Eric Adler on the Straight Man of New Dutch Swing

05.31.2004 | Eric Adler | Music
Fans of contemporary jazz may not be aware that Amsterdam is one of the liveliest centers of avant-garde music, producing some of the most distinctive and unusual sounds in the annals of so-called New Thing jazz.

The Dutch and expatriate musicians who have flocked to Amsterdam have ushered in a style of avant-garde jazz that possesses its own quirky characteristics — characteristics often equally anathema to traditionalists and adherents of free jazz. Waltzes; tangos; tongue-in-cheek soloing — these are some of the traits one associates with what critic Kevin Whitehead, in his poorly written tome on the movement, conveniently labeled “New Dutch Swing.” Although the Amsterdamians occasionally produce albums that conform to the spontaneous free-jazz sessions listeners associate with such figures as Derek Bailey and John Stevens, more often they aim to play fetching little tunes and tear them apart.  Foot-tapping melodies give way to uproarious deconstructions; straight-ahead tunes turn into Ayler-esque cacophony—and back again.

Take, for example, the music of Willem Breuker, one of the key figures in Dutch jazz, and for over two decades leader of the Willem Breuker Kollektief, a sometimes ten-, sometimes eleven-piece band that offers a unique blend of Third-Stream-esque compositions, theatrical hijinks, humorous novelty songs, and free jazz solos. At times, the Kollektief can sound much like Kurt Weill and Nino Rota; at other points, its members let loose scorching bursts of sound.

Breuker, whose work on tenor and soprano saxophones often resembles the manic rasp of a duck in heat, began his jazz career amidst such free-jazz firebrands as Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker. Yet Breuker, a die-hard socialist, soon moved in another direction; distressed by the small audience for free jazz, he strove to present listeners with a brand of music at once more composed and more comical, while still maintaining ties to the avant-garde jazz world.

To that end he formed his Kollektief, which has a dedicated following among a certain stripe of jazz devotee while occasionally engendering the wrath of free-jazz purists. Oftentimes, the Kollektief’s sense of humor is aimed at avant-garde pretensions: Breuker and his band poke fun at the squeaking and squawking of free-jazz saxophonists. In a typical gag, for instance, Breuker plays a parody of avant-garde soprano sax while manically running his fingers all over his horn—as if the entire sax, reed and all, were responsible for its changes in pitch.

Breuker, pianist Misha Mengelberg, and drummer Han Bennink are the three heavy-hitters of the Amsterdam jazz scene. (Marten Altena, another father of “New Dutch Swing,” has largely confined himself to a compelling and brooding version of contemporary classical music, thus distancing himself from his jazz roots.) Yet there is a younger generation of Dutch players, many of whom are not as heralded by fans of European jazz, but deserve greater acclaim.

One such figure is Jorrit Dijkstra, a Dutch-born composer and musician who focuses on alto saxophone, but also plays lyricon, soprano sax, and clarinet. Although Dijkstra recently moved to Cambridge, MA, he remains linked to the Amsterdam scene through his participation in a number of Dutch jazz groups. Without much fanfare, he has sired or contributed to a few of the best records in the history of Dutch jazz.

In some ways, Dijkstra is an uncharacteristic figure in the movement: he doesn’t appear particularly interested in the vaudevillian antics of the Kollektief, or the neo-Dada tomfoolery of Mengelberg and Bennink. Rather, he comes across as an introspective, almost shy, presence on stage.

Yet this doesn’t stop Dijkstra from offering his listeners some great saxophonery. His tone on alto seems mostly indebted to the Cool School: one can hear a certain amount of Lee Konitz in his sax—even if Dijkstra does not sound as West-Coasty as Michael Moore, an American ex-patriot who is omnipresent on the Dutch jazz scene. If Dijkstra’s tone is akin to Konitz’s, his solos seem most like those of Ornette Coleman: voice-like wails and moans sometimes untethered from melodic constraints. But Dijkstra is a more subdued soloist, usually confining his screeching to the end of his solos.

Dijkstra has played well in a vast array of settings, ranging from straight-ahead sets to avant-garde blowouts. As a member of the Sound-Lee! quartet, which is dedicated to playing Konitz compositions, Dijkstra shows how much room remains for new musical ideas within straight-ahead jazz. Dijkstra and co., especially the volcanic pianist Guus Janssen, create music that is in the spirit of Konitz but never amounts to a mere re-hashing of Cool School pieties.

Dijkstra, though, is equally at home in the world of the avant-garde, as evidenced by his solo album, “30 micro-stems.” Unlike so many solo horn albums, which elevate virtuosity over musicality, “micro-stems” is a pleasure to hear. Deftly layering his pieces with bursts of alto, lyricon, and electronics, the album is a tour de force, not a mere parlor trick.  Each piece is a carefully crafted composition deftly exploring new aural landscapes. The cleverly overlaid track “koot,” which begins with a melodic fragment, over which Dijkstra weaves further melodies, eventually building to a busy and dizzying climax, is itself worth the price of admission.

Dijkstra’s piano-less trio (bass and drums) has also produced a couple of great records, but none greater than “Whistle,” on which the group is joined by guitarist, violinist, and banjo-player Stuart Hall. “Whistle” is a farrago of infectious melodies and quirky swing, propelled by the spunky drummer Steve Argüelles, whose masterful thumping deserves a far larger audience. The quartet’s pleasantly stilted version of Thelonius Monk’s “Eronel,” featuring Hall on banjo, seems about as close as Dijkstra comes to the hijinks one usually associates with the “New Dutch Swing” scene. And Dijkstra’s tune “Rachabane” has one of the catchiest melodies in Dutch jazz — no easy feat, given the supreme melodic gifts of Willem Breuker and Misha Mengelberg.

Dijkstra has also taken part in a few bands that should be of great import to those interested in the development of contemporary jazz. Chief among them is Bite the Gnatze, a Celtic-jazz unit headed by guitarist and banjo-player Paul Pallesen, whose music far surpasses the bluegrass noodling of Bela Fleck and his ilk. The band’s latest release, “Wilde dans in een afgelegen Berghut,” is one of the best jazz albums of 2003. Jazz devotees should check out the infectious song “Horm wil geen vis,” which mixes avant-garde playing and trad-jazz sounds, and glory in “Voor het Mannetje,” which should become a jazz standard.

A constant presence on these albums, needless to say, is Jorrit Dijkstra. Hopefully, his name will become more familiar to music fans in the years to come.

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