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1000 Anthems To Work On A Good End – 1000 (Klare, Maris, de Joode, Vatcher) – El Negocito 063, (6/17/17): ****:

(Jan Klare-Reeds; Bart Maris-Trumpet; Wilbert de Joode-Bass; Michael Vatcher-drums)

When it comes to avant-garde or experimental jazz, I am usually willing to let my colleagues have the first go and wait for a report on the merits of the recordings. An exception is made for music that belongs to the category “Dutch Jazz,” broadly conceived as music which displays qualities of humor, theatrical inventiveness, and eccentricity. (we will now epand this concept to Dutch-Belgico ) Early on, the Dutch jazz styles were cross-pollinated by theater music. Emphasis was placed not so much on forms as on the realization of personality. This makes for merry gatherings even when the serious avant garde experiment is the matter at hand. One’s ears are bent out of shape, but with high spirits.

It was a lucky accident that brought about my contact with the label Negocito, operating out of Ghent, Belgium that specializes in zany and freshly-imagined improvised music, which we will only call “jazz” because another term doesn’t recommend itself. A sample of the label shows a impressive breadth of musicians playing free of genre conceptions but inspired by long-standing ideals of improvised musical expression in small groups with plenty of non-standard ensemble configurations. Immediately catching my eye is the disc under review, charmingly titled 1000 Anthems To Work On A Good End . The group itself is called 1000 and consists of a quartet with Jan Klare on reeds, Bart Maris on Trumpet, Wilbert de Joode on base, and the inimitable Michael Vatcher on drums.

The title suggests inexpert translation. The would-be listener is skeptical at being asked to endure a exposition of National Anthems. Things get weirder as we notice that there will be no less than seven versions of anthems from Afghanistan from different periods of the 20th century and also five from Cambodia. Having counted these up and realized that this is still far short of a 1000, the group decided to offer one each from Syria, China and the obscure Pacific Atoll Niue, the latter with both a vocal and an instrumental version. In between, there are more or less free ensemble pieces each in which “four individuals, invent an anthem for the please of the moment” and then “sing personal hymns simultaneously” and finally “cover up a hymn like Christo would do.” In short the program is a hoot but not (wholly) a spoof. The liner notes make it clear that intend on irritating their listeners but have no wish to offend them.

In fact, for all the abundant goofiness, there is a concerted search for melodic sense. Anthems aim for simple appeal; they stir a crowd. The tension of the concept is that this music is so radically individualistic and yet the starting point is a stiff genre that asserts group meaning, often in chauvinistically stupid ways. Claims made in the liner notes that anthems are “reference points for a whole nation” and that they “bring people together” become weirdly ironic in the context of a Cambodian anthem from 1976-1979 which may have even been composed by Pol Pot. The victims of the Khmer Rouge Holocaust were certainly “brought together” and disposed of as part of a Nationalistic nightmare. How does one propose to listen to an anthem connected to this period? The record gives no instructions, so it is up to the listener to decide.

The disc begins with a presumably spontaneous four part improvisation with clarinet and trumpet playing off one another, while the comic jousting is supported by an off-kilter but charming rhythmic pulse. It becomes clear that whatever ceremonial is ahead, it will be leavened by this sort of musical mischief. There follows the first instantiation of the Cambodian national anthem. By strange chance, it sounds just like a New Orleans jump band; absent are any references to a far-Eastern vibe or colonial hybrids. After some stomping and wailing, it sounds like the saxophonist has found the chart and begun to play the anthem in question. The boozy dance feel gives way to just a bit of dignity, quickly undermined by the relentless plunger-mute effects of the trumpet. One wants to doff a hat or salute–not any notion of Nationality but rather a universal spirit of comedy. This little three minute piece is a perfect realization of a fresh jazz concept by turns amusing and stirring, playful and serious. Rather than dreading the next four versions, one eagerly awaits this music of strange purposes.

