Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Robin Verheyen & Herman Fraanje - 17/01/2005, Brussels

It's weird how far off-the-mark mental geography can be. For some reason, I assumed the Musée Charlier to be very far from where I work and ended up needlessly missing a number of interesting midday concerts. It turns out it's only a 15-20 minute walk away. What's more, the trip took me past the Federal Parliament and I noticed, for the first time, that, when standing in front of the Parliament, you can look down the Parc Royal's central alley and see the Palais.

Saxophonist Robin Verheyen (here on tenor and soprano, but he also plays alto) and pianist Harmen Fraanje (the latter is Dutch) are two early20somethings who have been playing a lot together recently in various formats. Verheyen's debut recording as leader (with Fraanje as part of the quartet) is coming out in march on De Werf. This was the first time I'd seen them together (in Fraanje's case, at all) and extent of their musical relationship and its potential, was clear. What at first seemed like a fantasia of Jarrett-ian proportions turned out to be 40 seamless minutes of tunes and interaction.

The piano started, alone, with slow and stately low-register chords that sucked the listener into a new, attentive mood. When Verheyen joined in, they quickly built up to a ternary folk dance-ish rhythm, while also managing to retain something of the ealier, more meditative atmosphere. One of the concert's characteristics was that the saxophone was not constantly "on top," but got down under, alongside and in the middle of what the piano was playing, to form a unified bloc of sound. I particularly liked these moments, as they gave the music a mysterious propulsion: like frictionless or perpetual movement, you wondered where the energy was coming from. When the relationship between the two musicians was more heirarchical, the source of the energy was clear: a melody, a chord sequence, a particular timbre. Of course, the latter approach was necessary: too much of the former, and the music would have become too impenetrable, self-contained and maybe even directionless.

A sign of the intent listening going on was that at one point, after a tenor solo, Fraanje was clearly thinking about and looking for a way back into the music: he ran his hands silently above the keys, withdrew them and finally settled on perfectly appropriate short, clipped chords. Throughout the concert, each musician took the other's on-the-fly cues about melody, tempo, mood and tone.

Verheyen tended to play with a lot of breath around the edges of the notes (perhaps at times too much, favouring atmosphere over focus), which, when he played longer, very legato lines, gave off a kind of Konitz/Marsh feel. For more articulated, rhythmic and choppy "jazz lines," he would tighten up his sound. Fraanje both laid the groundwork and elaborated on it, but also pulled some surprising moves, as when he damped the strings with his left hand in a very sophisticated way while playing a riff or melody. He seemed to me a step beyond the "single muffled string as percussion instrument" technique I've seen used a fair amount, because Fraanje moved from string to string to parallel the notes he was striking on the keyboard, and only half-dampened them, so as to retain some of the pitch. The overall effect was that of a kora or gamelan. Verheyen pulled a few sound tricks out of his hat, too: as the duo drifted from the folk tune into stretched-out jazz standard-type chord changes, the saxophonist impressively made his tenor sound like a bass flute.

Towards the end of the concert, Fraanje sang a melody to his partner while playing it, making it seem like they had been making everything up as they went along (to paraphrase the immortal words of Homer Simpson), but a later, more rhythmically-precise, reprise of that melody laid that idea to rest.