Perfect Sound Forever

New Dutch Masters: Clusone Trio

Han Bennink, from New Dutch Swing by Kevin Whitehead (1998). Billboard Books, NY.
Photographer- Francesca Patella, book and cover design by Jay Arning, Thumb Print.

by Dave Kaufman (May 1998)

Since the 1920's, European audiences have accorded jazz music and musicians with an appreciation and admiration that they are not typically afforded in the United States. It's not that there is an especially large jazz public in these countries, but rather that music is treated as an art form, typically reserved for the likes of ballet or classical music. Europe has attracted its share of American ex-patriot musicians for the last 70 years who have been drawn by both the less restrictive social and racial barriers, as well as the respect they are accorded as musical artists. These countries have also produced many great jazz artists from Django Reinhardt to Evan Parker.

Over the course of the last 35 years, Europe has produced some of the most distinctive, original, and cutting edge sounds in jazz and creative improvised music. These different artists and groups have been loosely categorized under the banner of European Free Improvisation. Many of these musicians have developed a deep appreciation for various periods in the evolution of the African American art form of jazz, with particular emphasis on the advances brought about Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler as well as Thelonius Monk and Herbie Nichols. These influences are fused with elements drawn from modern and traditional classical music as well as indigenous folk forms. Perhaps the key ingredient in this "European" music is reflected in the coalescence of composed music with uninhibited improvisation.

Holland is a rather small country that has a remarkably vital and a unique jazz scene centered in Amsterdam. This scene is chronicled in a fascinating new book, NEW DUTCH SWING, by Kevin Whitehead. The book provides an interesting portrait of contemporary figures such as Willem Breuker and Misha Mengeleberg interwoven with a historical narrative of the evolving Dutch music scene. Whitehead effectively captures the distinctive Dutch jazz esthetic in the following quote:

"There are a number of traits peculiar to Dutch improvised music, not all of them on this list: an ability to abstract from the music of American jazz masters; an impulse toward theater, role play, humor and ironic distance form one's own creations; killer chops that makes all the horsing possible, and the virtuosity that assures any fuck-up is deliberate." (New Dutch Swing, Kevin Whitehead, 1998 P 4-5).
Virtuosity, irony, and humor certainly characterize the Clusone Trio, one of the most interesting and exciting groups working in improvised music. The group consists of multi-instrumentalist Michael Moore, originally from Northern California, Ernst Reijseger on cello and madcap genius drummer and percussionist Han Bennink. Bennink, born in 1942, is some 12 years older than the other two members. He has been a significant presence on the European stage for more than 30 years and is one of the most singularly unique musicians in the world of jazz.

Bennink gained some renown at a very young age backing up Eric Dolphy in a broadcasted performance that would be released as Last Date (recorded one month prior to the death of the jazz giant). Bennink has played on several seminal recordings, including Machine Gun, German saxophonist Peter Brotzman's free jazz aural assault. He has also played with many of the giants of the avant garde such as Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor, and Anthony Braxton as well as, many mainstream jazz luminaries such as Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Rollins. Bennink coaxes a range of timbres, colors, and accents from various percussive devices. He is quite masterful in his use of brushes and can really swing the band when the mood strikes him. He can also play really loud and fast. For those who have seen him live, Bennink is a wonderful entertainer and a first rate clown. He uses a range of real and found objects as percussive devices for musical as well as humorous effect. He is also famous for his outrageous antics. Whitehead reports on an incident where Bennink set fire to strips of newspapers stuffed into his hi-hat. He then continued to play furiously, opening and closing his hi-hat thereby creating large circles of smoke that hovered over the stage.

Reijseger and Moore are equally distinctive musicians, if somewhat less flamboyant. Reijseger is one of perhaps a dozen known jazz musicians who have devoted themselves exclusively to the cello. He is a supremely skilled and versatile player whether playing in a chamber music or free jazz style. He has also expanded the form and function of the cello and can convincingly make the instrument sound like an upright bass or an acoustic guitar. Reijseger has worked in many different contexts, including as a member of Trilok Gurtu's Crazy Saints. The jointly led recording, Saturn Cycle with drummer Gerry Hemingway and pianist George Grawe is highly recommended. Michael Moore originally hails from the northern most part of California and has lived in Amsterdam for more than 15 years. Moore is an exceptionally gifted alto sax and clarinet player. He also plays assorted other instruments such as penny whistle and melodica. As an alto player, he has been compared with Paul Desmond and Lee Konitz among others. He is a lyrical player whose playing is sometimes reminiscent of pre-bop era players, though he is equally versed in the language of free jazz. He has worked with many of Europe's leading jazz players and has recorded as a leader on his own label Ramboy.

The Clusone Trio (aka Clusone 3) first played together as a trio around 1980 and coalesced into a group in 1988. Clusone is a town in Italy that has a music festival for which Reijseger had to assemble a group. To date, this group have released four recordings. The three I have heard, I am an Indian, Soft Lights Sweet Music, and Love Henry are all highly recommended. I am an Indian and Love Henry are somewhat similar live dates issued on Grammavision. I am an Indian is probably the more adventurous of the two, though my preference is for Love Henry. Both albums contain a mix of compositions penned by group members as well as a very interesting mix of songs by Ellington, Herbie Nichols, Misha Mengelberg, Lee Konitz and others. Soft Lights Sweet Music, on the Hat Hut label, is largely devoted to the music of Irving Berlin. It's their most accessible record with some fairly straight forward readings of pop standards and show tunes like There is No Business Like Show Business and Anything I Can Do, I Can Do Better. There are elements of surprise and contrast in Clusone Trio's music. They could play a very faithful, almost corny reading of a standard and then turn it way outside. The group can also seem as if they are in total control and then moments later anarchy reigns. The Clusone Trio is without a doubt one of the most fascinating groups working in improvised and creative music.

