Marc van Roon Trio: Quantum Stories
Challenge Jazz CR 73368
Marc van Roon Trio
Review by Mark Werlin - November 29, 2015
Pianist-composer Marc van Roon and his colleagues create thoughtful and emotionally compelling contemporary European jazz on this superbly engineered Challenge Jazz SACD. Over the past 20 years, Challenge Jazz has released more than 100 titles on RBCD and SACD featuring the work of Dutch and Belgian musicians. The Challenge catalog offers an alternative view of contemporary European jazz, a musical direction that has been in constant evolution from its mid-century origins.
What is this thing called contemporary European jazz?
In the post-war period, continental Europe and England hosted thriving communities of jazz players who developed styles of structured and improvisational music that drew on a range of sources, including American jazz and popular songs. Cool jazz and Third Stream music, which emphasized counterpoint writing and harmonic complexity, attracted the interest of conservatory-trained musicians. Between 1945 and 1965, American jazz trends ranging from swing, bebop, cool, hard bop, post-bop and free jazz were imitated and performed by players from Stockholm to Warsaw.
The late 1960s' countercultural and political upheavals provided fertile ground for innovative trends in European jazz, including spontaneous improvisation, large-group free jazz ensembles and a conscious rejection of American musical models. By the late 1980s, new alignments of politics, economics and culture, rapidly expanding distribution of music in digital media, and the continuing interest of younger conservatory-trained players in performing and recording new music with jazz instrumentation (trumpet, saxophone, other woodwinds, piano, bass and drums), led to the development of a new European jazz.
In his essay "Roots and Collage: Contemporary European Jazz in Postmodern Times" (published in "Eurojazzland", Northeastern University Press, 2012), music historian Herbert Hellhund identifies a problem that contemporary European jazz musicians confront in the effort to produce new and meaningful music; an overabundance of historical and cultural sources.
"No present…has ever seen the kind of stylistic pluralism—space for so much parallel and cooperative activity between old and new elements of the jazz tradition, but also between elements of completely different musical idioms and fields—that exists now." (Hellhund, p. 433)
The overabundance that Hellhund cites is not only in the sheer mass of CDs and YouTube videos of every imaginable musical style. It can also be traced to the influx of non-Europeans carrying their musical styles and practices into the heart of what were formerly homogeneous cultures. In the densely populated Netherlands, more than six percent of the residents are of Turkish, Kurdish, Moroccan or Berber nationality or ancestry. (The influence of North African and Near Eastern musical styles can be heard in Tony Overwater Trio: Jungle Boldie and Eric Vloeimans: Evensong, Lex, Waterfront, Requiem, Your Majesty, both of which are led by Dutch musicians working across classical new music and contemporary European jazz genres.)
Continuing in the essay, Hellhund describes the evolution of recent contemporary European jazz as a conscious turning away from the ferocity of the late-1960s early-70s free jazz scene (he cites Peter Brötzmann and Alexander Schlippenbach in Germany, Evan Parker and Derek Bailey in England), towards a calmer, less confrontational approach to writing and improvising. This approach can be heard on "Quantum Stories" and many recordings released in the past 25 years on ECM, CamJazz, Werkstatt and other European jazz record companies.
Is there such a thing as a national jazz style? The English critic Stuart Nicholson, in his recent book "Is Jazz Dead?" asserts that there are distinctive national-cultural traits which distinguish the styles of jazz produced in Northern Europe (the austere, nature-inspired Nordic tone of Jan Garbarek and Tord Gustavsen) from the cosmopolitan, cross-cultural styles found in French and Italian jazz (Louis Sclavis, Stefano Bollani). It's a controversial, "essentialist" position that inclines towards national stereotyping. And while it may have been possible to identify national styles in the jazz music of the 1960s and '70s, even the most discerning music listener would be hard pressed nowadays to identify the national origin of a musician solely on the basis of a blind listening test.
Ekkehard Joost, also writing in "Eurojazzland", makes the very important points that any critical assessment of the trends and movements in the historical development of jazz is necessarily constrained by the listener's geographical setting, tastes and preconceptions, and that there are broad blank spaces on the historical canvas: all the musical production that was never recorded. I only became familiar with Dutch jazz through Eric Dolphy's LP "Last Date" (recorded in Hilversum, Holland in June 1964 with a Dutch rhythm section including the avant-garde pianist Misha Mengelberg), and a small number of Challenge Jazz and Turtle SACDs and CDs recorded 2000 to present—hardly representative of the breadth of Dutch jazz.
The record company that has been most influential in documenting the changing trends in European jazz music is Munich-based ECM. Label chief Manfred Eicher curates the European jazz that reaches the largest number of listeners outside the musicians' countries of origin. ECM's own history tracks the movement away from free jazz inexorably towards 'chamber jazz', a compositional style drawn as much from European classical music as from Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk. ECM's artist roster favors bands based in northern and central Europe, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, along with a few notable French and Italian artists. Scroll through ECM's discography from 1969 to present to see the shift from confrontational to conservative.
