Memories of The Willem Breuker Kollektief

by Matthew Chase on April 28, 2015

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Of all the jazz LP’s my father used to play when I was a kid, there is one that stands out in my memory far and away above the rest. No, it’s not Miles Davis, although he loved Sketches of Spain, and no it’s not Coltrane, or Brubeck, or Bill Evans. Instead the jazz of my childhood was defined by a 1983 About Time Records release from the 11 piece Dutch group the Willem Breuker Kollektief (their first and last for an American record company) kindly titled for the English speaking world; Willem Breuker Collective. In my mind the album is synonymous with my father; wacky, hilarious, complex, enigmatic. Listening back now it is easy to see why I was so drawn to the music as a child. Breuker’s compositions are frenetic and full bodied romps through a kaleidoscope of genres, all with a fascinating combination of brash humor and sometimes terrifying earnestness. Note this excerpt from a Bill Barton review of a 2002 Kollektief performance at Jazz Alley in Seattle;

Raymond Scott, foxtrots, circus bands, Cab Calloway, waltzes, barrel organs, Rachmaninoff, boogie-woogie, marching bands, Prokofiev, tangos, klezmer groups, Duke Ellington, habaneras, Dixieland bands, Kurt Weill, polkas, rockabilly, Grieg, rumbas, cabaret singers, Ennio Morricone, national anthems, campy pre-WWII pop songs, Chopin, grand opera then soap opera, Italian “Banda,” Gershwin, schottisches, boozy Las Vegas lounge singers, Rossini, Busby Berkeley production numbers, spaghetti western soundtracks, Henry Mancini, the bunny hop, German oompah bands, Bartok, vaudeville, theatre orchestras, Ravel, tangos, burlesque, Nino Rota, swing, Tin Pan Alley, Haydn, hard bop, hornpipes The mental images and aural snapshots come fast and furious when listening to the Kollektief‘s sometimes raucous but always impeccably crafted music.[1]

Breuker and his ensemble weave between these diverse sounds with seamless theatricality, as if invoking a host of distinct characters or perhaps more often, caricatures. On top of this multitude of textures, the soloing ranges from sweet to berserker, often within the same solo. Breuker explores the extreme edges of his instrument’s pallet, often overblowing or squealing through the horn, with a guttural and often disturbing result that often sounds like the death agonies of any number of different animals. In these moments Breuker leads the listener onto a knife’s edge between agony and satire, one moment full of pain, the next with the quacking of a duck.

Perhaps it is the element of satire that has in part come to define the Dutch’s unique contribution to the world of Jazz. Before the formation of the Kollektief Breuker formed the New Acoustic Swing Duo with dummer Hans Benninck, now known for playing on a drumkit made from wheels of cheese. Bill Barton’s review of a Kollektief concert describes “Burlesque hijinks” as a constant part of the show, including choreographed dance moves, pantomime, balancing trombones on outstretched palms, etc. Given Americas very serious claim on the very serious tradition of jazz, it is no hard to imagine that Breuker’s whimsy rubs some American critics the wrong way. Enter Leonard Feather of the Los Angeles Times;

The set, which became increasingly comedy-oriented, hit a low point when Breuker, on soprano saxophone, gave his impression of a quacking duck, a barking dog, a bumblebee and then of laying an egg–with an actual egg passed around among the musicians. It got worse, with some whistling, a pseudo-comic operatic aria and two trombonists hugging one another while playing simultaneous duets. Seldom has a more dismal grab-bag of second-rate sounds and third-rate humor hit the local jazz scene. In short, this was no Dutch treat. [2]

Feather’s article is titleed Breuker Kollektief a Big Disappointment at Bakery, and for anyone seeking a “traditional jazz” leg to stand on I can imagine that it would be a disappointment indeed. On Willem Breuker Collective when the group does play in a style reminiscent of “American jazz” it is usually squeezed in between sections of bombastic circus music or something harkening to an absurdly pompous royal fanfare. For the Kollektief it seems that to pay homage to an influence and to satirize that influence are often one in the same. When American jazz traditionalists expect European musicians to recognize or pay tribute to jazz’s true roots, perhaps this isn’t exactly what they had mind.

As a composer, arranger, and educator, it is clear that Willem Breuker was dead serious. He composed more than 500 works for theatre, opera and film, ran his own recording and publishing company, and was instrumental in the establishment of government subsidies for jazz musicians in the Netherlands. [3] When it came to playing music however, it seems that his goal was truly to play. In a world of jazz that often prides itself in being challengingly complex, intellectual, and serious, it is that playfulness that appeals to my imagination as much now as it did 24 years ago.

[1] http://www.jazzreview.com/concert-reviews/willem-breuker-kollektief-at-jazz-alley.html

[2] Leonard Feather, LA Times. Breuker Kollektief a Big Disappointment at Bakery http://articles.latimes.com/1993-04-21/entertainment/ca-25259_1_breuker-kollektief

[3] http://www.willembreuker.com/project/2010-the-guardian/

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