The World As Drumkit

Han Bennik Trio — Parken (ILK, 2009)
Daniele D’Agaro, Bruno Marini, Han Bennik — The Tempest (Artesuono, 2008)

Source: eMusic; click to go thereI sometimes wonder if other musicians think Han Bennik‘s clowning around dilutes the seriousness of the music — or, more properly, the substance of it. Maybe the audience is watching him too gleefully to really hear what he’s playing. But I think the avant-garde world needs messengers like him, players who can cross audience boundaries. And I enjoy a good musical clown act. I think he’s terrific, albeit exhausting.

On record, his presence is still manic but more subtle. You just don’t get to see him, say, run backstage and invisibly pound on a piano back there. (That happened during one Mills College concert. It was pretty funny.) Parken is a good example, and like many Dutch jazz albums, it presents a good blend of the jazz tradition with well constructed improvisation.

“Music for Camping,” though freeform, is rooted in swingy piano and clarinet. And “Lady of the Lavender Mist” is a lovely ballad with some light clarinet melody. Bennik is content to linger in the background on brushes while the clarinet takes its slow riverboat ride through the piece.

“Fleimsche March” is more overtly “out.” The piano sputters out high notes like a paint sprayer gone mad. Joaquim Badenhorst’s clarinet offers squashed curls of sound, a warped non-Euclidean melody. And Bennik just goes nuts behind it all, of course. “Reedeater” is a slower piece that rambles nicely until it builds into a dark improv jam. Then there’s the two-minute seizure titled “Myckewelk.”

“Isfahan” is more what you’d expect, in terms of abstract improvising. It’s a slowly creeping piece, pushed along by the crackling bursts of Bennik’s drum work. Badenhorst lurks on clarinet, and Simon Toldam keeps the piano quiet for a time, before taking the lead with some nicely jazzy runs.

The final track, “Parken,” is a lovely slow song that features a (Dutch?) female vocalist. I don’t know who; that’s the handicap of using eMusic.

Source: eMusic (click to go there)Speaking of eMusic — imagine my surprise at surfing around there and finding what I thought was an ECM release with Han Bennik on it. Turns out it’s on the Artesuono label, and — surprise again — it’s not the darkly moody, introspective material I’d expected after seeing that album cover. No, it’s an old-school organ-jazz trio, doing a hopping set of tunes based (apparently) on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

And while they do break the mold in several places, the old-school segments go hardcore old-school. The lead horn is Daniele D’Agaro’s clarinet, which is certainly different, but the album opens with swingy organ splashing from Bruno Marini on “An Evening at Prospero’s,” turning the grand wizard into more of a jazz-club-owning hep cat. That’s followed with the less traditional “Caliban,” which crackles with post-bop energy and spattering clarinet lines, a free-jazz good time.

“Goodbye” and “So” are slower, warmer numbers. You can totally picture the ’50s album cover with the sweater girl listening to her hi-fi.¬† “Ariel in Clarinetville” gets into a more free-form kind of improvising, but when the chord-heavy organ solo starts up, watch out! You’re plunged way back into ’50s TV territory.

As for Bennik, he’s content to slip into a sideman’s outfit and do his part to swing along, maybe with a little extra activity bubbling beneath the surface. Even his drum solo on “Claribel, the Queen of Tunis” fits right in the pocket. Another solo, on “Caliban,” is full of quietude and subtlety — it’s delicious stuff, playful but not audacious.

It’s true that you often can judge a CD by its cover. Marketing people and artists do a great job conveying the mood of the music. But every now and then, as on The Tempest, you get a pleasant surprise.