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Willem Breuker Kollektief at Jazz Alley

Founded in 1974, the Willem Breuker Kollektief has been bringing their joyous and virtuosic blend of jazz, European traditions and Dutch humor to a worldwide audience for well over 25 years now. The Kollektief’s engagement at Jazz Alley was their second stop on an extensive North American tour.

In live performance even more so than on recordings the parallels between Mr. Breuker’s artistic vision for the Kollektief and that of the late Edward Kennedy Ellington for his orchestra become apparent. Mr. Ellington always composed and arranged with the unique sounds and styles of each orchestra member in mind, never writing a generic "trumpet part" but a "Cootie Williams trumpet part," never writing a stock "alto saxophone part" but a "Johnny Hodges alto part" and so on. Mr. Breuker also creates his music with the individual band members in mind, and it would be difficult to envision the Kollektief’s repertoire being played successfully by anyone else. Let’s put it this way: it’s unlikely you’ll hear the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, other repertory groups or a college jazz band performing "Tango Superior" or "To Remain." Throughout his long career, Mr. Ellington kept his orchestra together whether the economic climate was balmy or frigid because he considered it his instrument, and could not picture the concept of being without that instrument to immediately bring life to a new composition. His musicians stayed with the orchestra for enormously expansive periods of time, some of them for up to six decades. The Kollektief also has a history of very stable personnel, with a large percentage of the members in place for over ten years, and some since the group’s inception.

At Jazz Alley, direct parallels in terms of style as well were most obvious in the third piece (no announcements of composition titles were provided.) The evocative use of plunger mutes by the two trumpeters and two trombonists conjured up echoes of Jungle Band-era Ellingtonia, convening the ghosts of Bubber Miley and Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton. There was something of a post-Piazzolla New Tango sensibility as well. When trombonist Bernard Hunnekink switched to tuba, the orchestration was wonderful, and Mr. Breuker’s mastery of the tone colors at his disposal created the illusion of a group much larger than the ten-member Kollektief. There was also a powerful and precise open trumpet solo from Boy Raaymakers here demonstrating once again that he is a generally unacknowledged brass master in the world of improvised music.

The Kollektief’s personnel for the 2002 North American tour included Henk de Jonge, piano; Bernard Hunnekink, trombone & tuba; Rob Verdurmen, drums; Boy Raaymakers, trumpet, ukulele; Andy Altenfelder, trumpet; Andy Bruce, trombone; Arjen Gorter, double bass; Hermine Deurloo, alto sax & harmonica; and Maarten van Norden, tenor sax. Mr. Breuker played strictly soprano saxophone in Seattle, again proving himself to be among the most advanced players of this demanding horn on the contemporary creative improvised and composed music scene. Admittedly, his alto and tenor saxophone work was missed and his marvelous bass clarinet but the logistics of lugging those bulkier instruments on such an extended and fast-paced tour may account for the specialization.

Raymond Scott, foxtrots, circus bands, Cab Calloway, waltzes, barrel organs, Rachmaninoff, boogie-woogie, marching bands, Prokofiev, tangos, klezmer groups, Duke Ellington, habaneras, Dixieland bands, Kurt Weill, polkas, rockabilly, Grieg, rumbas, cabaret singers, Ennio Morricone, national anthems, campy pre-WWII pop songs, Chopin, grand opera then soap opera, Italian "Banda," Gershwin, schottisches, boozy Las Vegas lounge singers, Rossini, Busby Berkeley production numbers, spaghetti western soundtracks, Henry Mancini, the bunny hop, German oompah bands, Bartok, vaudeville, theatre orchestras, Ravel, tangos, burlesque, Nino Rota, swing, Tin Pan Alley, Haydn, hard bop, hornpipes The mental images and aural snapshots come fast and furious when listening to the Kollektief‘s sometimes raucous but always impeccably crafted music. It's cinematic in the extreme, full of jarring jump cuts, dizzying pans and swift cross fades. Mr. Breuker’s celebrated sense of humor is omnipresent, encompassing wacky slapstick and pungent satire with plenty of irony and sardonic wit too. On occasion like other musicians who employ humor in very calculated ways he can be a tad sophomoric, but usually the bar is set higher, providing yuks at a grad student level. The ideals of democratic socialism are the foundation of the collective’s structure; imagine Karl Marx as a previously undiscovered sibling of Chico, Groucho, Gummo, Harpo and Zeppo: garrulous gallimaufry in the service of artistic freedom. Willem Breuker was born in Amsterdam during the bitter cold winter of 1944-1945, when hunger was a fact of life in war-torn Europe, and the liner notes to Hunger! (the first CD in the trilogy that continued with Thirst! and recently concluded with Misery!) include this sentence: "Somehow the baby Willem managed to thrive and was weaned on the socialist ideals of post-war Holland."

