Willem Breuker R.I.P.

I tend to avoid all news while on vacation — had I not been in Washington D.C., the government could have been overthrown without my knowing it — so it’s only now that I’m catching up to the sad news of Willem Breuker’s passing.

Considering the number of jazz masters I’ve missed seeing, I’m especially glad to have caught the Willem Breuker Kollektief at Yoshi’s some years back. They’re an amazing bunch, and it was particularly gratifying to know they’d managed to keep the act on the road for more than 25 years at that point, exposing worldwide audiences to that New Dutch mix incorporating traditional big-band jazz, free improvising, modern classical, and a cartoony sense of fun. They put on a show.

I was inspired enough that night to buy the photo book/CD set titled “25 Years on the Road.”  The merch table was madcap, with several of the musicians handling sales to eager buyers, and lots of cash changing hands. They moved a lot of product. It was fun to see.

As for the show itself, they didn’t disappoint. In addition to lots of rollicking jazz and crack musicianship, there was a lot of clowning around on stage. One piece featured four of the horns, two of them trombones, I think, doing their own untethered free-improv solo. After a few minutes of this, the rest of the band, including Breuker, started reacting in mock impatience, pacing restlessly, making angry gestures at the players, throwing sheet music in the air in exasperation. Two of them started up games of tic-tac-toe or something on one of the music stands.

Some folks point out that this is all shtick that’s repeated from show to show, if not rehearsed. But the theatrical elements are just part of the experience; you’re still watching a great jazz band in action.

The book is a treasure. It’s mostly photographs of road life for 25 years, including pictures from the big theatrical productions the band used to do in the ’70s and ’80s. It looks like they’ve attempted to document every single musician who played in the Kollektief — there are lots of head shots, and the back of the book includes a then-full discography with photos of album covers and playbills.

You also get to see the band clowning around, of course. One picture was taken on an airplane, long before 9/11, when the band pulled out instruments and played a song for the birthday of the wife of the Dutch ambassador to Aruba. Eat your heart out, Southwest.

If you care at all, you’ve already found plentiful Breuker material on the Web, I’m sure.  But here’s an obit list anyway. I intend to raise a glass and go buy something from BVHaast (Breuker’s label, which released a lot more than Breuker’s own music).

  • NPR/Fresh Air, whose Kevin Whitehead wrote a book about the new Dutch jazz. Lots of music samples, to give you a feel for Breuker’s work.
  • The New York Times.
  • A brief remembrance from Classical-Drone (also viewable on All About Jazz).
  • This snippet from the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, which doesn’t seem aware that Brueker died, is admirably concise and apt — although the phrase “The world needs more unique” shouldn’t have gotten past the copy editors. (Assuming they still have them there. That’s a separate issue.)

Finally, here’s the video that’s featured on Breuker’s Website (which still carries the 1990s early-Web URL of http://www.xs4all.nl/~wbk). It’s a montage from a July 2009 performance in Belgium, one of the Kollektief’s last concerts outside of The Netherlands.