a column by
Han Bennink’s 70th Birthday Concert ©2012 Laurence Svirchev
I’m pretty tone deaf when it comes to body language. There are innumerable times where I’d been a lot better off – even lucky – if I understood what a tapping finger, a backwards tilt of the head or a glance at the ground portended. So, I’m surprised when I occasionally recognize a gesture by an acquaintance or colleague as something I’ve seen before. It’s also something of a mystery: Why does the innocuous motion or stance of someone you see once, twice or a few times a year suddenly register, assuming it is accurately remembered?
I was recently confronted with such a déjà vuy moment of recognition in an unlikely setting – the afternoon rehearsal for Han Bennink’s 70th birthday concert at the Italian Academy of Columbia University, the culmination of WKCR’s April Bennink marathon. The band had just run through Misha Mengelberg’s “Hypochristmutreefuzz” as I arrived; having a handle on the jaunty, Nichols-tinged theme, they were discussing how to structure the performance. From the house, it seemed that violinist/violist Mary Oliver, trumpeter Thomas Heberer, saxophonist/clarinetist Michael Moore and trombonist Ray Anderson came to a quick consensus, seconded by pianist Uri Caine and bassist Mark Dresser, while electronic music pioneer Richard Teitelbaum was fine-tuning his setup far stage left.
Meanwhile, Bennink was seated at the kit upstage; he leaned forward, placed his elbows on the snare, and cradled his chin in his upturned palms, taking in the scene. I’d seen him do that before, but had no idea where or when. It’s not like I cross paths with Bennink that often; maybe once every other year. Granted, this was the third concert of Bennink’s I’d made in the past year. Previously, I saw him twice at the Wind Up Space in Baltimore; most recently, when he and Oliver played in a variety of configurations with the Second Sunday crew (trumpeter Dave Ballou; saxophonist/clarinetist John Dierker; bassist Michael Formanek; and pianist Lafayette Gilchrist) just prior to his taping his Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross; and with ICP Orchestra in the spring of ‘11. But, if I were to graph the Bennink gigs I’d seen since the early ‘80s when he played d.c. space with Peter Brötzmann – and I mean literally played it, taking a pair of sticks to the walls, floor and, with astonishing precision, the piano keyboard – the last year would be a solitary spike. I simply had no clue where or when I might have seen Bennink do this before.
The band jumped back into the Mengelberg chestnut; first recorded on Eric Dolphy’s Last Date, it was an eminently appropriate choice for the program. The logic of the line up – admittedly, a bit puzzling when first listed in the press releases – was becoming clear. Oliver, Moore and Heberer (who now lives in New York) comprised an ICP-steeped nucleus, well-attuned to both Bennink’s patented swing and his penchant for provocative improvising and actions. Caine and Anderson’s respective abilities to blend jazz’s earlier vernaculars into a modern framework were very much in evidence, making the piece rollick more than usual (a great example of Bennink and Anderson’s shared affinity for vintage jazz is their mid-‘90s duet reading of Duke’s “Just Squeeze Me” included on ABD, the compilation of their hatOLOGY sessions with Christy Doran). As the sets were sketched out, and spaces for small group improvisation were identified, it became clear that Dresser’s ability to create iridescent soundscapes with extended techniques would be tapped as well as his ability to drive a band; Teitelbaum would be the wild card, strategically if sparingly played.
After a few introductory remarks – which, made without the benefit of a mic, were largely inaudible in the back of the house – Bennink opened the concert with a solo, a straight-up précis for why he’s one of jazz’s greatest drummers. There were no feet on the snare, no use of found objects, and no abrupt abandonment of the kit to make mischief; instead, Bennink simply aired out his chops with withering intensity. The solo was also a case in point of how a simple unorthodox technique contributes to Bennink’s virtuosity. Although Bennink holds the stick conventionally in his left hand (lying between thumb and index finger and between the middle and ring fingers), he holds his hand palm down, not palm up. Common sense suggests this position would limit the stick’s ability to bounce on the drum head; but Bennink has such strength, speed and precision in flicking his wrist back and forth that he can create one-handed rolls. This is largely why his drumming has such mass and punch, even when his rhythms are bright and swinging, as they were for considerable stretches in this solo.
Bennink’s cohorts came onstage and picked up where the solo left off, launching into a boisterous spontaneous statement, one that nevertheless allowed glimpses into the temperament of the players: Oliver picked her spots to soar; Heberer sliced into the fray with clarion phrases; Dresser rumbled, furiously bowing one moment and lighting on a piercing texture the next. The ensemble came to a tentative end point; but Oliver and Dresser carried on as a duo, slowly downshifting from rough-hewn sawing to delicate counterpoint. This cued the reentry of the ensemble for a vaguely familiar, pensive hymn-like theme (Aren’t most pensive, hymn-like themes vaguely familiar?); however, the ensemble soon frayed into a robust exchange between Anderson and Bennink. Teitelbaum’s otherworldly sounds then seeped to the foreground, with Heberer veering between the type of exquisitely etched bop-informed lines that were Booker Little’s calling card and gurgling sounds that echoed Teitelbaum’s.
