Jan Willem van der Ham (altosax and bassoon), Bart van der Putten (altosax and clarinet), Frank Gratkowski (altosax, clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet), Peter van Bergen (tenorsax, clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet and tárogató), Frans Vermeerssen (tenorsax and baritone sax), Peter Haex (euphonium), Carl Ludwig Hübsch (tuba), Eric Boeren (cornet), Angelo Verploegen (trumpet and piccolo trumpet), Wolter Wierbos (trombone), Michiel Braam (piano), Wilbert De Joode (double bass), Michael Vatcher (drums)
Recorded at Bimhuis, Amsterdam, February 1st, 2008
For Dutch pianist Michiel Braam (…) jazz is part of a broader musical platform that allows (him) to expound upon extramusical concerns. (the) record is a success at articulating its appointed vision. Braam’s biggish band Bik Bent Braam uses a combination of skeletal composition and structured improvisation to posit a thrillingly optimistic vision of democracy in action. His tunes and set lists are merely suggestions: each member of the band can, by signalling one from a set of prearranged cues, call a new piece or recommend a different approach at any time. Since the other members might or might not take the signaller up on their suggestion, you never know how a song might turn out. The instability of Bik Bent Braam’s approach is potentially messy and this, along with their readiness to draw on anything from Cotton Club antics to freely improvised chatter, leads to surprises and some uneasy listening. But they embrace unpredictability with a spirit of infectious fun, and leaven their chaos with a heaping measure of discipline, which insulates the music from impulsive acts of sabotage. With players like trombonist Wolter Wierbos and saxophonist Frank Gratkowski on board, you can be sure there’ll be some bracing solos; what’s impressive is the way that ensemble’s commitment to collective coherence makes a potential trainwreck like “Michaelx’ – with its jump cuts from subterranean reed tangles to mad swinging to near-rock rollick – seem elegant. Bill Meyer, Downbeat – January 2009
Pianist Michiel Braam runs a big band with an unmistakable Dutch accent, as its mock-phonetic bandname suggests. The music's a galloping mix of swing and Monk and neoclassicism and complete insanity, liberally seasoned with a spry sense of humour, yet somehow it sounds completely unlike the venerable (and similarly-inclined) ICP and Breuker ensembles. Like Misha Mengelberg, Braam is constitutionally averse to "leading" the band in any usual sense of the word, but he's too sunny a character to go in for Misha's stubborn perversity. Instead, he's developed a genial musical philosophy – "system", if you like, though that sounds starchy – which he calls "bonsai". Tunes are assigned to each member of the 13-piece band (to call whenever they like – even in the middle of another piece!) and there's also a large menu of miscellaneous cues to pick from. In this way, everyone gets to be a conductor and instant composer/arranger. There are parallels to Braxton's collages and Zorn's game pieces, but BBB doesn't sound like them either: best to think of bonsai as the logical conclusion of Shelly Manne's dictum that a jazz musician is someone who "never plays the same thing once".
Extremen catches the bik bent in typically rumbustious and unpredictable form, in a concert at Amsterdam's Bimhuis. Pieces like "Michaelx" and "Erix" make conventional swing sound like you've never heard it before, reinventing it from chorus to chorus, and Braam's compositional ingenuity is evident in pieces like "Frankx", in which, as he remarks in the liners, "something like 10 different metres are played simultaneously." The players seem to take the CD's title to heart with some genuinely ferocious playing: saxophonist-clarinettist Frank Gratkowski is in particularly fiery form – listen to him tear dementedly through the south-of-the-border fantasia "Franxs" in the company of trumpeter Angelo Verploegen – and Wilbert De Joode is as always a dab hand at drawing forth elegent grotesques from his bass, taking a completely off-the-wall solo on "Wilx" that sets it alternately squealing and feebly muttering. My favourite moment, though, is saxophonist Bart van der Putten's feature,"Puttex": on the surface, the piece is a conventionally lush, emotive ballad, but the band turns it inside out, until the atmosphere becomes oppressively thick and dangerous. And though Braam might be diffident about the limelight ("apart from the fact that I make the announcements you can hardly tell I am the band leader at all"), his stamp is all over the music, not least his ability to suggest the champagne sparkle of 1930s pianists like Teddy Wilson even when he's on a rampage at the keyboard. It's a pity that Braam has never done an Anthony Braxton and put out a box set of Bik Bent Braam's performances: it'd be fascinating to hear how this most mercurial of bands refashions the material over a series of concerts. Nate Dorward, Paris Transatlantic