Jazz CDs Pt. 1 - December 2001

A Collection of the Willem Breuker Kollektief

I've reviewed a couple CDs from this amazing Dutch aggregation in the past, but I've been meaning to do an article on them ever since the observation of their 25 years of touring the world, which occurred two years ago now. Their home port of Amsterdam has been described as the world's capital of "intelligent non-academic music." There is less pressure in this environment there to keep classical and jazz separate. The various influences found in the Amsterdam music scene have brought about many different instrumental performing groups who mix - among other things - classical, new music, mainstream, traditional and avant jazz, blues, pop, cabaret, MOR, folk, ethnic, brass band music, movie themes, and you-name-it into a grab bag concoction that is light years beyond what we normally think of as crossover.

Some classical ensembles in Amsterdam have resurrected music by such pop icons as Frank Zappa, Andre Popp and Esquivel and expertly performed them with the same accuracy and professionalism they would normally devote to Mozart or Schubert. The avant jazz movement has also been a strong factor. Sounding quite different from, say, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, ensembles such as those led by pianist Mischa Mengelberg (a descendent of the great Dutch conductor) have widened their panoply of influences to previously ignored genres of music. The influence of John Cage's ideas about noise as music and the absurdist strain of Dadaism and Surrealism in art are also a part of this unclassifiable movement in Dutch music. More formal classical composers such as Louis Andreissen have also ventured into areas very close to those frequented by the Willem Breuker Kollektief.

To my ears the Willem Breuker Kollektief embodies one of the most exciting musical languages to be heard today. And they have been doing this for over 25 years, with five of their present members having been with the organization since it was founded. They play over a hundred concerts a year and have a large discography, mostly on their own label, Bvhaast, which is difficult to find in U.S. shops. They really are a collective, sharing all the aspects of their work including promotion, advertising, bookings, recordings, etc.

Besides the dizzying mix of musical styles and ideas that may overwhelm the first-time listener by its sheer volume (and I mean that both ways), a vital part of the Kollektief's gestalt is humor. I might draw a comparison to the Spike Jones Band, which engaged in the most corny and raucous musical humor but consisted of extremely talented players who could handle anything, and in fact did occasionally play it straight as a top flight dance band. Much of the music Breuker and others create for the ensemble is fiendishly difficult and the performers are not afraid to stretch themselves anew at each concert and not to pander to the audience with riffs that will easily garner applause and appreciation. The onstage antics are different almost every performance. Some grow out of mishaps during live concerts which are then expanded and improvised on to create new scenarios for future performances. (A photo in the Kollektief's 25-year book shows Breuker with an industrial vacuum on stage sucking up wrong notes from the just-ended set.) None of the performers is afraid to act completely insane on stage as part of the presentation of some of the music - getting down on all fours and barking at some dog-in-heat sounds that Breuker is forcing out of his soprano sax, for example.

The tremendous impact and power of the group is one of the first things to come across, especially in a live performance. Much of the music has all members playing their hearts out simultaneously, and often the tunes go immediately from one to another without taking a breath. One writer characterized the group as "grabbing the audience by its ears immediately and not letting go til the end." I've found it difficult to listen to the extended expressionistic honkings of most avant loft jazz and even the fist-full/armful keyboard style of players such as Cecil Taylor get on my nerves after awhile. However, I find that when the Breuker ensemble ventures into a section that leaves melody, harmony and "beautiful" sounds behind I can stay with them and appreciate the wild improvisations going on. One effect Breuker seemed partial to at the last live performance I heard (Yoshi's in Oakland) was the creation of clearly animal-like yelps and whoops on wind and brass instruments. In a sax duel with a fellow band member, Breuker created a scene that seemed to conjure up for me two apoplectic beavers having a heated argument. (I have no idea what a mad beaver sounds like but that's what I heard. Perhaps now that I live in Oregon and have a creek running thru my property, I may hear the real thing sometime - who knows.)

Yet another aspect of Breuker's mad musicians is the music education part. The band plays many modern classical works - both familiar and obscure - and presents them in intense versions devoid of the Romantic schmaltz that had been layered on them previously. A good example is their interpretation of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. They have also played works of Antheil, Copland, Grofe, Revueltas, Satie and Weill among others. On some of these works they join forces with an ensemble known as the Mondriaan Strings. There is also a strong leftist/anarchist political bent to many of the larger works the Kollektief has done - included film soundtracks and musicals. Their last CD which I reviewed here was titled Hunger and the cover art was in the style of socialist poster art.

While their recordings will mean a great deal more to listeners who have experienced firsthand their mad vitality and raucous Monty Phythonesque humor, they are sure to catch the ears of any music lover open to what Charles Ives called "ear stretching." Here's a quick survey of just a few of their three dozen CDs to date and many LPs before that:

 

Willem Breuker Kollektief - Celebrating 25 Years on the Road - Bvhaast 9914/15 with 128-page color book of photos - (2 CDs):

This one will be especially hard to find since it is not a standard CD jewel box. The many black & white photos are souvenirs of their playing at various jazz festivals, dance works, theater presentations and most of all their famous annual blowout during the week before New Years. The shots give a hint of the hilarious stage antics of the members, who seem to know no bounds as to what physical actions they will take while performing. There are also many shots of the members taking their music to the streets with impromptu parades and random costumed events.

The pair of CDs included cover a wide range of their playing; most of the tracks are originals by Breuker, but there is a compelling version of Weill's Dance of the Tumblers, a really hilarious doo-wop version of Our Day Will Come, and a re working of the classic Romantic movie theme, The Warsaw Concerto.

