From a young age, I chose improvised music as my soundtrack. The harmonies, in particular, intrigued as they sounded like real life. Full of rich contrasts and polyrhythms. By comparison, the endless radio replays of popular songs offered diminishing returns. The miracle of improvised music is that it promises depth, and if done well it reveals more with each listening. This sets a high bar for innovation, so when I hear musicians described as compelling and original, I check them out. Ben van Gelder and Reinier Baas are so described and after attending their gig I agree without reservation.
While theirs is essentially a European sound, it is also original. The compositions draw inspiration from identifiable sources but they also reach beyond the predictable. The music falling fresh to the ears and without a hint of over-reach. When musicians like this hit the road, a buzz proceeds them. Insightful reviews appear because the critics have something novel to pour over, and more importantly, respected musicians put the word about; ’don’t miss these guys, they’re heading your way and they’re astonishing’. Baas and van Gelder are a commanding stage presence, beguiling sound, musicality and something new to communicate.
In New Zealand, Baas & van Gelder appeared as a duo – the guitarist and alto saxophonist bathed in defused coloured light; their physical presence diminutive against the tower of amps looming behind. Calmly they adjusted their microphones, then Baas began. What followed caused jaws to drop, his voicing quite unlike anything we had heard before. A gently percussive and often discordant string of utterances which filled the room – winning us not by force but by persuasion. Then van Gelder began to play his alto – an altogether sweeter sound and contrasting perfectly with the guitar. When experienced as a whole the effect was quite extraordinary. It felt like a brand new dialect and one that was accessible, strangely beautiful also. Rarely, Baas would apply a pedal, but this music did not require electronic effects. As hard I try I can’t bring to mind any duo quite like this. The Jazz club was packed and many younger musicians sat upfront, eyes sparkling in delight as they took in every aspect of this exciting music.
Their recent album ‘Smash Hits’ is a must purchase for those who love innovation and fine writing. The tongue in cheek title, a good clue to what follows. If you gained the impression that the music might be confronting then I will disabuse you. An intense melodicism and raw beauty inform all that they do. ‘Smash Hits’ has them fronting the renowned Metropole Orkest – the Grammy-winning premier Jazz orchestra of the Netherlands (a big band and a classical orchestra combined). I couldn’t count the number of instruments in the YouTube clips but they are many and varied. Sometimes a large ensemble can muddy a composition, but not here. These charts are masterworks – the palette is clean and rich in texture – the pieces feeling incredibly modern. Yes, there are distant echoes of Gil Evans but these orchestrations stand strongly on their own feet.
The above clip ranks among the most beautiful pieces of arranged music that I have heard. Reinier Baas (guitar, arrangements, compositions), Ben van Gelder (alto saxophone, arrangements, compositions) – Backbeat, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland, 13 March 2018