Willem Breuker Kollektief - With Strings Attached (BVHaast 0203)
This review by Ken Waxman appeared on www.onefinalnote.com:...With Strings Attached goes even further. Consisting of a never-before-released performance of a new piece by the Norwegian composer Alfred Janson, as well as a series of reissued numbers from 1982 to 1995, it's part of Breuker's ongoing determination to carve a unique niche for himself in the world of modern music. Featuring a more-or-less consistent lineup of about ten musicians plus an orchestral-sized string section of violas, violins, and cellos, it's not quite jazz, but certainly not so-called classical music either. With compositions designed to illustrate Breuker's distinctive worldview, the material is a mixture of familiar and out-of-the-ordinary. The pieces include George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", Erik Satie's "Parade", "Metropolis", by Paul Whitman's arranger Ferde Grofé, Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas' "Sensemayá", plus Leroy Anderson's novelty "The Typewriter". Then there's the premiere of the collaboration with Janson. "Passacaglia Vendetta", features the whole 18-piece group with the composer himself sitting in on accordion [!] and vocals [!!] along with other chief soloists in Norwegian trumpeter Ole Edvard Antonsen, who works in both improvised and notated music, Breuker on soprano saxophone, and Kollektief (WBK) member Alex Coke on tenor saxophone. The almost 21-minute showpiece leads the band into new territory, since Janson's accordion playing and vocals add a folkloric quality to a score already informed by his background as a jazz pianist and orchestral composer. Playing triplets, but with a legato tone, Antonsen's horn provides counterpoint to Janson's primitivist squeeze box textures. Brass flutter-tonguing arches on top of orchestral harmonies, then the composer's veloce but rubato accordion slurs presage orchestral passages built up like a renovator's addition to a small house. Breuker's atonal, double-tongued sax solo is first framed in horn riffs, then polyharmonic string passages that soon descend to syrupy romanticism. Antonsen's muted, half-valve solo is backed by a swinging band section that could have come from the pen of Neil Hefti, and soon he's slurring out rubato grace notes. With the Norwegian brass man cast as Buck Clayton, American Coke, a legitimate Texas tenor, snorts and blasts, loosening the tune from its formalism, and introduces an accordion solo that's all extended reed sounds. Oscillating string lines frame the trumpeter's conservatory-oriented flares, but its brassiness is buried under cat yowling string dissonance. With drummer Rob Verdurmen pressing the backbeat, the level of excitement and controlled chaos rises-closer to "Rites of Spring" than "Ascension"-as sound shards break up, reaching a climax of spraying contrapuntal discord that finally relaxes into harmonic orchestra color as the finale. "Passacaglia Vendetta" is an important reification of the band's status in premiering New Music compositions. But Breuker seems to want it all. The other 20th century pieces on the CD appear to have been picked to situate the WBK within a certain tradition. Outside of the "The Typewriter", which is pure good-humored fun, the other pieces straddle the fine line between composition and improvisation and sometimes fall over into the legit area, with results that are more serious than may have been imagined. Especially noteworthy is Breuker's championing of work initially played by Paul Whiteman's symphonic jazz band of the 1920s. For a start, pianist Henk de Jonge, a powerful two-handed player, proves himself a better soloist than most classical formalists when it comes to "Rhapsody in Blue". With a swinging left hand, control of dynamics, and the ability to add a Latinesque tinge to interpolations of cascading arpeggios, he brings a quirkiness to the melody and the WBK responds in kind. Plus Breuker gets to play the famous descending gliss that launches the piece. "Metropolis" is more problematic. Because Grofé was a professional dance band arranger, he tried to knit too many musical strains into this semi-classical fantasia from 1928. This is symphonic jazz that gives equal prominence to a tinkling celeste (de Jonge) and raucous tuba (Bernard Hunnekink). Transitions are often awkward, some of the string climaxes sound as if they come from Silent Movie cartoon soundtracks, and de Jonge's low frequency piano playing-awash with over-emphasized dynamics-occasionally resembles the style of Frédéric Chopin more than Ferdinand LaMonthe aka Jelly Roll Morton. The symphonic, quasi-Dixieland score often has the band breaking into a fox trot, while 19th century style romantic strings dripping emotionalism and zart face off against Broadway theatre-type themes and staccato novelty percussion. At one point, for instance, the strings are outlining a quasi-romantic passage while the pianist gets hot on "Japanese Sandman". Not only do these Liberace-like tinkles distract, but halfway through, Breuker and others on vocals pretend to be the Rhythm Boys with Bing Crosby and do some rhythmic scatting. Theme recapitulations come from a Dixieland trumpet and clarinet duo, rasping brass, mulched reeds and tuba burps, plus pit orchestra harmony. By the finale, the simple call-and-response section and variations show their age, with frantic bass drum and cymbal smashes and over-the-top flying grace notes, polyrhythms, and counter-harmonies on show, rather than smooth section work. Before a finale of sweeping string harmonies, the overt orchestration is transparent, its diffuse textures suggesting a movie score. The Satie recreation, with its oddball instrumental passages and room in the score for sirens, gunshots, and the like, may be interpreted by the WBK with more confidence, since its European avant-garde conceptions are close to what Breuker himself often creates. When polyharmonic and polyphonic climaxes feature everything from pistol discharges and typewriter clacks, the Kollektief's links to vaudeville and the Art Ensemble's tradition of little instruments are never clearer. Referencing "The Marine Hymn", a waltz, and a hornpipe in its penultimate selection also make more natural transitions than those in Grofé's pastiche of Hot Jazz. Additionally, the speedy orchestration features the strings in a finale of straight sweeps... the beyond 76-minute panorama that is With Strings Attached shows that after more than 30 years on the road, Breuker and the Kollektief are still after new challenges.
- Ken Waxman, www.onefinalnote.com