelly’s masterpiece Monuments of 1993; they’d been playing ten years together even by then, and already had all kinds of ways to interact.

As ever, the Boeren quartet’s repertoire mixes originals and Ornette – newest add, “I Heard It Over the Radio” – as has the concept. They’ve run with the promise/premise of infinite mutations that still mind the underlying tune, bending forms like rubber (unlike, say, grid-bound Masada). Bassist De Joode isn’t one to fan the chords too literally, but his occasional percussive ostinatos are reliable anchors, and Han’s slap/snap tattoos can call them all back to the head in half a bar. At one point, at the drop of a veiled paraphrase, they make an unscheduled slide into Sean Bergin’s “Lavoro,” heard all over town on sessions and tribute concerts since his passing on September first.

(The South African saxophonist will not be soon forgotten; hilarious Sean anecdotes were being exchanged all over town every day, wherever his friends and acquaintances met, signs of how deeply he’d touched the scene: composing tunes and encouraging colleagues to write their own, assembling and cajoling bands, running two weekend jam sessions, heckling chums and strangers alike from the bleachers, charming and terrorizing the nation’s bartenders. Sean lives.)

Boeren’s men take a break. Inevitably, someone asks rhetorically, why aren’t we on the Jazz Meeting? Which prompts a follow-up that Holland’s improvisers have been asking for decades: why is there always more money for conferences promoting music than for musicians? Ah, but nowadays money’s running out all over. The 2012 Meeting’s emails listed the sponsoring Muziek Centrum Nederland as “stichting in liquidatie” – a foundation in the process of being liquidated. Even so a sequel organization is in the works, to be known in English as Dutch Performing Arts.

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The Dutch Jazz and World Meeting is a two-day biannual bands’ showcase, mostly for presenters from Vancouver to Jakarta, with a few journalists and (this time) agents thrown in. (That last bunch seemed more intent on promoting existing clients than signing new ones.) The junketeers get their travel and lodging paid for; the musicians work on spec. There are keynotes, and panel discussions about conditions in various countries that might host Dutch players. (The North American panel was instructive. US diplomats: apply for work permits early, anticipate roadblocks. The Canadians: it’s easy to come, and we’d love to have you.)

The unofficial kickoff at the Bimhuis the night before was by the David Kweksilber Big Band, a couple dozen strong, grand but too big for practical touring. Holland has a tradition of such ambitious and big-hearted mixes of classical readers, jazz musicians and improvisers. DKBB is a sort of son of oboist Werner Herbers’ defunct/defunded Ebony Band; Herbers is there, along with some of the Bob Graettinger charts Ebony used to play. Scene stealers include trumpeter Felicity Provan, in mid-career resurgence after 20 years on the scene, trombonists Wierbos and Joost Buis, tenorist Peter van Bergen who plays raunchy when sweet seems called for and vice versa, and pianist Guus Janssen, who brought a witty suite of takeoffs on Otis Redding, Barry White and Elvis soul. For spectacle, there was a tap dancer, crossing Harold Nicholas with clogger’s rhythms. Kweksilber didn’t need to keep pointing out how good the players are. They do their own convincing.

Felicity Provan was back the next afternoon with that big band’s punky kid brother, about half its size: RIO, the Royal Improvising Orchestra, masterminded by the tireless lovable wheedling motivator and saxophonist Yedo Gibson, and mostly comprised of friends from Hague conservatory days. RIO employ various familiar strategies as if they’d just thought them up – musicians exiting and reentering to vary the density, serial contrasting episodes, deliberate obtuseness – but then improvisers often reinvent wheels. It’s mostly bumptious, but there were four minutes of transcendent quiet grace in the middle, sublime: Oscar Jan Hoogland chiming midrange piano strings with mallets and Provan’s trumpet pealing an unanswered question called across stage to Marie Guilleray’s oozy French scatting, as violinist James Hewitt serenaded them from the balcony.

(Yedo Gibson and Oscar Jan Hoogland were key players on a DIY side gig down the quayside from the main event, among the players in frayed combos with overlapping personnel that played from corners of the same room in 20-minute shifts. Yedo made an ungodly racket, scraping the bell of his soprano across a concrete floor. Oscar Jan is the latest younger pianist for whom Misha is the god of lyrical despoilers. The trio Ambush Party with ripening cellist Harald Austbø scratches Hoogland’s tuneful side; trio EKE is for his screechy amplified clavichord.)

The Meeting proper was held at the harbor front Bimhuis/Muziekgebouw complex and the Amsterdam Conservatory nearby; every act played a half-hour set, and the techs and stage managers kept the music on time or close to, even when running two stages at once. The 2012 Meeting confirmed how polycultural the Netherlands has become. Featured players included New York-based, Azerbaijan-born pianist Amina Figarova (an ex-Rotterdammer). Her crisp sextet references classic post-bop (Joanne Brackeen’s odd meter bounce here, “Maiden Voyage” voicings there), and gets a splash of striking color from Bart Platteau’s precise clear flute. Lesser known abroad and ripe for export is Cuban-born Amsterdammer Ramón Valle, whose piano romanticism is checked/punctuated by heavy bass drum syncopations and bassist Omar Rodríguez Calvo’s aggressively varied ostinatos that never compromise the groove – he brings a bass guitarist’s gung-ho energy to the upright.

