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Liner notes by Kevin Whitehead
Chris Abelen is stubborn, does things his own way. That much is plain from his quirkly quintet CD’s for BVHAAST, DANCE OF THE PENGUINS and WHAT A ROMANCE. This, his third disc, is his most conceptually rich and ambitious, yet it was recorded years before the others, almost a decade before he considered releasing it. How the CD came to be: Abelen had been thinking about starting a little big band, after putting in his years with respected Dutch units like Willem van Manen’s Contraband, J. C. Tans and the Rockets and the Willem Breuker Kollektief. Mulling over the possibilities, Chris went back to listen to this program which, as he tells it anyway, went down like the spikes on a pineapple when folks heard it live. But when he listened again, he changed his mind about starting that new band. No point: he’d done it right the first time.
What he had done right - when commissioned, in 1992, to write a set for Breuker’s year-end Klap op de Vuurpijl festival - was to assemble a tentet which cut across generational and stylistic lines, from free players to a fusion picker to a tubist who’s played everything from pizza-parlor dixieland to improvised theater gigs. Then Chris devised a series of Ellington-style concertos to showcase his crew, whom he knew from here and there: Baars and Boeren frrom the Rockets, Germany’s Koltermann from Contraband, van Binsbergen from some of her projects, Termos from when Chris’d subbed in Paul’s tentet. Like most Amsterdam musicians he’d crossed paths with Vatcher, de Joode and Fishkind around town.
Abelen didn’t apportion solo space to showcase everyone equally, nor to play favorites. He just wanted to make a lively, well-balanced set. As ever, he had some strong and contrary ideas in mind. He didn’t want to write for sections, in the usual brass vs. reeds big-band manner, and he wanted to avoid the pissing matches that ensue when players of the same horn sit side by side. So; there’s no sectional writing, and no redundant instrumentation. Instead, he groups the voices on a case by case basis, shifting the leads around.”i spent a lot of time on that. I composed the notes first, and lived with them awhile, and then decided how to divide them up.”
In big bands, the full orchestra typically drops out for the solos, accompanied only by the rhythm section. ”I didn’t want the musicians standing around looking at each other and waiting for the soloist to finish. I thought it must be possible to write backgrounds that let soloists play without limiting them too much." In most bands, the other players lay out for drum of bass or air-bass spots, tempting the soloist to drop out of tempo, not always a good idea. But de Joode, Vatcher and Fishkind solo within the ensemble like everyone else.
With Duke’s concertos, you can usually ID the featured player quickly: Rex or Cootie will make an early entrance and hold center stage. Here, a minute or two may pass before the spotlight settles on somebody-and even then it may move onto someone else. (Two pieces are double concertos. Abelen sneaks in de Joode’s arco grind after Vermeersen’s veal-tender tenor on “Modder”; on “Mis” trombone bats cleanup for tuba.) in part he’s playing a game with the listener: can you spot the mole? Chris is not above planting false clues either: you’ll think he's setting up Player A, and then B steps out. It may be germane that he studied at the Sweelinck Conservatory, where the similarly playful and contrary composer Misha Mengelberg teaches.
But the long buildups also serve to place the solos in context, to establish a mood more than recommend a course of action. “I didn’t give any specific instructions, and no one asked for any. Paul Termos, Ab Baars, Eric Boeren, Frans Vermeerssen-they’ re all such nice solo players, I specifically asked them because of the way they play. Like Ab-he has such an unromantic way of playing clarinet, and fits where a more romantic player wouldn’t. I could hear him in my head as I was writing this music.”
On “Scale” Boeren is the horse led to water: he pounces on the pogo-stick rhythmic scheme and makes it even jumpier, amplifying the composer’s idea even as he tops it. The piece effectively channels Eric’s excitable side, but he makes his improvisation sitespecific: you won’t find another solo like this one in his burgeoning discography.
Abelen likes to get push folks a little to one side of their normal thing too. Van Binsbergen loves snaky, Zappaesque electric solos; here she plays an amplifed steel-string classical guitar with a hard and spiky attack, as on her feature “Sem.” Her axe is often used as a horn or trembling mandolin, though she can also percolate with bass and drums in a refreshingly undemonstrative way. Like Wilbert she also plays in Chris’s quintet with Tobias Delius and Charles Huffstadt. “Corrie is the perfect guitarist for what I write-despite her typical reservations about it.”
This wasn’t the first time Vatcher and de Joode teamed up; they’d already been goosing Michiel Braam’s popping piano trio, for instance. They sound so good, it’s a wonder they aren’t paired more often. Wil and Michael push and pull at the time, can fade to nothing and then come roaring back, or lay in the pocket and groove down the middle. Vatcher in particular sounds terrific throughout: the loud eruptions, the delicate metallic details, the weird big gestures, the daredevil act he plays with the beat, all radiate his peculair charm. “ For this project, I wrote complete percussion parts, giving Micheal the freedom to use them or not. He seemed to use them a lot.”
The writing has its own charms; those backgrounds and foregrounds abound with beautiful, intricate textures. The hovering midrange chords and the searing trumpet eand clarinet near-unisons on “Mis” may recall Gil Evans, another master of fresh timbral combinations, but Abelen’s charts don’t resemble his any more than they do Duke’s. Dutch composer/ improvisers often betray a fondness for Stravinksky; I’d never noticed it before with this one, but the clockwork rhythms on ‘Bus,” “Mis,” “Sem” and elsewhere suggest the connection. (Igor’s “Ebony Concerto” for Woody herman makes an instructive comparison.)
Those aren’t the only springy pieces here; the leader clearly wanted to get everyone’s juices going. Termos got so carried away on “Proost,” which draws out his deconstruced-cool-school beste, that he sailed past his end cue. “He didn’t want to finish, so we played some of the backgrounds again: there are actually two backing parts there, one cued by Ab, one by me. This repetition created some doubt about where we should stop.” As you’ll hear, that problem took care of itself.
One nice surprise is that the self-effacing Abelen takes an uncharacteristically long solo on “Mis,” showing off the brash Ruddy sound and swaggering time usually kept under wraps. And check out the subtle changes in the landscape passing behind him, as swingtime slowly comes unglued and re-glued.
So why did this knockout set fail to floor ‘em at the Bellevue Theater back in ’92? “I don’t know. I had a 10-piece band like Willem Breuker, and I’d played with Willem, and it was his festival, so maybe people were expecting something else. And we played sitting down, close together on the big stage, so we could synchronize. We also took long pauses between pieces, to prepare. Almost like it was chamber music.” The Klap festival is a bit of a year-end blowout, and folks may not’ve been in the mood for sit-down music, however sparky. I wasn’t there, but it’s also possible that the self-effacing boss exaggerates a bit for effect. (On tape, the audience response doesn’t sound so limp.) no matter; it’s a good story, and it does let Chris off the hook for making us wait this long to hear this suff. Who knew we’d been missing something this good?
Kevin Whitehead, Chicago 2002