Eric VLOEIMANS / Holland Baroque Society – Old, New and Blue – Channel Classics multichannel SACD 35613, 63:05 (12/10/13) *****:
(Eric Vloeimans; trumpet/ Marc Constandse; bandeon/ Judith Steenbrink; violin and director)
A spectacular collaboration between Dutch genre-hopping trumpeter and Holland’s leading early music ensemble.
Dutch jazz has for a long time now distinguished itself from the adjacent Germano-Nordic musical culture through a quality that might best be described as affable eccentricity. While there is no shortage of musical prowess or brainy innovation, what predominates in so many performances I have seen and heard is a lively theatricality, sometimes bordering on the absurd. As long ago as 1967, the ICP Orchestra (Instant Composers Pool) was founded around an original almost game-like concept of improvisation. The founders of the group, Hans Bennick and Misha Mengelberg, played with Eric Dolphy in the heady days of the ‘60s avant-garde and along the way, imbibed the ideals of intensity and freedom. However, in their own interpretation of this radical aesthetic, they evolved counter-balancing notions of comic fun, group interaction, and compositional cleverness equally distributed. So for two generations now, the group has held up the banner of a distinct musical performance, while spinning off many like-spirited, original artists. I was fortunate to catch them in concert a decade ago and vividly recall the exhilaration produced by their unique brand of comic musicality.
I recently attended a concert by Dutch trumpet player, Eric Vloeimans, on his west-coast tour with Brooklyn-based accordionist Will Holshouser. Vloeimans is paragon of this Dutch jazz culture, although he does not identify himself as a jazz musician. In fact, his 20 or so recordings range freely over pop, electronic, and folk categories, although all rely heavily on improvisational skills. I took it as a good sign that the manager of the ICP was in attendance, and I expected nothing less than a night of surprises. The music was built on compositions of both players and veered wildly from comic to ethereal: folk music, Klezmer, tribute to a Syrian musician, a jazz standard, and some free-wheeling hooting and stomping, all of it aimed directly at the appreciative patrons of yet another of Abbie Weisenbloom’s legendary house concerts. Above all, the music communicated in such a personal way that notions of style or musical idiom became irrelevant.
Mr. Vloeimans demonstrated an unusual ability to play the trumpet very softly (never using a mute), a hard-won achievement indeed. Even more striking was his wide range of timbre; his instrument could do a fair copy of the alto flute, or even the Renaissance cornetto. It seemed he was striving one moment for the effect of the lugubrious Armenian duduk, and then in a flash, he was breaking the glass with upper range fanfare declarations. His entire tool kit, as well as his prodigious improv skills, is put to use in the recording under review, Eric Vloeimans meets the Holland Baroque Society.
Holland is a small country, and surely members of the jazz confraternity run into the early music folks at the local pub. Still, the notion of joining forces would seem far from obvious. If one wishes to catch a visual of this recording, there is a video of the first track on YouTube, which shows Vloeimans looking perfectly comfortable in the midst of this world-class ensemble, having by force of will, remade his instrument into a delicate and authentic baroque instrument. The only sign of Dutch eccentricity comes when the inevitable accordionist hoves into view, looking like a figure from the country fair. (Vloeimans seems to feel most comfortable in the company of this instrument).
The tune, “Mine Own King Am I & Joel,” is more straightforward than its elliptical title. Indeed, it is light on harmony and seems more like an placid courtship in which the trumpet is trying to win over the string players by not doing anything ridiculous or impolite. The textures are as sumptuous as the fabrics traded and worn in the age of Vermeer. But there is no ostentation, and chiaroscuro effects are weighted towards shadows. Without the video, a person given three guesses would perhaps not identify the main voice in the ensemble as a trumpet.
Next, Vloeimans takes up two chorals by two Bachs. The first by Johann Cristoph is played straight and is ravishingly beautiful. The second is immediately subverted by the accordion. It sets the stage for an encounter in which a mischievous trumpet coaxes the ensemble away from their gloomy harmonies out to an open field where the trumpet races ahead while the strings take up a pizzicato walking (and then pursuing) bass line. Counterpoint returns, and soon the trumpet is playing the exquisite melody over the authentic polyphony with exemplary polish. It is an unprecedented feat and opens up a door into a world of possibilities for improvisational explorations of classical repertoire.
Following this, we are taken back to the Renaissance with three versions of the tune Mille Regretz. The stately dance reveals the beauty of the strings captured handsomely in super-audio surround sound. A small organ and lute add to the pleasing texture. When the trumpet arrives, it does so with a whisper and then gently breathes life into the drowsy elegy. The Josquin version is even slower, with plucked strings and spacious unhurried feel. Vloeimans then attempts the risky improvisation over the progression, staying within the Renaissance idiom. The Gombert is a second high point on the record. Reinvented as a mournful folk melody, the arrangement brings back the accordion and sets a dark and keening trumpet solo against a gradually building and insistent ensemble which grinds on a menacing ostinato.
This prepares us for the aforementioned alto flute impersonation on “Tender Mercies,” an original tune. Is it partly or mostly improvised? It seems so, and we might inquire of the musician who disavows the label of jazz musician what we would call this kind of spontaneous melodic invention. Only with the arrival of the strings, who are the embassies of mercy, does the trumpet settle into a period-style lyrical lines implied by the ensemble. A second original follows, “Sans Parure”. On which has little connection the idiom; Instead, a bouncing ensemble escorts a slightly-wonking trumpet solo, wending its way breathlessly over the form. It feels like Renaissance polyphony has been carried east of the Caucasus on a piece derived from a Thomas Tallis setting, “If Ye Love Me.” It flutes along for a couple of minutes with breathy microtones before picking up the strings, which weave a polyphonic garland around the improvisation.
The anticipated weirdness arrives with “Wet Feet,” an original tune treated with impish humor. The accordion is back on “Paduan A Five,” a reassembled consort theme with a frothy, stumbling feel. It closes with a simple organ/trumpet statement of the now serene lullaby. “Ciacony” is a modern treatment of an Chaconne played without trumpet. “Tender Mercies” returns with long sustained notes and antiphonal phrases on which concertmaster Judith Steenbrick shows off her burnished sound on her fiddle. It finishes with a fanfare brilliance from the trumpet over a strong pulsing beat.
As an encore, a bluesy intro segues into a straightforward treatment of the Beatles “Blackbird.” Vloeimans plays the melody with affection. The accordion adds a necessary splash of vinegar to keep the strings from becoming overly-sweet. We witness with wonder the trumpet, organ, lute, and viola da gambas plucking away on a perfectly arranged and heartfelt tribute to popular music as part of the inclusive vision of this generous artist. It ends oddly with a fade-out, a studio gimmick normally shunned by classical and jazz musicians alike, but not out of place on this nod to pop music.
The entire project is conceived with great care and carried out brilliantly. It enriches early music performance with the expressive freedom of jazz, it also informs an improvisational practice with ancient forms, baroque textures and refinements that make for an expanded tonal palette and musical depth. Hats off to the Holland Baroque Society and Mr. Eric Vloeimans and not least to the outstanding producers at Channel Classics.
TrackList: Mine Own King Am I & Joel; Ach Dass Ich Wasser genug Hatte; Choral Ertot uns; Pavanne Mille Regretz by Susato, Gombert and des Pres; Tender Mercies; Sans Parure; If Ye Love Me; Wet Feet; Paduan A 5; Ciacony; Tender Mercies; Blackbird