Willem Breuker Kollektief

BIMhuis (Amsterdam, 1998)
Review by Dan WARBURTON

Near the Leidseplein in Amsterdam is a reasonably modern neo-classical building with a Latin inscription proudly adorning its arches: Homo Sapiens Non Urinat In Ventum (which, if your Latin isn't up to it, means, roughly translated, "intelligent men don't piss into the wind".. The fact that such a ribald piece of humour (albeit camouflaged as a pseudo-classical spoof) should be set in stone for generations to come is a fine example of the Dutch mentality. I can think of no other country in the world where planning permission would have been granted. But, hey, this is Holland! You may choose to disagree, but a culture which so openly espouses tolerance in all its forms is, for me, a mature and ultimately healthy one. Holland is also proud of its artistic heritage, past and present, and actively supports it in a way that can make visitors like me green with envy. As an ex-pat Brit resident in Paris for ten years, I've grown to love the anarchic little nightspots where new music can flourish (first and foremost being Montreuil's Instants Chavirés), so arriving at Amsterdam's BIMhuis was something of a shock. A performing space about four times as big as the Instants, a superb sound system, elegant tables and chairs, a well-stocked and gleaming bar and a first-class selection of CDs, vinyls and books for sale.

 

It wasn't always this way; about thirty years ago, new music in general and improvised music in particular were not supported to this extent, and it was largely thanks to the actions of a few stubborn and strong-willed individuals that things began to change. Their names are now familiar: Louis Andriessen, Reinbert de Leeuw, Peter Schat, Misha Mengelberg, and Willem Breuker. Of these, Andriessen and Schat are highly regarded as composers, de Leeuw is well-known as both pianist and conductor, Mengelberg is now finally getting some attention, but Breuker's fame may not have spread that far outside Holland, or outside the community of jazz and improvised music afficionados. Bursting on the scene at the end of the sixties, he cohabited with Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink in the fractious triumvirate that controlled the Instant Composers Pool, before breaking off and forming his own band, the Kollektief, in 1974. It's going strong nearly a quarter of a century later, with many of the original musicians-including bassist Arjen Gorter, trumpeter Boy Raaymakers, trombonist Bernhard Hunnekink-still in the line-up. As Breuker says: "I called my band the Kollektief.. it's a nonsense name from the '60s, a little bit socialistic. Everybody in the band can say what he wants, and everyone earns the same. The books are open. I take no salary, because I have money enough from my royalties and commissions."
The first striking thing about Breuker's music is its sheer European-ness; learning to orchestrate on the hoof, as it were, his writing resembles little in jazz (except perhaps Carla Bley, with whom it shares some common-humorous-characteristics). His harmony is solidly (stolidly) diatonic-inflected with neither Ellingtonian seventh and ninth chords nor the staple dissonance of late sixties free jazz-and his fondness for 1920s music-hall songs, Kurt Weill, and other forms of popular street music sets the Kollektief well apart from other established big bands still working in the bop/post-bop tradition (and that can be said to include even Misha Mengelberg's ICP Orchestra, still patiently reworking Duke, Monk and Herbie Nichols, albeit in Misha's inimitable fashion). The predominant influence of band music-I'll spare you the oft-cited references to Amsterdam barrel organs-is well-reflected in the line-up: three saxes, one violin/viola (special mention for the excellent Lorre Lynn Trytten), two trumpets, two trombones (one doubling tuba), piano, bass and drums. The famous visual gags are still very much part of the show (the trombonist seemingly incapable of playing his top notes getting down to do ten press-ups, to little avail; the trumpeters intertwining arms and playing each other's horn, etc.). Breuker evidently believes that if a joke's worth telling it's worth telling fifty times (this in direct opposition to Misha's more anarchic-and intramusical-sense of humour); sure, it still raises a laugh, but looking at the average age of the musicians one is nevertheless tempted to wonder how many times they've had to do these old routines. Still, the public tonight is respectably early middle-aged, and evidently appreciate it all. Curiously, a guy sitting next to us manages to smoke four joints during the concert-well, this is Amsterdam-personally, I can't think of any music I'd least like to get stoned listening to. As for Breuker himself, his hellfire and fury soprano sax solo on Kurt Weill's "Mandalay Song" once more raises the nagging question: what if he had continued to concentrate on the free music instead of opting for the cabaret of the Kollektief? Sure, there are moments of wild improv during the evening: Henk de Jonge turns in a splendid piano solo, and later Rob Verdurmen tries to outbang Bennink; but in choosing to round off the show with an old Amsterdam cabaret song (lovingly sung by Nico Nijholt, now recovered from his press-ups) Breuker's position is clear: to the famous line of Georges Braque: "Art disturbs us; Science reassures us.." I'm tempted to add "Breuker entertains us."