The most dynamic set came from a perennially overlooked vet, Surinam-born flutist Ronald Snijders, who’d played in some ‘70s Willem Breuker bands (he’s on The European Scene) but never really gravitated to hardcore improvising. It’s a mystery why Surinamese music has never caught on as International Exotica of the Month; its fiendish syncopations reflect a riot of South American/calypsonian/Indian/Indonesian influences. Kaseko is a wave still waiting to hit shore, and Snijders – who somehow comes off as warm, professorial and geeky at once – is just the guy to ride it. His flute is rhythmically punchy and refreshingly free of warmed-over Kirkisms, and his catchy tunes echo Paramaribo street parties and maybe that South African kwela strain Sean Bergin kept in the air. Snijders plays in umpteen styles – he’s planning a super-jumbo retrospective box – but there’s no place like down home. He even made a singalong bit work.

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World Music, someone asked after a talk: will it all soon be one big mush? She had reason to be concerned. Borders keep collapsing. Two weekends earlier in the Bimhuis cafe, a Sunday afternoon “Latin Crossroads” jam put Curaçoan bassist Eric Calmes together with a Uruguayan guitarist and Colombian percussionist (and a German pianist, and China’s Fang Weiling on erhu) to show how well regional and global rhythms can mesh or peaceably coexist. The Meeting’s meetings were messier. I wandered in on a Turkish/Arabic/Kurdish band whose singer/guitarist – strumming D, A minor, C, D – didn’t seem to realize he’d reconstructed “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” A Balkan/Greek/Gypsy outfit checked off additional boxes, squeezing in an Argentine bandoneon and blues man’s resonator guitar. The quartet Levantasy’s Mideast-jazz synthesis was snoozy, save when Rembrandt Frerichs played piano like a Persian santur.

Moluccan-Dutch singer Monika Akhiary is a charmer, fronting the quartet Boi Akih where Wierbos is wildcard trombone, easing them from a Hoagyish free ballad into David Crosby’s “Guinevere.” But she’s most effective in small rooms, where you can hear the detail; they’re a cabaret act with big-theater aspirations. Ernst Reijseger has yet another band showcasing the dynamic Senegalese singer Mola Sylla (a trio with pianist Harmen Fraanje, in sync with the cellist’s rhythms and peppermint harmonies) but Mola’s spirit-possession intensity is countered by his reticence to improvise out of his comfort zone.

The young piano trio Tin Men and the Telephone is too clever by half. Their post-pomo rockishness manages not to echo The Bad Plus (Jason Moran’s Bandwagon, maybe), and some of the computerized visual aids are entertaining – a transcription of Erroll Garner’s “Penthouse Serenade” solo appears on screen, note-by-note Finale-style, as Tony Roe faithfully plays it (not that his stodgy partners would’ve lasted three bars with Garner). But the mock voicemail messages – including very bad Punjabi and Chinese accents employed with humorous intent (short version: your shirts are ready) – all but scuttled Stateside prospects. As much as Holland has become multiculti, and more welcoming than the Geert Wilders fringe implies, each December every department store St. Nick still has his blackface prankster sidekick Zwarte Piet – despite fitful efforts to paint Pete in day-glo alternative colors.

One seasoned American presenter gushed over the tenor sound of the year’s national jazz prize winner Yuri Honing, but I hear only smooth-ish empty platitudes. A publicity flyer proclaiming Honing “Europe’s most remarkable saxophonist” led to some spirited Facebook flaming that weekend. His drummer, responding in that august forum, seemed genuinely surprised anyone would take such patently hackish flackery seriously, or that other European saxophonists might somehow take exception.

After a quarter century, pianist Michiel Braam is winding down his sterling big band Bik Bent Braam. Like the late Willem Breuker’s Kollektief, BBB were busily farewell-touring in 2012. Its successor is Braam’s Hybrid 10tet, which closed one night of the Meeting with a couple of subs on board, including Morris Kliphuis, young French horn player with a bright emphatic sound, who’d appeared with his own Tiny Bell-ish trio Kapok. Braam’s mixed strings/winds tentet owes nothing to ICP, or any other model I can think of. He’s got a light, puckish touch at the keys or as a leader, flitting nimbly through R&B grooves, the tango, jazz and chamber music. String quartet versus three brass (including Carl Ludwig Hübsch’s tuba), and electric bass in the rhythm section, give the band balance, heft and maneuverability. Braam also jackhammered a Lionel Hampton two-finger piano solo so fast it sounded like a mandolin.

© Kevin Whitehead 2012

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