Music Reviews

Two Audiophile DSD Jazz Reviews: First Meeting & Impromptu

Audiophile jazz listeners, take note! New music labels Just Listen and Sound Liaisons are recording and releasing the creative sounds of contemporary jazz from the Netherlands in DSD audio. Jazz music created and performed in the UK, Scandinavia, Germany, France and Italy is widely reviewed in print media, books, and websites. But articles and news about jazz from the Netherlands (in English) can be hard to find. Stuart Nicholson’s “Is Jazz Dead?” and the compilation “Eurojazzland” mention the Dutch free jazz musical innovators of the late 1960s and early ’70s, but are silent on recent developments in the Netherlands.

SACDs from the Challenge family of labels have brought to greater attention the accomplishments of a younger generation of Dutch musicians. Over the past twenty years, Challenge Jazz, Buzz, and Turtle have released SACDs by players such as trumpeter Eric Vloeimans, pianist Marc van Roon, reeds player Maarten Ornstein, bassists Tony Overwater and Hein van der Gein, and percussionist Wim Kegel.

More recently, high resolution and DSD download vendors have established an important new platform for distributing jazz in hi-res audio formats. The two albums reviewed in this article can stand on their own artistic merits, and will be appreciated by hi-res jazz fans who want to hear first-rate musical performances in excellent recorded sound.

Harmen Fraanje Trio: First Meeting (Just Listen)

Harmen Fraanje is a pianist-composer who, in recent years, has become more widely known outside of the Netherlands through his festival appearances and recordings on the ECM label with Norwegian composer- bassist Mats Eilertsen. Fraanje’s earlier dates for Challenge Jazz, both as a leader (“Sonatala”) and sideman (Eric Vloeimans’ “Boom Petit”), set the stage for a new recording under his leadership, “First Meeting”.

Recording session picture of “First Meeting” on Just Listen Records

Jazz musicians forge a personal style first by imitation, then by elimination. Harmen Fraanje’s style, shaped by his studies at the Conservatory of Amsterdam, reflects an interest in extending back through the traditions of jazz and classical music, and forward into new directions. In Fraanje’s compositions, jazz phrasing and rhythm are refracted through the prism of a modern melodic sensibility. Now in his early 40s, Fraanje has a sound of his own, and you won’t mistake him for his keyboard contemporaries.

One of the virtues of “First Meeting” is the careful sequencing which connects the first six tracks of the album; the effect is of a coherent musical suite. The intensity of the opening track “Several” is balanced by bassist Clemens van der Feen’s meditative piece for trio and clarinet “Bread of Life”, which flows seamlessly into Fraanje’s deceptively tranquil “Pi” for unaccompanied piano. Fraanje’s arrangement of Carla Bley’s composition, “Ida Lupino” is followed by a “Fade”, a short interlude that bridges into the pastoral “A Small Ray of Light”.

Recording session picture of “First Meeting” on Just Listen Records

In the second half of the album, the music takes on a harder edge and a darker emotional hue. American drummer Tristan Renfrow is the featured soloist on “XYZ”, a showpiece for subtle execution of intricate polyrhythms. Saxophonist Fredrik Ljunkvist’s composition “PH” recalls the post-bop of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. Ljunkvist takes his solo ‘out’ into multiphonics on Fraanje’s free excursion “Epi”. The final two tracks, “Safe” and “Goodbye”, as their titles suggest, return to a calm, if somber, emotional ground.

Recording engineer Jared Sacks created the balance on the spot by moving musicians closer or further from the mics… no post-production, mixing or editing is done.

Jonas Sacks

Jared Sacks, known to SACD and DSD music collectors as the chief engineer for Channel Classics, is a long-time proponent of DSD recording. Sacks recorded the Harmen Fraanje group in the legendary spacious soundstage of MCO, Hilversum. The original DSD 256 recording captures every nuance of the pianist’s touch and phrasing, the depth of the standup bass, the “air” around the drums and cymbals, and the wide spectrum of saxophone tones.

Recording session picture of “First Meeting” on Just Listen Records

The mix indeed sounds exactly like the positions of the musicians as shown in the session photos included in the liner notes booklet. That speaks to a commitment by Jonas and Jared Sacks to represent the musical performance exactly as it occurred in the studio.

Play “First Meeting”, and you’ll find that you just listen.

Tony Overwater and Bert van den Brink: Impromptu (Sound Liaison)

“Impromptu” vividly captures the sound of an intimate venue at a very special one-time performance.

Cue the 4th track on “Impromptu” on your music server, turn up the volume, and step for a moment outside your listening room… you’ll feel as if you’re walking away from the musicians, not from your loudspeakers.

How was this illusion created? Here’s the recipe: take one adventurous audio engineer, add five strategically-placed microphones, sift it all through DSD recording technology, and stir in a large portion of musical magic.

Describing the spontaneity of live recordings, album engineer Frans de Rond writes:

“The audience becomes part of the music making and help spur the musicians on to great heights. The musicians feeling the empathy from the audience dare to take chances that one rarely hears in a studio recording.

When bassist Tony Overwater and pianist Bert Van Den Brink were invited to perform an impromptu set of tunes on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the high-end audio shop “Rhapsody”, in Hilversum, the Netherlands, they were definitely taking chances. The two musicians had never performed together before, and there was no prior rehearsal. An enthusiastic invited audience packed Rhapsody’s listening room — one wonders how there was enough space to fit in a grand piano. The stage was set for whatever might happen.

Prior to hearing this album, I was familiar with bassist Tony Overwater through his SACD recordings “O.P.”, a tribute to the American bass player and composer Oscar Pettiford, and “Jungle Boldie”, an eclectic modern trio project with reeds player Maarten Ornstein and drummer Wim Kegel. Overwater’s ability to adapt and communicate effectively with pianist Bert van den Brink, in spite of never having performed together, is a measure of his experience and creative resources.

Half the tunes in this set are well-known standards: “If I Should Lose You”, “I Fall in Love Too Easily”, “Nardis” and “My Foolish Heart”; the latter two songs are closely associated with pianist Bill Evans. Three improvisations and Tony Overwater’s composition “De Boot” fill out the set. Van den Brink generally opens with an unaccompanied introduction, then states the melody of the song, which sets a tone for Overwater’s accompaniment. Each player solos in turn, having established the tempo and overall mood in which the piece will be presented.

Appropriately enough, considering the name of the audio shop, Bert van den Brink plays in a rhapsodic style, freely embellishing and orchestrating the songs with decorative arpeggios and dense chords. The familiarity of the standards provides a framework for reframing the melodies in fresh and unexpected turns of phrase. Overwater accompanies with restraint and good musical judgment, making for a unified sound that belies the absence of a performing history with van den Brink. It all works, which might have surprised the musicians and much as it pleased the audience.

Many of the other releases from Sound Liaisons are studio sessions recorded with a single-point stereo microphone, a rigorous and painstaking approach to production. The label has a goal of establishing a distinctive house sound while documenting new jazz music from the Netherlands. It’s an exciting venture that has earned critical praise from audio and jazz enthusiasts, and a place in this listener’s music library.

Written by

Mark Werlin

Mark is a videomaker and music reviewer who writes about jazz and new creative music, in DSD, for NativeDSD, and All About Jazz. He has a special interest in new music produced by independent audiophile labels. His videos of solo musical performances were featured in a U.S. Library of Congress program.


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