New Dutch Swing

book by Kevin Whitehead
Review by Dan WARBURTON

In the United States, a clear distinction is made in academic music analysis between music theory (detailed discussion of works concerned purely with intramusical considerations-the notes) and musicology (setting the work in a wider cultural/historical context, showing how various influences-musical and extramusical-shaped its creation and subsequent reception-history). In considering jazz and other improvised musics, the work of the music theorist is rendered problematic by the absence of a score; true, some noble souls have spent countless hours writing out solos by the likes of Monk, Miles, Trane and Dolphy, but such transcriptions too few and far between to allow the analyst to reach any general conclusions regarding individual players and styles. Writing about jazz and its many derivatives tends therefore to be more musicological, discussing influences, teachers and trends rather than the notes themselves. Anecdote is an important element, for, as Cage rightly realised, an anecdote can encapsulate in several sentences or images what might take paragraphs to explain. As we move further away from academia towards the soundbite world of music journalism, anecdote is ultimately all we have left: far too few magazines take the time to interview musicians and reproduce faithfully and respectfully what they have to say.
Kevin Whitehead's "New Dutch Swing" straddles the gap between musicology and music journalism admirably. As a detailed investigation of jazz, improvised music and jazz-influenced composition in Holland over the past forty or so years, this is a musicological document of some considerable importance and will no doubt become a reference text in years to come. One of the reasons it is so thorough is the tightly-knit nature of this particular musical community in Holland (for "Holland" read "Amsterdam", by the way); take just the current line-up of Misha Mengelberg's ICP Orchestra and you have a group of musicians who are or have been part of every major group in recent Dutch history (Available Jelly, Clusone 3, The Ex, plus any number of bands with Maarten Altena or Guus Janssen..). Were Whitehead to attempt a similar undertaking with the British free improvisation scene or American free jazz, the sheer volume of work involved would prove severely limiting. In choosing to focus on the Amsterdam scene he is able to go into sufficient (at times, even excessive) detail. That said, serious students of musicology used to clear chronological expositions of works and events and a respectful-if a little dry-style of writing may well find Whitehead's book exasperating after the novelty of his racy pop style has worn off (by about Chapter Four, in my case). Though the wealth of information (biographical as well as anecdotal-the description of Misha cooking pork chops is priceless) is considerable, the book's structure and style can sometimes serve to confuse the issues.
In dividing his book into three parts, "Founders", "Troops" and "Composers", Whitehead finds himself, for example, having to discuss Louis Andriessen's De Volharding compositions as late as page 240 whereas the Nutcrackers movement-of which Andriessen was a key part-is treated as far back as page 66; this is but one of many somewhat irritating leaps backward that the reader has to make in order to tie up chronological loose ends. The first part of the book is relatively straightforward, tracing the history of the Instant Composers' Pool and its three original founding fathers Willem Breuker, Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg. Whitehead is especially good at sketching the cultural landscape from which the musicians emerged-referring not only to the brass bands and street music of Amsterdam (inevitable cliché in talking about Breuker, but, well, ICP 003 was a "lunchconcert" for three barrelorgans), but also providing an informative overview of Dutch jazz history in the 40s and 50s. Certain idiosyncracies of Dutch musicians become easier to understand as a result; for example, their fondness for dixieland and swing as opposed to bebop (trombonist Willem van Manen had no problem alternating trad jazz gigs with sets with Gunter Hampel and Peter Brötzmann), or their seeming lack of interest in post-Coltrane-style free jazz, perhaps under the influence of Mengelberg, who dismissed it as "snake-charmer music" in preference for Monk and Herbie Nichols-still staples of today's Dutch jazz diet. Indeed, Misha, as one might expect, keeps cropping up again and again as the behind-the-scenes prime mover (or rather, non-mover, given his legendary propensity to inactivity-"three gigs a month are enough to keep you in shape"). We can only hope that this book might generate sufficient interest to galvanise Misha into re-releasing the ICP back catalogue (a treasure trove of material featuring Mengelberg, Bennink and Breuker but also major players such as Derek Bailey, John Tchicai, Steve Lacy and Peter Brötzmann) or reviving his wilder experimental 70s compositions (especially the one where mechanical flowers grow out of the piano..).

Parts Two and Three consist essentially of interviews with major players-Ab Baars, Wolter Wierbos, Michael Moore, Ernst Reijseger, Guus Janssen, Paul Termos and so on-which, considered overall, knit together to weave the rich tapestry of the Amsterdam scene. Whitehead's background as jazz journalist (Down Beat, Village Voice) keeps the interviews up to speed and peppered with occasional expletives, but his racy journalese eventually begins to wear down even the most ardent reader: it took me twice as long to get through Part Three as it did Parts One and Two combined. I would even venture to suggest that he likes the music and the musicians too much; clearly in love with his adopted city, he seems at times to lack the little objectivity necessary in musicology. I'm just as big a fan of The Ex as he is (and love his description of them "pissing all over a wall a sound"), but I'm not sure we need to be told that guitarist Terrie Ex was given to punching him in the kidneys during their interview.. However, I well know the pitfalls of writing about musicians you admire, and I'm only too aware of my own mad love for Mengelberg's music sometimes impinging upon my supposed critical sense of detachment. We'll let you off, Kevin, also because, needless to say, the book includes a fine though far from comprehensive discography (several key early 70s Volhardings are absent, as are the old ICPs-perhaps because they're out of print?-and where is Gilius Van Bergeijk?) and an informative reading list to consult. After reading "New Dutch Swing" you only need one thing to complete your education: a table at the BIMhuis with a chilled beer and a side order of herring.

[338pp, Billboard Books, 1515 Broadway NY, NY, USA 10036 $21.95]