The wacky jocularity surfaced early at Jazz Alley, when Mr. Breuker’s volcanic soprano solo on the second tune was spiced with an assortment of extra-musical schtick from the other musicians, including scratching the top of his head as he played, taking a few vaudevillian twists and turns about the stage, and engaging in some goggle-eyed pantomime. The Kollektief operates on a multitude of levels at any given moment, and a split-second of inattention as an observer may cause one to miss a particularly whimsical vignette.

Other highlights of the set included a waggish synchronized dance step routine from the trumpeters, sort of like a cross between Broadway and The Four Tops, which segued to a brilliant solo by alto saxophonist Hermine Deurloo, her robust tone and adventurous ideas spurred on by an intense scree of varying rhythmic backdrops. Tenor saxophonist Maarten van Norden took up the gauntlet in a supercharged steeplechase of a solo that recalled the brawny antics of the JATP tenor battles or Illinois Jacquet on the original "Flyin’ Home." This segment seemed to hinge on a melodic contrafact of "Bye Bye Blues." Then came a deftly directed audience participation segment, with a call-and-response pattern based on the treble and bass parts of the arrangement.

Young trombonist Andy Bruce the newest member of the group took a plunger-muted solo that combined deep emotion, faultless technique and slapstick in a most engaging fashion: Shakespeare and Buster Keaton. He was followed by drummer Rob Verdurmen, who came on like a latter-day Gene Krupa in a thunderous volley that certainly rocked and roiled, although it paled a bit in comparison to Bruce’s range of feelings. The ensemble scoring out of the drum solo was again delightful, with the combinations of col arco bass and tuba and trumpet with soprano providing burnished sonorities before all the horns came back in.

The tongue-in-cheek interpretation of "Yes, We Have No Bananas" Mr. Breuker’s arrangement of the 1923 pop song by Frank Silver and Irving Cohen that closed his Vuurpijl 1997 "suite" on the Hunger! CD featured the leader’s campy vocals, some clowning about with plastic fruit, and a Boy Raaymakers ukulele solo that far surpassed the one on the CD, climaxing in what can only be described as "hard-rock uke," bringing to mind what Pete Townshend might sound like if he played ukulele instead of electric guitar. Lorre Lynn Trytten wasn’t with the Kollektief on this tour, so, regrettably, there was no singing saw solo.

The Kollektief’s juxtaposition of the purposefully ridiculous with the urbanely serious was particularly effective on the next piece. The piano, drums and horns played three different tempos, dovetailing together in a complex web of propulsive rhythm. Tenor saxophonist van Norden used this as a launching pad for a smokin’, cookin’, steamin’ solo that brought hard bop into the new millennium with a wallop. Ms. Deurloo provided vivid contrast with a saudade-flavored harmonica solo that was both sweetly melancholy and sunnily piquant. Trombonist Bruce took another authoritative solo open this time before bassist Gorter made the most of his only featured spot in the set, a nimble pizzicato jaunt.

A standing ovation from the Jazz Alley audience elicited a con brio encore, replete with burlesca hijinks, including a real breath-holder when both trombonists balanced their instruments vertically on the palms of their outstretched hands, mugging all the while. After the set was over, Mr. Breuker chatted amiably with fans and signed autographs in front of the stage, while some of the Kollektief members did the same at the table stage right that had been stocked with CDs and (!) cheese. It’s not every day you’ll spy a musical group selling small wheels of Dutch cheese along with their recordings at a gig.

The Willem Breuker Kollektief is a truly unique group, blending irreverent whimsy, orchestral precision that in the words of an unnamed critic quoted in their press release "would be the envy of most philharmonics" and bravura improvised solos mining virtually every era and style of jazz. Let’s hope another North American tour is in the works, and that Seattle Kollektief fans will soon get another helping of exuberant music and cheese-for-the-road.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Willem Breuker Kollektief
  • Concert Date: September 17, 2002
  • Subtitle: They may not have any bananas, but they certainly have chops!
  • Venue: Jazz Alley
  • City State Country: Seattle, WA, USA
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