 

Bob's Gallery - Bvhaast CD 8801: Probably my favorite Breuker Kollektief CD of the moment. While the title tune (illustrated by a Gary Larson cartoon on the cover - a perfect visual simile for Breuker's music!) is the major work here at 24 minutes and raucously avant-sounding, the other nine tracks alternate between fascinating originals and perfectly-straight faced modern versions of such dated tunes as the flapper-era vocal on Remarkable Girl, and the opening and closing different versions of Reginald Foresythe's urbane Serenade for a Wealthy Widow. But the best thing has to be the ten-minute track titled Minimal, which gently parodies Philip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi score while taking it in several interesting new directions that Glass never thought of.

 

Pakkepapen - Bvhaast CD 9807: Not content with pushing the envelope on the music and staging, Breuker loves to play around with the CD packaging. The wildest one was Heibel, which comes in a five-inch circular wooden case designed to look exactly like a Dutch cheese. Pakkepapen comes in a four-fold heavy see-thru plastic folder with a photographic collage of some of the players in the band. The title tune is divided into five parts spaced around the album. Everything is in Dutch, but I did learn that Pakkepapen is basically a nonsense word. Of course it changes from album to album, but here is the instrumental lineup on this CD, which is roughly the norm: Brueker himself on soprano sax and clarinet, then there's piano, violin, tenor sax, piccolo, alto sax, trumpets, trombones, tuba, percussion, drums and bass. Plus lots of oddball bizarre instruments and noisemakers, mostly courtesy of his pianist.

 

Metropolis - W.B. Kollektief/Mondriaan Strings/Toby Rix, harmonica - Bvhaast CD 8903: The title tune here is a 16 minute Ferde Grofe composition which comes across sounding retro but not dated in Breuker's interpretation. There is also a rousing version of Weill's Dance of the Tumblers, the final movement of Haydn's Trumpet Concerto, a Hugo Wolf lieder, and a bit of movie music from Morricone. Not to mention a pair of swinging Romanian folk themes and closing out with Vincent Youmans' I Want to Be Happy. And you will be after hearing this delightful disc!

Willem Breuker Kollektief - About Time Records AT 1006: This unusual release from a small Massachusetts label was taped at a live concert by the band in l983. Two of the seven tracks are Kurt Weill tunes, one of his favorite composers who Breuker enjoys presenting. The rest are Breuker originals, opening with a massive Amsterdam Rhapsody Overture featuring amazing solos by Bernard Hunnekink on trombone and Andre Goudbeek on alto sax. Weill's Song of Mandalay has never had a treatment quite like that of Breuker and his soprano sax to close out the CD.

Kurt Weill - W. B. Kollektief/Loes Luca - Bvhaast CD9808: Breuker discovered the music of Weill in l970 and was struck by its simplicity, directness and eloquent humanity. This CD is devoted to both Weill standards and some more unusual and infrequently-heard music such as the extensive suite of selections from the opera Weill wrote while in Paris in the 30's - Marie Galante. Chanteuse and actress Luca supplies the perfectly Weillian vocals on several of the tracks. I aurally tend to compare most Weill vocalists to the great Lotte Lenya and they come out wanting. Not Luca - she's completely different and makes it work. The CD opens with Dance of the Tumblers again and closes with one of the composer's finest songs - My Ship - in a fresh and glorious arrangement.

 

Deadly Sin / Twice a Woman - Motion Picture soundtracks by Willem Breuker - Bvhaast CD 9708: These are just two of the many film and video projects in which Breuker has been involved over the years. I didn't unfold the unique packaging all the way, but from what appears oln the right you can see it's quite provocative. There are some stills from the two films inside. Twice a Woman, of l979, was not an obscure Dutch experimental film but a major feature starring Bibi Andersson and Tony Perkins. There's more strings and accordion in these 14 or 15 short cues for each film; while it's not the usual Kollektief sound it is still unmistakably Breuker's work. Makes me want to see both films, just as I've long wanted to see the French film Elevator to the Scaffold due to its soundtrack by Miles Davis.

Sensemayà - W. B. Kollektief/Mondriaan Strings - Bvhaast CD 9509: Another bit of painless music education from the Kollektief. Mexican composer Revueltas' classic tone-painting inspired by a poem on how to kill a serpent became "one of those big black patches in the music of times past" upon which Breuker wanted to shine his special light. (His own words.) Other interpreted classical literature here are a Rachmaninoff Prelude, Antheil's Jazz Symphony, and the Urlicht movement from a Mahler symphony. Even Leroy Anderson's light-hearted The Typewriter gets new life infused into it in the Kollektief's half-page essay. Then for a total change of pace the husky voice of Greetje Kauffeld is heard in Cole Porter's Night and Day.

Parade - W. B. Kollektief/Mondriaan Strings - Bvhaast CD 9101: Erik Satie's Parade ballet, presented in l917 together with Jean Cocteau, was a landmark Dadaist musical funhouse. Naturally it appealed to Willem Breuker, who brings it off with much more energy and elan than any of the standard symphony orchestra versions. Several originals by Breuker share with another Weill tune, the Sewing Machine Song from Johnny Johnson, a favorite Weill musical with Breuker. The CD closes with a fascinating-sounding seven-section suite by Henk de Jonge titled Expectations. I had an expectation of reading something about the music and de Jonge, but that expectation was not met. He is Breuker's keyboard virtuoso as well as the supplier of varied sound effects such as the typewriter and steamship whistle in Parade. A guest sax and flute soloist on this album was a visiting young jazzman from Austin Texas, Alex Coke.

 

So take a chance and sample something from the Kollektief soon. If you have trouble finding their discs - and you will - contact their North American distributor: North Country, in Redwood, New York, at 315-287-2852 or northcountry@cadencebuilding.com

- John Sunier


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