Clusone Trio in Berkeley

The Clusone Trio has just completed a tour of North America (some 20 odd dates). I was very fortunate to see them perform at Beanbenders in Berkeley. The Beanbenders' Series offers up some of the most renowned artists in creative and improvised music. Beanbenders is housed in the Berkeley Gallery Store Annex, a rather bland, generic and charmless room. They are in the process of looking for a new venue. The room seats about 150 people and on this night, there were close to twice that many attendees. Fortunately, we came relatively early and had fairly choice seats.

Dan Plonsey, one of the producers of the Beanbenders' program, came on to introduce the band and announce some of the upcoming shows. As he began to do that, Han Bennink came on stage, carrying this big 2 x 4 piece of lumber and drops it in front of the stage. He sits down and proceeds to pound out a beat on the piece of wood, occasionally (gently) mocking Plonsey as he continues to mention future attractions. He's joined by Moore, alternating between pennywhistle, melodica and clarinet, who then leads the group into a free piece of sorts with Reijseger playing some harsh dissonant figures on cello. This segued into a quiet and pretty ballad with a something of a Latin flavor. The music of the Clusone Trio covers the gamut from faithful or even corny rendition of standards or show business tunes to free jazz polar explorations. Moore and Reijseger often have a very serious appearance on stage and play rather intricate parts. Some of the songs are highly structured, whereas others are freely improvised.

Bennink, a generation older than the other 2 musicians, often marches to his own tune. His is a striking looking figure; tall, sporting an unseemly crewcut with a ruddy complexion that turns bright red when he pounds his drum kit. He is among the most entertaining performers I have ever seen in any context. He is at once, a great drummer and a world class clown. He brings with him a range of percussive tools, some of which are found on site (e.g., blocks of wood). Indeed, any object in the vicinity is a candidate percussive device, including a wooden chair that served as both an object and instrument for his drumming.

Bennink is typically not bound by any convention known to other musicians. For example, he would occasionally engage in a loud and violent drum solo in the midst of a quiet meditative piece. He frequently called attention to himself, even in the midst of another musician's solo. He would raise his foot on his floor toms and pound away, put a drumstick in his mouth, whoop and holler an Indian war cry or even get up and do a little tap dance. During the first set, the audience broke up laughing about a dozen times as a result of one of his gags. On one occasion, he left the stage for a minute or so. And then from offstage (on the other side of a curtain), we see this long metal pole emerge and hit the crash cymbal (a properly timed accent). During a quiet introspective number, Bennink tied a rope to his high hat and walked into the audience holding the rope. From the front row, he would tug on the rope, jiggling and in effect playing the high hat, creating a unique percussive sound. It was absolutely hilarious, but also surprisingly musical. In fact, for all of his extracurricular hijinx, much of his activity was done in support of the music. Bennink is a very impressive and flexible drummer. Given his considerable noise generating proclivities, the most impressive part of his playing maybe his magnificent brush work.

For the first 15 or so minutes, I was more or less transfixed by Bennink's performance and unfortunately paid less attention to the other 2/3 of the Clusone Trio. Reijseger is really an exceptionally versatile cellist. He can demonstrate a kind of mundane virtuosity (playing the cello as it was meant to be played) whether playing classical motifs or exploring freer terrain. He can also perfectly mimic a walking line on an upright bass. Even more surprising, he would re-position the cello in a horizontal plane and then reproduce a sound exemplary of either a fat funky electric bass or strum the cello as if it was an acoustic guitar. He can play a Bossa Nova like Charlie Byrd or convincingly play the blues.

Moore is equally adept at clarinet or alto sax. He is a very lyrical and fluid player who seems to be steeped in the history of jazz from Dixieland to Contemporary Free Improv. As I mentioned previously, he has the tone of a player from an earlier era. Moore has a distinctively alto-like sound, unlike many young alto players who seem to emulate tenor players. Though, he did quote Trane on a couple of occasions. Moore and Reijseger would often engage in interesting musical dialogues, while Bennink would do, well... whatever he feels like doing. The contrast between the Bennink's free-for-all approach with Reijseger and Moore's more deliberate one is an integral part of the group's identity.

The first set was played largely without any pauses (Bennink would fill any interlude between songs). The songs appeared to segue one into another. At points, they seem to consist of a set of miniature suites or medleys (similar to Love Henry). According to Reijseger, whom I spoke with briefly after the performance, the tunes were taken from various recordings, including 2 as of yet unreleased CD's.

The second set was perhaps even better than the first, although it was decidedly more conventional. For the most part, Bennink was very well behaved throughout the set, seemingly content to play drums. The music also had a more discernible song structure and Moore actually introduced several of the tunes (when Bennink would let him). Several of the songs explored the theme of birds. This began with an unusual original composition called "Secretary Bird." They subsequently performed a beautiful and lengthy rendition of "the Buzzard Song" from PORGY AND BESS featuring some stellar work by Moore on both alto and clarinet. They also did a version of the Jobim composition "O' Pato (The Duck)". On this number, Bennink brought his snare drum to the front of the stage and contributed some exquisite brush work. The Clusone Trio performed Saint-Saen's "The Swan," which was something of a vehicle for Reijseger (if memory serves me well). For an encore, they performed a faithful and magnificent interpretation of Hoagy Carmichael's "Baltimore Oriole" with Moore's lyrical alto taking the lead and the other 2 providing rhythmic accompaniment. This served as an excellent finale to a magnificent evening of music.

Also see this site on The Clusone Trio