Doek Festival Blog #3
Give It Up or the Band: Blog 3 Friday 5 June
by Kevin Whitehead
photography by Sara Anke Morris
Jazz festivals love to slap together combinations of well-known musicians, but some star-studded bands that look good on paper fizzle on stage—sometimes, frankly, because certain stars turn out to be jerks who aren’t easy to work with. Of course 20 nice people don’t necessarily make an ensemble either. This transatlantic bunch are especially congenial; you can see how much they enjoy each other’s company. (Having a lot of funny people around always helps.) More important, everyone can really play, everyone listens, and everybody pulls together.
Exhibit A was the second set at the Bimhuis last night, devoted to Anthony Braxton’s large-ensemble compositions. Braxton likes his Charles Ives-y collage effects, and often during that continuous set, there were three conductors in front of the band. Braxton was flanked by Taylor Ho Bynum and James Fei, who using hand-signals carved players out of the main ensemble to follow their instructions—to play different music from the other players, sometimes in a conflicting tempo, or a radically different dynamic level. Yet the music still had the transparency that Braxton seeks. It was great theater, which yielded clear and invigorating music. (After the show Braxton was already talking about making that set a CD.)
You could really see the players’ co-operative attitudes during the public rehearsals earlier this week—how the musicians, approaching some brand-new work by another member of the Doek/Tri-Centric orchestra, sought to clarify and bring out a composer’s best ideas, asking a lot of questions, and making diplomatic suggestions about how to shore up any shaky bits. And the composers respond in kind: it’s all about the work, not the ego.
Now, a lot of that process is just the normal give and take and prodding of the rehearsal process. So let me give an example of how these musicians really rise to the occasion. One composer from the band, who could easily have written a rousing, catchy tune for the players to lay back and enjoy and embellish, came in with a rhythmically fiendish composition that had everybody sweating. After a few halting and apologetic run-throughs the composer said, we don’t have to play this; I’ve got lots of more manageable pieces we could swap in instead. Then cornetist Bynum (the de facto ringleader of the American contingent) spoke up: what if I try to conduct it? Which he then immediately did, without a full score, clarifying the tempo shifts between sections (and holding the basic tempo rock steady). Instantly an observer could hear the point of all the struggle: the piece gelled in minutes. But if Taylor conducts on the concert, we’ll lose his cornet part, someone said. No problem, piped in trumpeter Nate Wooley: there are only a few places where we both play at once; give me five minutes and I’ll figure out how to cover both parts. In 20 minutes things had gone from, maybe we should abandon this, to, hey this sounds really good!
That’s the band in a nutshell. It helps that the ensemble is full of composers, whose pieces we’ve been hearing all week. They see/hear things from the visionary side and the practical side: you can’t realize your dream if the players can’t play it. And you’re willing to work harder for that composer because they’ve worked just as hard on your music.
One other thing I touched on a couple of days ago: no matter how good the final rehearsal was, chances are good the gig will be appreciably better—because adrenaline kicks in, or players went back to practice that convoluted phrase that kept tripping them up, or because they had more time to ponder the materials and the composer’s intent. In Holland in the ’90s one used to hear grumbling about new commissioned compositions that were played once and then never heard again. The music these US- and Amsterdam-based performers have come up with is meant to be played and replayed—because with improvisation so much a part of the mix, it’s never going to sound the same way twice.
Which is why I’m looking forward to Friday night’s Bimhuis concert, when the players take a second pass at a few compositions heard at Zaal 100 earlier in the week; last I heard (hey, sometimes improvised music calls for impromptu schedule changes) the program was to include pieces by Bynum, Eric Boeren, Kaja Draksler and Carl Testa—a very diverse program, in terms of sound and compositional strategies. I am reasonably sure those pieces are going to sound more seasoned than they did last time around. The rapport just keeps growing.
(One element in the mix we have been missing: Oscar Jan Hoogland had to skip the last two concerts, sidelined with the flu. We are hoping for a speedy recovery.)
Also: grand master Misha Mengelberg turns 80 today! More on him tomorrow.