Calefax featuring Eric Vloeimans - On The Spot
Buzz ZZ 76106
Calefax Reed Quintet
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Review by Mark Werlin - December 11, 2015
In their recent SACD On the Spot, Calefax Reed Quintet join forces with jazz trumpetist Eric Vloeimans for a set of commissioned new compositions, adaptations of Vloeimans' pieces, arrangements of polyphonic works by Baroque-era composers, and a bona-fide jazz masterpiece.
This juxtaposition of diverse musical styles shines a light on intersections between the past and present.
In contrast to the classical woodwind quintet of flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn and bassoon, the Calefax Reed Quintet members all play single- and double-reed instruments. On The Spot is performed by: Oliver Boekhoorn – oboe, tenora, and duduk; Ivar Berix – clarinet; Raaf Hekkema – alto and soprano saxophones; Jelte Althuis – bass clarinet; and Alban Wesly – bassoon. The ensemble was formed in 1986 and this lineup has been together since 1997. Until their recent label change to Challenge Records/Buzz, most of their recordings were done for the MDG label, including a remarkable performance of Shostakovich preludes and fugues (Calefax Plays Shostakovich, MDG 619 1185-2) arranged by founding member Eduard Wesly. Over nearly three decades, the ensemble has explored music from the 17th and 18th centuries (Rameau, Bach) and the 20th century (Debussy and Ravel, Conlon Nancarrow). The present SACD highlights two new works by the contemporary Dutch composer Albert Van Veenendaal and one by the Syrian clarinetist-composer Kinan Azmeh.
The selection of material for On the Spot was broadened beyond the ensemble's usual choices of Baroque or modern classical music through the inclusion of three pieces by Eric Vloeimans, all of which can be heard in different contexts on SACD: the opening track "Almaladdin" is a rearrangement of "Alladin", played on Eric Vloeimans: Oliver's cinema by a trio of trumpet, accordion and cello; "Bradshaw" and "Summersault" were recorded by a jazz quartet featuring the lamented John Taylor on Eric Vloeimans: Umai. Vloeimans also participated in the orchestral collaboration Eric Vloeimans: Evensong, Lex, Waterfront, Requiem, Your Majesty, showing a commitment to cross boundaries that divide the classical and jazz genres.
On the Spot contrasts Vloeimans' jazzy and playful compositions with the more knotty, modernist work of Albert Van Veenendaal. A pianist-composer with one foot in avant-garde jazz and the other in new classical music, van Veenandaal has multiple personae; jazz pianist, collaborator in theater pieces, visual arts and sound installations; musical educator; and resource for creative music ensembles such as Calefax. A review from de Volkskrant capsulizes his style: "...stimulatingly steers a middle course... between intelligent abstraction and melodic lyricism."
Van Veenendaal's "The Third One (Tirza)" and "Mal de Terre" display technical mastery in writing for multiple reed voices. "The Third One" is structured as a mini-suite that shifts dynamically and rhythmically from section to section. Vloeimans solos over the intersecting reeds lines with fluidity and fiery brass outbursts while Jelte Althuis' bass clarinet substitutes for standup bass, accenting the jazzy character of the piece. The ironically-titled "Mal de Terre" introduces a more somber tone, reflecting in its minor-key lyricism and slow development the malaise of our seemingly inexorable, damaging relationship to the natural world. Oliver Boekhoorn's plangent solo on the duduk, a double-reed forerunner of the oboe that originated in Armenia, emphasizes the mournful tone. At nearly ten minutes, it is the longest work on the disc and worthy of adaptation for larger ensembles and concert performance. Challenge Records should consider producing an entire disc of van Veenendaal's contemporary classical works.
Directly in the middle of the set is Oliver Boekhoorn's arrangement of "Blue in Green" which was first recorded on the landmark 1959 album Miles Davis: Kind of Blue. Strangely, the liner notes misattribute the composer. "Blue in Green" was written by pianist Bill Evans after a melodic suggestion by Miles Davis. In 2002, the Miles Davis estate, yielding to the evidence assembled by jazz historians, acknowledged Evans' right to full composer credit for this justly popular modern jazz standard. When Charlie Haden's group Quartet West played in San Francisco several years ago, he announced the tune as "Blue in Green, written by Bill Evans."
The performance of "Blue in Green" takes full advantage of arranger Boekhoorn's emotive phrasing for oboe and the silky-smooth alto of Raaf Hekkema. Vloeimans, who in recent years has liberated his vocabulary from an earlier tendency to emulate Miles Davis, returns to familiar territory; with the help of his dark-toned Hub van Laar trumpet, he avoids the pitfalls of overt imitation. It's a gorgeous performance that blurs the distinction between arrangement and improvisation.
Iranian-born composer Kinan Azmeh contributes the atmospheric "Wedding". The piece begins quietly, with a slow, hypnotically insistent figure on the lower-range instruments. The duduk, clarinet and soprano saxophone weave intersecting lines over the bass notes, rising gradually in intensity. The trumpet bursts in, a dramatic cascade of rapid-fire phrases. Vloeimans incorporates quarter-tones in his solo that emphasize the middle eastern character of the work. He may be playing his Hub van Laar quarter-tone trumpet, which has an extra valve to "bend" the notes.
The three Baroque pieces are structured in polyphonic lines and lively dance rhythms. The "Toccata Settima" of the Genoan composer Michelangelo Rossi was adapted from keyboard to reed ensemble by saxophonist Raaf Hekkema. This is stock in trade for Calefax, who have done several recordings based on arrangements of the contrapuntal works of Bach and earlier composers. Bass clarinetist Althuis arranged "Ensalada", by the 16th-century Spanish composer Sebastian Aguilera de Heredia, to feature Oliver Boekhoorn on tenora, the Catalan shawm. The rough tone of the tenora raises the energy level of this festive piece. "Chacone" by lutenist Robert de Visée, a court player in service to Louis XIV, concludes the set.
On the Spot was produced, recorded, mixed and mastered by Bert van der Wolf. Calefax's Shostakovich disc recorded in 2002 for MDG provides a useful sonic comparison. The MDG house sound sets the ensemble quite far back from the listener in very reverberant rooms, and the Shostakovich disc is no exception. Van der Wolf brings the members of Calefax into sharper focus, and captures a warm resonance to fill out the small forces. The sound is smooth and very detailed, some of the best reed sound on SACD. The only recording of a reed ensemble that I feel is of comparable quality is Jared Sacks' Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge - New Century Saxophone Quartet on Channel.
The strategy of programming the avant-garde work of Albert van Veenendaal alongside Eric Vloeimans' more accessible and familiar compositions, with Baroque pieces interspersed, indicates that Calefax and Challenge A&R man Marcel van den Broek are in tune with the realities of distributing creative music to a streaming and download-driven market. Tidal subscribers and radio listeners who might balk at the complexity of "Mal de Terre" would certainly enjoy the Vloeimans and Baroque tunes, and one hopes, purchase the full disc on that basis.
Challenge is clearly interested in presenting new projects from Calefax. Their most recent release, Calefax: The roaring twenties, is a collection of cabaret songs by 20th-century classical composers that the group has been performing in concert with mezzo soprano Cora Burggraaf.
As they approach the 30 year-mark as an ensemble, Calefax raise their instruments in celebration of the expressive sound of the reed.
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