Jumping ahead to a 1970-75 version of the same anthem by “unknown,” we are given some official sounding drum rolls and a dismal march beat. This tune is ragged-up considerably in a fashion that might suggest Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry forced to play a High-School football theme song. Further farcical treatments follow on what is presented as an even later version of the anthem. Bart Maris plunges wildly with the mute against a chaotic whirl of whacks and thumps from the rhythm section. A mysterious interlude ensues with a stately theme played in creditable harmony played against an entrancing swirl of metallic and water effects from drummer Michael Vatcher. This one track is something of a highlight for me as it achieves both the weirdness of the anthem concept but also a rare sort of beauty. Following that Klare and Maris demonstrate a superb rapport as they twine a double melody around what sounds more like a Hebrew melody than anything else. All is twist and turn. Bass and drums alertly adjust to every unexpected phrase. A sawing bass announces the final Cambodian anthem which is genuinely exotic in both treatment and textures, with Klare showing off a very Asiatic flute while Maris squeaks out phrases in a high register.

Map AfghanistanThe main offering consists of seven versions of Afghanistan National Anthems, on the face of it, an absurd proposition. As a modern Nation-State, this one-time mountain kingdom has done very poorly. The several intrusions of westernization have mostly prompted a paroxysm of tribal retribution. The thought of a frail and scarcely legitimate political apparatus standing up with competence and legitimacy is the stuff of wild optimism. All the more fitting that the music is neither martial nor celebratory. Rather it sounds like a tentative and modest effort by a first time composer. In my first term of composition, one of my weaker efforts garnered the encouraging comments from my instructor. “This piece demonstrates that you fully understand that in a melody one notes must follow another.” Of this, one could say likewise. The musical material “chosen strictly for artistic reasons” has little to recommend itself. Yet from this simplicity, the ensemble discovers an affecting musical beauty. The trumpet plays straight and clear while modest harmonizing and carefully rhythmic steps make the most out of the theme.

As the variations follow upon one another, we are plunged back into the riddle of what we are to take away from them. Certainly they make no useful musicological commentary on anything pertaining to the political or historical notion of “Afghanistan.” What matters, though, is that the music works well enough. Melody and form, surprise and banality, timbre and dynamics are fitted to scaled down and peculiar works as if the challenge was to make a silken purse out of the proverbial sow’s ear.

And then we come to an anthem which supposedly comes from the island atoll of Niue. First there is Niue Voices . The text is chopped up and sung in four disparate parts, out of sync.

The Lord in Heaven 

Who loves
Niue
Who rules kindly
The Almighty
Who rules completely over Niue Over Niue, Over Niue
Over Niue, Over Niue
Who rules completely over Niue Who rules over Niue 

It is a baffling performance but strangely moving. One feels the dread hand of a missionary in the truncated text but the singing feels authentically Polynesian. Disjointed and floating, it evokes calmness in the face of the inevitable, for Niue is sinking inexorably into the Pacific and will be the first casualty of global warming. The scattered voices suggest a diaspora calling to one another over distances that will only increase.

RefugiaRefugia is a free jazz ramble in the spirit of Ornette and Don Cherry. The longest piece at 6:30, it loses focus midway after a cheerful quarrel and sounds like an anthem gone terribly wrong. A Chinese anthem, credited to Bo Tong, never quite gets going melodically, but the saxophone makes a great caterwauling statement out of the pentatonic allotment of notes while eerie effects are supplied by trumpet, arco bass and a jangle of percussion. There is a grave theatricality that comes across by the (welcome) end. The Syrian anthem sounds like the straightest piece of all. March beat, dutiful rapping on snare alongside a stiff melody. The variations on the chart are ingenious. As throughout the record, New Orleans spirit of group improvisation carries the piece away from parody towards street theater.

This disc is for those who welcome art wrapped in riddles. It might help to leave behind all conception of what an Anthem is supposed to be. On the other hand, this is not an exercise in postmodern deconstruction. It is an brilliantly conceived experiment in exploiting unusual repertoire which contains musical and cultural determinatives that are played with, honored, reframed, puzzled over. It is a privilege of the (hopefully expanding) audience to experience the multiple challenges and pleasures of the musical venture. Certainly the strangest release of 2018 but a very good one.

—Fritz Balwit

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