New Niks & Artvark Saxophone Quartet
Busy Busy Busy

(No Can Do)

It was on Saturday, September 26th, that the New York cultural association called Jazz At Lincoln Center opened the fall season paying tribute to Ornette Coleman by having him play a (sold-out) concert, held at the Rose Theater. Let's remember that it was fifty years ago, in 1959, that Atlantic released The Shape Of Jazz To Come, the Coleman album that's commonly referred to as being a subversion of jazz orthodoxy.

Reading about this made me think of a definition of Coleman's music by US critic Francis Davis, who talked of a "Permanent Revolution" never to be assimilated into the mainstream. Which reminded me of another definition (non coincident with the one formulated by Davis, more like running in parallel to it) coined by US critic, Robert Christgau: "Semi-Popular Music".

In our present cultural framework the notion of "avant-garde" often stands for "weak creature desperately in need of great loving care just in order to survive", the implicit concept being that the "mainstream" is perfectly capable of looking after itself. Curiously, not too many appear to notice that two very different entities (quite precariously) share the same roof/umbrella: "mainstream". The mainstream "as an object" and the one defined "by means of value judgment"; whereas the former is quite simply a quantitative notion closely linked to the present state, the latter is not as value-free: here, "mainstream" stands for all things that the "avant-garde" made "old". But it's obvious that those entities differ a great deal (also in their monetary aspect!): just think of all those "old" music pieces that can empty a room - fast, or make listeners uncomfortable, even though those people are quite well at ease "in the mainstream".

All this definitely has a lot to do with Busy Busy Busy, an album I strongly believe will be considered as being "old" by those who have For Alto or Nonaah as their background music while dusting their bookshelves, while sounding "difficult" to a lot of people who listen to mainstream stuff.

Busy Busy Busy is the fruit of the collaboration between two quartets that I had never had the pleasure to listen to: The New Niks and The Artvark Saxophone Quartet. Here's the names of the players, and the instrumental line-ups (I hope: having all information in the booklet as elegantly handwritten characters is a choice that can have its drawbacks). New Niks: Erwin Hoorveg, Fender Rhodes; Andreas Suntrop, guitar; Jasper le Clercq, violin; Arend Niks, drums. Artvark Saxophone Quartet: Rolf Delfos, soprano & alto sax; Bart Wirtz, alto sax; Mete Erker, tenor sax; Peter Broekhuizen, baritone sax. The featured pictures show musicians looking in their early/late thirties. The instrumental voices rank from good to excellent, while it's fairly easy to guess all featured musicians having wide, varied backgrounds. The album sounds fine, quite clear, so the individual parts in the ensemble are quite easy to spot.

The album shows a great deal of variety (all featured musicians being also composers), maybe some listeners will find this variety a bit confusing, though the colours in the arrangements act as an important unifying element, a kind of "glue". Listening to this album one can hear Ellingtonian climates, minimalist strategies, phrasing from 50s and 60s Blue Note LPs, moods that I can only define as reminding me of The Microscopic Septet, and so on. Only thing I really didn't like, some Fusion traits that to me sounded really old and tired; in a European style, violin and soprano solos; in a US style, some "big band" arias that (and here I can only hope my memory doesn't play tricks on me, since it's been thirty years since I last listened to those records) reminded me of some mid-70s productions by Creed Taylor or Bob James.

At 13', Rev. Pete, Sad Frank & Jnngle Johnny is the only long composition on the album, and like the album it offers both fine and not-so-fine things. There's a "cadenza for reeds" and a nice, bluesy performance by the baritone. At about 2', just when I was expecting the piece to go "double time", here's a fine, old-fashioned, Ellington-sounding theme which sounds as being scored for muted trumpets and clarinets, a nice gesture. Then we have fine solos by Fender Rhodes and tenor, then it's back to the Dixieland mood. It would be a perfect close, but a sudden acceleration brings us to a new theme performed unison by violin and guitar, then it's time for a violin solo with a strong backing by the winds, "big band style", with fireworks from the drums.

Popped Music has a lively baritone, rimshot and hi-hat, a melodic phrase by violin and reeds, then it's time for a long saxophone episode on two channels, the alto sax being processed through echo, sounding pleasantly rétro. Then it's a "Fusion" ending.

Dextro opens and closes with a frantic riff played unison by violin and soprano sax. There's a fine middle interlude featuring a long tenor sax solo backed by (strong) drums played brushes. The guitar solo is not too bad, either. Here, due to my selective knowledge of Fusion guitar, I'll say it reminded me of old McLaughlin.

Sweet Dreams is an interesting composition which intelligently puts together materials that by themselves are not so "new". It opens with a "musical box-sounding" Fender Rhodes, then a simple, almost folk-flavoured melody with a nice orchestration played by guitar and reeds. There's a middle part where reeds and violin perform an arpeggio backing, colourful drums, then a guitar solo wet with reverb, a final result that's not too far from some Michael Mantler climates. The nice opening melody closes the piece.

The Grand Jazz Foma has a funny dance mood/theme, a baritone riff, then it's a long tenor solo with backing by swinging drums and the Rhodes. This is followed by a long, and quite unexpected, chamber-like section featuring violin and soprano, then it's back to the funny theme.

Bo Derek/Tumble Waltz is the most unusual, impossible to grasp, composition of the album. A lot of ¾, violin, the guitar fading in, a "Greek"-sounding air, then there's a slow counterpoint work by the saxes, sounding almost like a string quartet. An excellent piece.

At this point the album features two brief pieces being performed by just one of the two quartets. Penned by Ibrahim (whom I assume to be Abdullah Ibrahim, also known as Dollar Brand) Whosa Mwatana has an excellent baritone, a folk melody, and an arrangement that wisely shows the fine instrumental blend of the four saxophones. The end result is not too far from certain pieces by Lester Bowie and his Brass Fantasy. Played by New Niks, What Will Be is pleasant, but a bit undistinguished.

Przwalski has a banal, Fusion/big band theme, and long solos by Fender Rhodes, not too bad, and soprano.

Digging Dirt, Nothing New is the album's fine close. A bluesy opening, a bit Mingus-like, then it's the tenor with backing by the reeds, a movie-like cut, nice unison phrase, and long tenor solo with backing that gets more and more intense as the piece progresses.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2009 | Oct. 1, 2009