The irrepressible 71-year-old force of nature known as Han Bennink blew into the Loft at UCSD Tuesday night, simultaneously playing deep homage to the jazz tradition while shattering pretensions and conventions with a group of listening virtuosos that included trombonist Michael Dessen, violin/violist Mary Oliver and bassist Mark Dresser.
Bennink’s madcap, almost vaudevillian sense of humor and ballistic drum assaults in no way detract from the more salient features of his musicality: an indomitable sense of swing and a magical connection to flow. Regardless of the sonic and visual shock factors that accompany his dumping of a whole shopping back of drumsticks onto the kit – or the earsplitting force of an unexpected flam – Bennink’s propulsive art is always additive.
The group began in an ultra-freeform fit of stops and starts, whereupon each member directed the give-and-take from odd angles before suddenly veering into the madcap erotic tango of Misha Mengelberg’s “Habanera,” which slowly seeped toward dissonant shores.
Likewise, Dresser’s anthem “For Bradford,” opened with allusions brought into laser focus by the seesaw unisons of Dessen and Oliver. Beyond the melody, Dessen ripped open the sonic landscape with braying, burbling commentary, followed by the highly aggressive, chromatic string drama of Oliver.
Bennink began his own solo, channeling Gene Krupa before rocketing into the ether – and somehow making it all fit. This band could commit fully to any style while keeping everything open. One piece distilled down to a duet between Bennink and Oliver – both sharing a shattering rhythmic escapade like twins having a seizure. Oliver took the pre-bop groove to another level – sounding like the possessed offspring of Doug Kershaw and Leroy Jenkins at one point.
Fellow Dutchman Mengelberg’s compositions were well represented, especially, the Anthony Braxton-esque “Hypochristmastreefuzz,” which began on the warmly swung vamp of Dresser, exploded with the impossible melody and swaggered into the blue-light district with Dessen’s gutbucket, plunger-mute discourse. An explosive drum solo began “Mother of All Wars,” before Oliver took over with a daring string portrait that illustrated the joy of coloring outside the lines. Everything about her contribution on this night screamed and soared while maintaining a gloriously precise pitch.
This group controlled the dynamics with a shared intuition that allowed for a caterwaul to ease into near silence in a matter of seconds, and wherever the music went, Bennink drove it with a master’s precision. On Dresser’s “Mento,” a yearning ballad showcased the melodic angst of trombone and violin before leaping off the page in tempo and feel into a structure that reminded me of the odd-metered adventures of the Mahavishnu Orchestra being conducted by Cecil Taylor. Centering it all was the deep rudder of Dresser’s bass, which reflected the dark current of life and the creaking joy of surprise through an astonishing command of the instrument’s sonic potential. Four masters communicating at the highest level while stretching the expectations of their given instruments beyond recognition: Glorious; dazzling; a joyful noise, indeed.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.