Then and Now is an ongoing series dedicated to artists with neverending careers, unlimited stamina and age-defying energy. Each installment looks at a particular musician and his or her recent work alongside one of their vintage masterpieces, celebrating the quality and longevity of their art.
Nerve Beats (Atavistic, 1973/2000)
Nerve Beats was unearthed by Atavistic in 2000 as part of their Unheard Music series and is Han Bennink’s first extant solo recording. Recorded in 1973 for Germany’s Radio Bremen, it comes from the same era as Peter Brötzmann’s Live in Berlin ’71: a quartet date on which Bennink, at certain points during that historic concert, revealed himself to be a chameleon with a massive setup composed not only of drums but of exotic percussive and wind instruments, along with what the liner notes could only describe as tins and home-made junk. Two years later, Bennink was still exploring these eclectic rhythmic forms that had their roots in the musics of India and Africa, adapting them to the spirit of free music as it was being created by a group of audacious pan-European youngsters. Many have commented on Bennink’s ability to play quite freely as well as within the confines of tradition, straddling jazz’s old school and its vanguard with equal conviction. “Bumble Rumble” attests to this, with its fluid, militaristic drum rolls interlocking with Bennink’s whistling to create an anthemic overture, telling the audience to make way for the emperor’s arrival. At three minutes, it’s concise, engaging, and entirely unlike what is to follow on the two lengthy tracks that make up the bulk of the concert.
That said, “Spooky Drums” is pure cacophony. Amid a wave of cymbal crashes and furious tom rolls, Bennink spits out volcanic gibberish to his audience’s delight. The growls, howls and spluttering outbursts weave in and out of his rhythms, beginning at the point where the other ends and vice versa. When Bennink picks up a trombone or a clarinet, or one of the other odd items he inevitably has lying around onstage, he plays them with outrageous multiphonic effects, sounding like a Tuvan throat singer crying from the belly of a brass prison. And when he mixes the delicate sound of musical pipes with the thundering punctuations of his drumkit, it sounds like the most natural thing in the world. It is no exaggeration to say that “Spooky Drums” pushes jazz’s rhythmic possibilities to their absolute limit. This is the sound of a man becoming his drum. We’re exhausted from the sheer physicality of it all, but by the time we reach the climactic series of wonderfully muffled snare hits and tittering cymbals, we’re only ten minutes inside the beast! There is yet to follow Bennink’s experiments with pre-recorded orchestral music, drum machines, marimbas, tablas, music boxes, and whatever else is in reach.
The pre-programmed loops that introduce “Nerve Beats” may lead unsuspecting listeners to assume that this is a leftover from the concurrent German electronic/new wave scene. But the dissonant clarinet that hovers throughout the mix makes it obvious that we’re in a very different realm, somewhere between Stockhausen, free jazz, and multi-idiomatic world music. His cymbals ring like alarm clocks, his trombone like Martian war calls. If “Spooky Drums” is an epic journey, “Nerve Beats” is a cartoon soundtrack. Who is this man who plays 5,000 instruments and then deems it appropriate to scream at the top of his lungs? Is he angry or joyful? The audience’s nervous laughter at each of Bennink’s outbursts suggests that they may have asked themselves similar questions. Indeed, this isn’t the pure rage of Brotzmann’s Machine Gun; anyone who listens to that album knows what kind of emotions lie behind it. Machine Gun was a collective call to revolt. Nerve Beats, on the other hand, is a defiantly individualistic approach to improvised music that is all the richer for its humor. The only thing of stability is Bennink’s distinctive roar: a scream which, every time it appears, draws the entirety of its universe into a black hole from which it emerges purified once more.
Han Bennink - Nerve Beats (Atavistic, 1973/2000)
256 kbps, 85.9 mb
Amplified Trio (Treader, 2007)
A whirlwind of percussion, acid-fried guitar, electronics that sound like an animal in its death throes – Bennink’s Amplified Trio comes out the door with both fists swinging. Matched with the duo behind Spring Heel Jack – guitarist John Coxon and sound artist Ashley Wales – the veteran improviser pushes new territory with this striking mixture of free jazz and electronics. The release places itself in an exciting new trend within free music that has its forebears in Trio x 3’s New Jazz Meeting Baden-Baden (Hat, 2003) and the Muhal Abrams/Roscoe Mitchell/George Lewis album Streaming (Pi, 2006). Okay, so perhaps it’s not so radical – Don Cherry, George Lewis, and Freddie Hubbard were doing this kind of thing years ago. But the electro-acoustic idiom has moved beyond the experiments of a few eccentrics to become the playground of many eccentrics. Recorded live in South London on January 21, 2006, Amplified Trio is notable for abandoning the delicacy of these prior endeavors in favor of sheer volume, taking the new hybrid form a step backward into the world of an ESP blowout.
What I find so remarkable about groups like this is the way that each instrument blends into its peers, no matter how disparate they are in sound. Amplified Trio has it a bit easier, since Coxon’s distorted guitar isn’t too far from Wales’ array of electronic manipulations. The first of these seven untitled tracks is the longest and most brutal – even its quietest moments are filled with abrasive and unsettling overtones. After fifteen minutes of dense improvisation, the band hits something akin to a stride with oscillating tones that provide the backbeat for the spiraling fury of the drums and guitar. Bennink sounds fantastic as usual, moving across a variety of rhythmic styles with grace and ease; Coxon provides plenty of squall with his energetic fusion of Jimi Hendrix and Derek Bailey; and Wales is particularly crucial with his subtle loops and washes of sound. Oddly enough, the first track ends with the noise of the ocean, suggesting that what lies beneath is a substructure both placid and filled with the tumult of undulating waves.
The rest of Amplified Trio is understandably more subdued. The third track even finds Bennink abandoning his drumset in favor of ratchety, guiro-like percussion, interacting with Wales’ electronic stutters and butchered vocal samples. The three create a music that is unpredictable, yet deliberate and logical in its own way; in these moments, the trio comes closer to a piece by Francois Bayle or Walter Ruttman than anything related to jazz. Bennink, however, can’t help but swing – and his restless drumming soon leads the group back into the white heat of free improvisation. Bennink’s early work experimented with electronic looping as early as 1973’s Nerve Beats, and one can hear its seeds coming to fruition on Amplified Trio. One can also hear his sound being transferred to Wales’ sonic collages and Coxon’s feedback-drenched excursions, imbued as they are with a vocal quality: a desperate scream that has always made itself felt in the drummer’s career.
“Track 4” is more in line with Spring Heel Jack’s oeuvre, all ambient drones and elliptical guitar scrapes barely bubbling across the surface. Bennink shatters the calm with a well-placed cymbal crash, each subsequent hit of the kit taking on the quality of an eruption. The three improvisers crackle and spit fire at every turn. John Coxon sounds alternately like fireworks and a broken carburetor, Wales swaps Nintendo belches for twittering sine waves and orchestral excerpts. The two adroitly follow their leader, that Dutch maverick whose muscular beats propel the session into such brilliant territory. Even the two-minute “Track 6” is as bewitching and beguiling as anything else on the album, refusing cohesion amid a stream of marching beats, guitar grime and knotty clarinet samples. In this realm beyond syntax, Bennink’s rhythms tap into a language that speaks but does not inform, that calls without regard for its listener, that doubles back on its own communicative poverty. Amplified Trio is the beauty of a voice arrested mid-flight. Let’s stop and take a look at that one again.
Han Bennink - AT 04.mp3 (192 kbps, 12.3 mb)
Han Bennink - Amplified Trio (Treader, 2007; 79.1 mb)