A NEW TAKE ON AN OLD TRADITION
In the work of pianist Marc van Roon, the historical tension between free jazz and structured composition poses no quandary: he stands calmly in the classical-influenced stream of jazz pianism. His work with the European Piano Trio and with saxophonist Tineke Postma (as a pianist and record producer) fall into the modern mainstream. He cites as musical influences post-conservatory studies in the USA with the great Detroit bebop pianist and pedagogue Barry Harris and the ECM artist Richie Beirach. The New York/New England lineage of Bill Evans, Steve Kuhn and Keith Jarrett is evident in van Roon's lyrical phrasing and facility with alternate chord substitutions. He is unapologetically a professional jazz musician, and a creative story-teller who in addition to playing and recording music leads business and educational seminars. The title of the SACD conveys the importance of stories in his life and music.
"Quantum Stories" documents a recent project for Marc van Roon, a collaboration with two accomplished musicians, drummer Martijn Vink and bassist Clemens van der Feen. In Martijn Vink, van Roon has found his Elvin Jones; the constant forward motion, the subtle gestures and explosive polyrhythms, the sense of a dialogue with the piano; all are reminiscent of Jones' interplay with John Coltrane—and his equally significant but less-recognized work with organist Larry Young for Blue Note. Bassist van der Feen carries the steady pulse that binds the drums to the piano; his accompaniment closely follows the piano's chromatic wanderings.
Marc van Roon writes about his compositions and improvisations using the metaphor of stories:
"Some stories have a preplanned structure with melodies and harmonies united in rhythm…. Some are completely freely emerging from the playful interconnection between the storytelling musicians."
In practice, this means that eight of the pieces have scored sections and arrangements, and four others (all entitled Quantum Story, and numbered 1-4) do not. What van Roon avoids, even in his preplanned compositions, is conventional song structures of verses and solos against fixed chord changes. Most of the composed pieces roam freely around and outside tonal centers. Because bassist van der Feen is listening so carefully to van Roon, he can anchor the pieces as the piano ebbs away from, and flows back to, the tonic root. This is post-jazz, but it sounds like jazz because of van Roon's essentially jazz conception and Vink's identifiable beat. And while the pieces rarely stray into free-jazz stridency, the compositional tone is not always light or playful; the dirge as much as the dance.
"Invocation", an arch-shaped piece, begins with a quiet, through composed introduction played by the piano over a sustained bowed bass note. Van Roon moves effortlessly into his solo, as Vink shifts to double-time brushwork on the snare drum, a texture contrast to van Roon's legato scales and melodies. The players return to the opening structure, completing the "hero's journey" as van Roon describes it.
Martijn Vink opens "Backdropping" with a solo passage of finger strikes on the drum heads, and the recording vividly captures the timbral nuances of his kit. This is subtle playing that benefits from turning up the playback volume. Van Roon makes a virtue of writing that sounds improvised and improvisations that sound intentional. As the opening section glides into the piano solo—you can barely tell where one ends and the other begins—Vink's propulsive, choppy rhythms prompt van Roon to respond in kind; the two engage in a dialogue that emphasizes the percussive over the melodic.
The whimsically-titled "Noodle Effect (in F)", the longest piece on the record, moves through a precisely structured sequence of passages that allows each of the players room to express emotion and virtuosity. A solemn, minor-key piano melody flows into a lyrical and sophisticated bass solo by van der Feen, then to a fiery ensemble passage in which drummer Martijn Vink showcases his considerable technique. The piano returns for a variant of the opening melody, and concludes with a single note held on the sustain pedal, fading gradually into silence.
The performances were recorded by Bert van der Wolf in the Evangelisch Lutherse Church in Haarlem, Holland on 17 and 18 October, 2012. It is one of the very best-sounding jazz piano trio sessions in my collection and is self-recommending for audio quality alone. The DSD logo on the back of a Challenge Jazz or Classics SACD cover typically indicates an original DSD recording. Van der Wolf uses Sonodore microphones and dCS convertors. The sound mix, like all of his work for Challenge, is superbly balanced for a natural representation of instruments in a real-world acoustic. At times, Martijn Vink's percussion is almost uncannily lifelike. The piano, Marc van Roon's own Steinway grand, is set slightly back, as a listener would hear it in a church environment, rather than in a recording studio. The drum kit is spread center to right; the bass is positioned slightly to right of the drums and sounds as if it may have been a few feet further back from the microphones.
Although I listen through a dedicated two-channel system, I occasionally connect a second amp and speakers to audition the rear channels of MCH recordings. This is not a proper setup for critical MCH listening, therefore I do not rate MCH mixes in my reviews. But for this review, I wanted to state that the rear channels contain room ambiance that extends the depth of the sound stage in a way that is appropriate for a small ensemble.
The music of "Quantum Stories" is uncompromising, skillfully performed and emotionally engaging. In an era when mainstream musical production caters to short attention spans and the demands of fashion and visual media; in a business climate where record labels expect that consumers will have neither the patience nor the curiosity to encounter new creative music; it is reassuring that Marc van Roon and Challenge Jazz remain committed to the unpredictable, neverending story of jazz. European contemporary jazz in hi-res is becoming more widely available through downloads, but is not as well-represented on SACD; this disc belongs in the collections of all SACD jazz enthusiasts.
Copyright © 2015 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net