The trumpeter then slid into one of Mengelberg’s more swaggering melodies, which clarified everything played until that moment: This was a full-scale interpretation of the pianist’s “Reef und Kneebus.” That’s where I’d heard that vaguely familiar pensive, hymn-like theme.ony on the front line was tart and sly; the bandstand was on the verge of lift-off. Anderson soloed first – got down is more accurate – amalgamating everything from Kid Ory to Fred Wesley to Roswell Rudd with arch tailgating panache. Moore then jumped in paraphrasing “Stomping at the Savoy;” but before long, Oliver and Heberer started riffing behind Moore, Anderson swerved through with well-placed growls, and they soon took the tune out exuberantly. Ok: Starting off the evening with a nod, albeit a 20-minute nod to Mengelberg made sense; perhaps “Hypochristmutreefuzz” would serve as the other bookend late in the concert. Bennink then went one-on-one with Caine, a brief pugilistic exchange, which suggested a broader scope to the program. However, after a prefatory coalescing of long tones, the ensemble scampered into Mengelberg’s “Rollo II,” perhaps the pianist’s most frolicsome theme. Again, the polyphony in the front line was exquisite, with every phrase smartly playing off the last. It would have been a grand, flag-waving end to the first set; but instead they closed with, presumably, another Mengelberg piece (I admit: I only know the jazzy ones by name), one probably penned in the ‘70s when banal song forms were frequently exploited by Dutch ensembles.
The absence of mics marred Bennink’s intermission chat with George Lewis; for all of his gregariousness on stage, Bennink is often relatively soft-spoken in conversation, which allows a wry, gentle sense of humor to waft. His answers to Lewis’ questions and his commentary on videos of his spinning cymbals in concert must have been rich, because the folks in the front rows were frequently laughing heartily. The second set begun on a serious note, however; more so than anytime in the first set, Bennink fine-tuned the shape of the improvisation in real time. The deliberate rise in the intensity of his drumming gave the initial subdued tone of the music more bite, prompting Teitelbaum to shoot spectral sounds through the space, Oliver and Dresser to rattle and scrape their strings, and the horns to groan and bray. Bennink also demonstrated his keen sense for when and how to end an improvisation, which is arguably the best – certainly the last – way to give it form. Standing on a chair, Bennink dropped all of his sticks onto his kit, and beamed at the clatter – it was a sublime Bennink action. “Hypochristmutreefuzz” followed; without sacrificing the sleekness of the theme codified in the Dolphy version, Bennink laid down a stomping beat, the front line start strutting and Caine all but pummeled the piano into a pile of sticks and wires.
Teitelbaum then let the cows out to commence a shot duet with Oliver, his juxtaposition of environmental sounds and surreal concoctions having a dislocating effect: Are we on the farm? In space? Has the mothership landed on the back field? Or is the uddership, piloted by bovine cosmonauts? Oliver went with it, mixing bowed and plucked fragments as Teitelbaum hovered and eventually slipped away. It was a pungent vignette and, in a counter-intuitive way, a fine lead-in to a reading of “Baltimore Oriole,” to which Oliver contributed an appropriately melancholy opening solo (the only disappointment of the concert was that Moore did not take a few clarinet choruses on the Carmichael chestnut). It was only a matter of time before a Monk tune was called; at first, Monk’s “Jackie-ing” seemed to signal that the end of the concert was at hand. Certainly, the band went at it like it was last call, particularly when Heberer pivoted mid-solo to introduce a raucous New Orleans feel. Intriguingly, Bennink closed the set with Mengelberg’s sweet ballad “De Sprong, O Romantiek der Hazen.” There’s a fine jazz tradition of encoring with a ballad; it can soothe a fevered crowd and, more importantly, get them to snap out of it and go home. They should have called a night right then and there; but, this was a crowd who badly wanted one more, so Bennink came back on for another, shorter solo; something of a victory lap taken at a jog.
Some concerts are so complete and satisfying that you don’t want to listen to music for days on end – ok; maybe until noon the next day. Other concerts are so complete and satisfying that you want to dive back in as soon as possible and listen to every CD and watch every video you can access. Bennink’s concert was clearly one of the latter. After a few days of zigging and zagging through Bennink’s discography – particularly early albums like Last Date, New Acoustic Swing Duo, Heavy Days Are Here Again and A European Proposal – I watched several hours of videos. Some prompted me to pull out more albums: the performance of Mengelberg’s “Brozziman” with Brötzmann and ICP Orchestra included as an extra on the DVD version of Hazentijd (Data Images), the Jellie Dekker-directed documentary on Bennink, led me back to Live Soncino, while the extra version of the pianist’s “Met welbeleefde groet van de kameel” by ICP and Anthony Braxton included on the DVD of Dekker’s doc on Mengelberg, Afijn (also on Data Images) caused me to revisit Braxton’s Charlie Parker Project 1993.
Then I pulled out Wes Montgomery: Live in ‘65 (Jazz Icons), a collection of European TV performances, including a short set with Bennink and the brothers Jacobs – pianist Pim and bassist Ruud. For fans of the guitarist, this VPRO session is valued for its hang-like vibe; Montgomery is relaxed, smoking and joking as he outlines the tunes. The young Bennink is attentive and clean-cut, wearing a white shirt and a sweater vest. The quartet zips through an uptempo blues and digs into “Nica’s Dream;” but the proceedings come to a halt when Pim Jacobs didn’t know the changes to “The End of a Love Affair.” Montgomery only spends a couple of minutes walking Jacobs through the tune, but that’s an eternity in TV time, so the director naturally cut to shots of Jacobs keyboarding, Montgomery nodding, and Bennink watching, elbows on his snare, chin in the palms of his hands, taking it all in. That’s where I’d seen him do that before.