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A DIFFERENT STAGE Music in a bookstore
A DIFFERENT STAGE Music in a bookstore

An unusual line-up and an unusual concert based on Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite

It was an unusual setting for a jazz concert recently. Landmark is better known for its books and its book launches, although admittedly its shelves also support a great collection of music.

Some 50 chairs and eight musicians with their instruments were packed into a space that would’ve been just comfortable for a regular big band including piano. Much of this small audience had probably walked in to shop for CDs or DVDs (or books), judging from the fact that entering just in time, I had to make do with standing room, but got a seat from a defector soon after.

It was also an unusual line-up and an unusual concert. The Tony Overwater Trio (TOT) and the Calefax Reed Quintet (CRQ) from the Netherlands – a country with a reputation for taking classic jazz very seriously – performed about a dozen numbers, a few of them their own compositions, but the majority taken from Duke Ellington’s “Far East Suite”, the latter inspired by the Ellington big band’s trip to West, South, and East Asia in 1963 and the former by the TOT’s and CRQ’s similar current tour to the same parts of the world.

Solo improvisations

Rather inaccurately, the concert was titled “Ellington Suites”, although only one of perhaps some 10 suites Ellington and his friend and collaborator Billy Strayhorn wrote figured in it. As for the line-up, the TOT is a jazz band, comprising Overwater on bass, Wim Kegel on drums, and Maarten Ornstein on tenor saxophone. CRQ is eclectic but basically a classical reed quintet, comprising Oliver Boekhoorn (oboe), Ivar Berix (clarinet), Raaf Hekkema (alto saxophone), Jelte Althuis (bass clarinet), and Alban Wesly (bassoon).

In keeping with their respective strengths, the CRQ members, who were also responsible for the arrangements (although these deviated little, from what was written by Ellington and Strayhorn, but with trumpet and trombone parts transferred to the reeds), more or less stuck to the written scores.

They did take a few solo improvisations, notably Althuis and Hekkema, while Boekhoorn (rather than Hekkema) contributed an amazing interpretation of the leading part of the Duke’s star alto saxophonist, Johnny Hodges, on the evocative “Isfahan”.

Berix, like the Duke’s clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton, took the lead on the equally evocative “Bluebird of Delhi”, inspired by hearing a mynah singing. The bulk of the solo improvisations were in the hands of the TOT, Overwater himself playing a long solo, without even drums for backing, between two numbers, Kegel pitching in with a spectacular drum solo towards the end of the concert, and Ornstein soloing on most of the other pieces.

The band’s own compositions, interspersing the Ellington material, blended well with the mood of suite, one number being inspired by Lebanon just as “Mount Harissa” in the original was. It was an enjoyable concert, probably equally so for those shoppers who walked in unsuspectingly but didn’t defect within 10 minutes, and one that will cement for me the Dutch reputation for classic jazz.

JAZZEBEL

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