Spontaneous duets are the real gems in jazz discographies. And it's easy to see why: arrange a meeting of two distinct and adventurous improvisers, and you'll be sure that something magical happens. And that's exactly what occurred when saxophonist Esmée Olthuis and pianist Albert van Veenendaal crossed swords on location at the Amsterdam based Bimhuis.
Lovers of Dutch improvised music have recently taken note of both of them: Olthuis is the eloquent saxophone player and spokeswoman of Amsterdam based 'bigtet' Tetzepi (Tatenen, TT 559-004 and Shu, TT 559-009). Pianist Van Veenendaal is the driving force in the award-winning trio On The Line (The Unexpected, TT 559-010). Having them play together brings out their best: along the lines of Van Veenendaal's rhythmic genius, Olthuis' free-winging alto style is truly taking off.
The first song, What Reason Could I Give (Ornette Coleman), is the only 'cover' in this collection. "When I first heard it, it hit me immediately", says Van Veenendaal. "It's a simple,tonal rubato melody that tickles your fantasy. You might say that it plays itself, if you surrender to its simplicity. Esmée and I improvise while keeping this little melody in our heads all the way through the song."
According to Olthuis and Van Veenendaal, it's still the improv that makes the compositions come out so cool sounding. Van Veenendaal is definitely the note-true interpreter of his own written notes. Listening to From Tokyo To France or Second Thoughts makes it all clear: this kind of stuff can't be 'just' improvised in any way. But a composing pianoplayer like Van Veenendaal pulls it off creatively. The written material is designed for his own hands, and this gives Van Veenendaal the opportunity to take the improvisation to a higher, even more personal level.
As far as Olthuis' compositions go: they consist mainly of a structural form. Basically it's raw material to be worked with. "I just forward an idea, and it only gets the right color due to the musician's involvement." In this remark, Olthuis modestly leaves out her own contributions. But she proves to be the singing voice that brings out the 'gestalt' of this cd. Take Glassworks, the fourth song on this disc. Olthuis sings it out briefly, and through some convincing legato playing, she works up to the melodic statement. Within those precious three minutes, the listener is shattered by this miniature masterpiece.
Although the saxophone of Esmée Olthuis is rarely heard outside of the big band music group Tetzepi, her soloing style fully bloomed in a trio called Drumless Dog. It was their cd Temporary Music (TT 559-007), that rose interest in Olthuis' playing in more intimate settings. For This Is To Say, Olthuis expanded her instrumentation with a toy whistle (It's Futile, I Said), and on the hilarious Block Blues she uses an instrument called the 'blockophone'.
Essentially it's a home-made crossing of a recorder with a saxophone mouthpiece (recorder is 'blokfluit' in Dutch, hence the name of this new instrument).
For contemporary improvisers 'new music' isn't that exotic anymore. Regarding the piano playing on this cd: Van Veenendaal makes you believe that a prepared instrument a la John Cage was designed for a jazz swing in the first place! With or without 'preparation', his playing takes full advantage of his firm grip on the keyboard, so that even a lovely ballad like Now From Here comes out right in your face.
On This Is to Say, they are only two musicians involved: "A reduction, and a challenge at the same time", smiles Olthuis, "but with Albert you get infinite possibilities in colours and emotions."
So here it is, another gem in the Trytone catalogue, another great and defining moment in the musical lives of Esmée Olthuis and Albert van Veenendaal. Dive in, and enjoy!
Remco Takken, free lance music journalist and radio maker
This Is Just to Say
I have eaten
the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast Forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold
William C. Williams
ESMÉE OLTHUIS saxophone/blockophone
ALBERT VAN VEENENDAAL (prepared) piano