"Chat Room" Leo Records 2003
Containing the bear has been used as an expression to describe putting a brake on Russia's imperial advances from the time of the czars through the heyday of the expansionist Soviet Union. But what animal characterizes the Netherlands the way the bear symbolizes Russia?
What this metaphoric query has to do with the CD is clearer than it appears at first once you listen to it. From his earliest playing days, Dutch drummer Han Bennink has seemed to have imperial ambitions -- his bombastic percussion attack could take over any session more quickly and efficiently than Stalinists ever subdued a Eastern European satellite. His drumbeats can easily mask the sounds of associates, up to and including the members of a big band. CHAT ROOM, his duo with Russian-American pianist Simon Nabatov, in contrast, is a monument to balance.
One could ascribe Bennink's cooperation to age, though he hasn't shown a lessening of power elsewhere. Perhaps it's because the Russian bear -- in this case Moscow-born Nabatov -- improvises aggressively enough himself that he can contain the Dutchman's musical imperialism. Frankly the real reason is probably that Bennink is enamoured enough with the pianist's conception that he wants to aid rather than upset it. Nabatov's internalized understanding of jazz history -- modern and pre-modern as well as avant -- dovetails comfortably with the drummer's predilection for earlier jazz styles.
At the same time, neither improviser falls into the neo-con trap of imitation rather than picking and choosing -- plus mixing and matching -- their influences. "Es läuft!" for example featuring Bennink producing some Baby Dodds-like, bouncing snare, tom and cymbal work as well as vocalized hoots, whistles and shouts. Nabatov then introduces a sort of Tartar-modified stride piano line, spurring the drummer to abandon his rickety-tick beat for Kenny Clarke-like bebop cymbal moves. "Sorrow", on the other hand is a simple shuffle that gradually accelerates into a finger-snapper that could come from Wynton Kelley and Jimmy Cobb playing Birdland, circa 1958. The pianist exhibits some stylish, almost effortless, dramatic blues variation featuring high-pitched tremolos and right handed dips, while the drummer seems to be alternately swiping at and wiping the snares with his brushes.
"Don't Bother" may be dedicated to Bennink's old sparring partner pianist Misha Mengelberg of the ICP Orchestra, but Nabotov approaches the keyboard much differently. His high frequency note placement is much closer to busy 1950s modernists like Herbie Nichols, then to Mengelberg's more hesitant style. Using plenty of left-handed accents he lets the drummer roll and ruff to his heart's content. "Unperturbed" -- boy are these titles descriptive -- honoring the pianist's friend and influence Paul Bley, shows how different the Russian-born is from the Canadian-born pianist. While superficially Nabatov's clustered harmonics played adagio, silences and Impressionistic single note timbres may resemble those of the older keyboardist, the sustained intensity he gets from high frequency pedal work is much different. Than again this sustain is needed to locate his nexus in a soundfield alive with hard strokes and rebounds, cymbal cracks and idiosyncratic snare syncopation arising from the percussion stool. It does force Bennink back to brushes the end.
Nabatov, whose other playing partners have included German trombonist Nils Wogram and German reedist Frank Gratkowski isn't merely reactive in his improvising. With a profound knowledge of modern, so-called classical music -- and no commitment to orthodoxy -- he can sound one precise note à la Count Basie on the same track he uses a length of metal pipe wrapped in layer of tape to knock around under the piano's cast iron skeleton and bottom board. Another piece finds him pressing Styrofoam blocks against the copper and steel strings for the proper metallic sound -- that often sounds like dripping coffee in the Maxwell House commercial -- as he snakes on top of and behind the keyboard. Bennink, whose list of piano partners stretches from Belgian Fred Van Hove to American Myra Melford, is, as always, unperturbed, reacting with a cymbal thwack response to one movement and a steady reverberating bounce to the other.
His brushwork also sets up "The Lost One", the session's most distinctive collaboration. Definitely two-handed here, the pianist ranges all over, using tremolos to emphasize different note clusters or rumbling in the bass clef. Later, sharp, Monkish arpeggiations and more formalistic EuroImprov echoes reconstitute themselves as brief motifs that gradually coalesce like short stories of sound into the musical anthology that is this instant composition.