Free-Jazz Luminaries Gather in Amsterdam for ‘October Meeting’

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Vocalist Sofia Jernberg was among the participants at this year’s October Meeting at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, which ran from Oct. 7–9.

(Photo: Courtesy the artist)

Amsterdam’s Bimhuis stands out among international jazz venues for plenty of reasons, but one of the most important factors is the steady presence of artistic director Huub van Riel, an individual with a deep feeling for jazz history, and a sincere commitment to its development.

The programs he’s shaped for four decades have always balanced tradition and iconoclasm, the present and the future. While most of the venue’s booking is drawn from touring attractions and figures from Amsterdam’s robust local scene—which is more international in complexion than ever—the Bim’s rich history has been distinguished by ambitious projects built from van Riel’s savvy instincts, none more potent than the projects he mounted in 1987 and 1991, known as October Meeting.

Those gatherings prompted dozens of the world’s most important figures in improvised music to form new groupings in short order, not only germinating new relationships but revealing new items in the toolkits of countless musicians.

Reading over the lineups he assembled for the two projects is a history lesson in itself: Derek Bailey, Han Bennink, Cecil Taylor, Evan Parker, George Lewis, Louis Moholo, Archie Shepp, Wadada Leo Smith, John Zorn, Misha Mengelberg, Steve Lacy, Gianluigi Trovesi, Marilyn Crispell, Willem Breuker and Sunny Murray, among many others.

In the 25 years since the last October Meeting, the face of jazz and improvised music has changed immeasurably, and Bimhuis has kept up with those developments.

The venue revisited the October Meeting again this year between Oct. 7–9, although it set some necessary parameters due to financial restrictions, along with the fact that the number of strong improvisers has exploded over the last two-and-a-half decades.

This year’s event was scaled down from a week-and-a-half to three days (not including two days of rehearsals and workshopping prior), and from over 50 participants to 22. Additionally, only Europeans 35 and younger were invited.

The challenges in orchestrating such an undertaking were manifest in the diversity of approaches on display—there were dyed-in-the-wool free improvisers, but there were also straightahead jazz players like guitarist Reinier Baas, classical French horn player Morris Kliphuis (both Dutch) and idiosyncratic guitarist Raphael Vanoli (a German based in Amsterdam), who uses his instrument as an abstract sound generator, at times, literally blowing on the strings to create rumbling textures.

As with any such ad hoc gathering, the results were a mixed bag, yet even when a particular group failed to produce sparks, there was a rigor and commitment to the act of finding a way forward together, as demonstrated by the guitar trio of Baas, Vanoli and the wildly aggressive Jasper Stadhouders. The band members found a convincing way to meld their aesthetics without abandoning their individual essence.

In the rehearsals before the event started, musicians formed new groups, some focusing on pure improvisation, others learning new tunes, whether largely notated pieces such as “Layers & Speeds,” a chamber-like piece by Kliphuis, or working from graphic scores such as the visceral “Orange Shoes” by bass clarinetist Ziv Taubenfeld (an Israeli now based in Amsterdam) and soprano saxophonist Yedo Gibson (a Brazilian now based in Portugal).

German drummer Gerri Jäger wrote a dazzling electro-acoustic piece called “The Stug” for a quintet with Vanoli, Swedish singer Sofia Jernberg, Belgian reedist Joachim Badenhorst and Swedish bassist Petter Eldh that brought an spontaneous friction to a lurching groove-based tune that recalled the dark atmosphere of Supersilent.

Ultimately, the best music was generated by artists who had clear aesthetic commonalities. Jernberg and British pianist Alexander Hawkins performed a pair of songs from Ethiopia with an exquisite air of refined lyricism. An improvised quartet with the Portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva, Amsterdam-based Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler, Norway-based Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen and Amsterdam-based Argentine saxophonist Ada Rave moved seamlessly between serene sibilance, chaotic chatter and articulate conversation.

A trio with Eldh and the marvelous German drummer Christian Lillinger played the melancholic, sophisticated compositions of Draksler with remarkable empathy and malleability.

More than anything, the pure joy of making music was on display every day, whether it was in the so-called “elevator music” performances, where three different duos and trios improvised on a lift taking patrons up to the third floor of the magnificent Muziekgebouw building (where the Bimhuis is located), or the raucous jam sessions in the bar that followed the main stage activities on the nights of Oct. 7 and 9, with spirited readings of tunes by Sean Bergin and Chris McGregor.

Only time will indicate whether this gathering turns out to be a prophetic one. If nothing else, the return of October Meeting captured seismic shifts in improvised music, where the tent has become dramatically larger.




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May 2019
Branford Marsalis
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