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Friday, Nov. 17, 2006


Dutch invasion

Japan treated to jazz imports

Special to The Japan Times

Jazz has established many homes outside its country of birth, and recently musicians and fans in these widely dispersed countries have begun interacting far from jazz's Mecca of New York City. The scenes in Holland and Japan -- long two of the most thriving -- stepped up their cultural exchanges this year with more tours than ever. For the two countries, it is the latest chapter in a relationship established 400 years ago when Dutch ships arrived in Nagasaki.

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Holland's ICP Orchestra (top; drummer Hans Bennink above right) has been performing their brand of humorous, improvisational jazz for years. Pianist Rob Van Bavel (above left) brings a classical background to his interpretation of past masters. KEI FUJIWARA PHOTOS (top, above right)

Three of Holland's best, Faye Claassen, Rob Van Bavel and the ICP Orchestra have delivered powerful shows in Tokyo this fall. Claassen's often-wordless vocals, Van Bavel's muscular, complex piano and the ICP's whimsical boundary busting could not be more diverse. What they do have in common are enthusiastic Japanese fans.

An instrumental voice

Claassen's vocal style uses her entire body as an instrument. Her voice -- with or without words -- blends with the other instruments as gently as any melodic reed or brass instrument would, proving that her singing is as influenced by horn players as it is by singers.

Hiroshi Itsuno, head of 55 Records, a specialty label for Dutch jazz that released two CDs by Claassen this year, says, "Faye's approach is very fresh to Japanese as she is so different from Japanese singers, very natural and with no gimmicks."

The CDs are both dedicated to one of jazz's most loved, if tragic, figures, Chet Baker. Baker lived his final years in Holland, and, despite a drug dependency, inspired the scene there before his death in 1988. After her show at the Yokohama Jazz Promenade this fall, Claassen talked to The Japan Times about how her band worked with Baker's legacy in their own way.

"I started to collect a lot of tunes from Chet. Every week the band met and together we listened to the songs, and found a whole list that were in the same key at the same tempo -- so many that the producer finally offered to bring out a double CD," she said with a laugh.

Claassen and baritone saxophonist Jan Menu, who played with Baker in his final years, together create a melodic voice that follows not the letter but the spirit of his music.

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Faye Claassen reinterprets Chet Baker's West Coast cool.

"I never think of Chet Baker while I sing, or try to imitate his solos, but I just keep the feeling intact." Claassen said. "The other musicians in the band played with him, but they never told me what to do. As we went deeper and deeper into this stuff, it was incredible, these lines are amazing."

The Dutch group also captures Baker's expressive range, whose singing was as influential as his cool, West Coast style. But what emerges is not only a portrait of Baker, but also one of the Dutch style of jazz. The Japan shows started with instrumental vocals before turning to lyrics -- not an easy switch. But Claassen is one of the few contemporary singers who fully enters into both lyrics and melodies.

"It's quite difficult to do in one set. The musical story may be the same, but with lyrics, I'm more close to myself emotionally." Claassen said.

First classical, then jazz

The last pianist to play with Chet Baker, Rob Van Bavel dedicated his most recent release, "Almost Blue," to him. Between sets during his fall tour of Japan, he told the story of his strange relation to the jazz icon.

"I was playing in a club in Rotterdam with my own band and Chet Baker came in and he started playing with us," he said. "Two days later he died. A lot of media came, but we only played three or four tunes together. Even in Israel last year, a lot of media came then, too."

Classically trained, Van Bavel plays precisely but with wide-open feeling. Though that may sound contradictory, the pianist makes it work, and his trio backs him with a gentle sound that complements the piano's natural range of tones. Van Bavel's straight-on style owes much to his classical background, and surely to teaching piano in conservatories in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Tilberg.

"I think we have a sort of classical approach," says Van Bavel of Dutch jazz. "I think the classical style is less in jazz. Especially when I listen to the older players, like my favorite Tommy Flanagan, you hear almost no classical music whatsoever." If that sounds like a fault, it is one that makes for a beautiful difference.

"Compared to American piano players," says Itsuno of 55 Records, "he really knows how to make the sound come out of the piano."

"Almost all Dutch piano players start with classical music, concentrating on technique, interpretation and expression," Van Bavel explains. "You can hear this in terms of the touch on the piano. It has a clean and pure sound."

From a European point of view, then, it would seem classical piano is the best start for jazz musicians, and this divergence from the American tradition may be just another way of interpreting past masters. Whatever the training, the jazz scene in Europe is certainly flourishing.

"The good thing about being a piano player is that you can play with any band. I play with like 10 different groups, so I have four to seven shows a week," Van Bavel says. "It's so easy to travel these days. We play in Germany, and in Spain, even Las Vegas -- and South Africa next year. I've been to Indonesia and tried to put in a touch of gamelan music!"

Jazz of the absurd

The ICP Orchestra, one of the longest-running bands in Holland, is a loose collective of performers who love to improvise. They packed Nishi Azabu's Super Deluxe in November for two sets of wildly unpredictable yet tradition-savvy music.

The two mainstays of the band are pianist Misha Mengelberg, who provides most of the compositions, and drummer Hans Bennink, who not only provides percussion but during the show turned the club into one giant drum. Every road manager's dream, he brought only one actual drum on stage, a small snare. That was all that was needed, as Bennink knows how to drum on the walls, his chair and even, unbelievably, his teeth. Wherever and however he hit, the rhythms kept flying.

Meanwhile, the ICP's trumpet, trombone, violin, cello, bass and three saxes all collectively pursued their own sense of direction. The music stretched into some odd shapes, but eventually snapped back together into a fascinating, if not always exactly harmonious whole. The horns and strings faced off, free jazz blasts followed minimalist near-silence, and gutsy blues-based solos sprang up in the middle of sensitive orchestral flow. It all made sense, but definitely its own kind.

The band could take a Thelonius Monk tune straight or delicately deliver Ellington-like flourishes, but usually they would break up the seriousness before it got too far. During one drum solo, everyone "died," dropping their instruments and slinking to the floor. As they got back up, the groove built into a hard, fast swing that had the crowd whooping. The Japanese fans loved the goofiness, maybe because it is a rare commodity here.

A new address

A recent book by Stuart Nicholson was provocatively titled "Is Jazz Dead, or Has It Moved to a New Address?" The answer to that question was delivered by the Dutch invasion: it has at least two new ones.

And with all these shows in Japan, and several more to come from Europe before the year is out, it is increasingly clear that there are even more out there. As Itsuno declared, "Everywhere around the world, except maybe North Korea, has a jazz scene -- no matter how small. Jazz is truly a global language."

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