REVIEWS

Jazzman Magazine [France] - Grand Disque [****]

Trombonist, composer and arranger Chris Abelen studied with Willem van Manen, discreetly standing in for him in the Willem Breuker Kollektief in the mid 1980s. As a musician he prefers working intensively with a regular band. His current quintet has been performing for ten years and the three CDs from that period convey a clear picture of the development the ensemble has gone through, as well as their attention to detail and fabulous ensemble playing. The contribution of the Zapp! string quartet - as featured on their CD "Chamber Grooves", Trytone 559-021 - enables him to show off all of his qualities: his sumptuous and refined style of writing, his masterful ability to create a sound balance, which is a result of the sophisticated relationship between opposing instruments and tone colours, without employing pompous and excessive instrumentation. This game of contrasts yields wonderful results, for example when the strings play 'softly', much like chamber music, while a piercing clarinet or a hard funky guitar is thrown against it. So much sophisticated subtlety could easily lead to a loss of tension, but as the leader of the band is well aware of this danger, he gives plenty of room for elaborate solos to develop in these thirteen pieces. What a relief to be able to breathe and stroll around freely in a 'space' that is not unnecessarily cluttered. There is no need for excessive loudness, as the clarity of the performance enables the listener to hear every single detail of what is on offer. A virtue only too easily forgotten in contemporary orchestral jazz. Chris Abelen has undeniably reached a very high standard.

Jean Buzelin.
Het Parool

Het gebeurt de laatste tijd vaak in de Nederlandse jazzscene dat twee complete bands samen een plaat opnemen. Soms passen die bands helemaal niet zo goed bij elkaar en biedt zo'n nieuwe combinatie nauwelijks meerwaarde.

Maar het initiatief van trombonist Chris Abelen is wel erg geslaagd. Hij heeft klarinettist Ab Baars en het strijkkwartet Zapp! gevraagd met zijn eigen kwintet samen te spelen.

Abelen heeft speciaal voor deze gelegenheids-bigband dertien composities geschreven. De titels van de muziekstukken dekken de lading volledig. In Space vallen op onverwachtste momenten stiltes. Bij In the deep blu

Soms kunnen big bands log en eenvormig klinken, maar het tientet van Abelen is een wonder van flexibiliteit, met een enorm register van klanken, sferen en dynamiek: de band heeft alle middelen in huis voor een muzikaal avontuur - met de gitaar van Corrie van Binsbergen als ruige en elektrische stem, en het strijkkwartet als lichtvoetig en zwierig personage, Ab Baars als zwerver en Chris Abelen als de bescheiden held.

MAARTJE DEN BREEJEN
09-08-2005
Vrij Nederland

After two earlier CDs with his regular quintet and one ad hoc band the trombonist and composer Chris Abelen has now achieved spectacular results with an unusual line-up.
His band (with saxophonist Tobias Delius, guitarist Corrie van Binsbergen, bassist Wilbert de Joode and Charles Huffstadt on the drums) was reinforced by the Zapp! string quartet and clarinettist Ab Baars. The modest Abelen allows himself only the occasional solo, as he prefers to focus on the collective process, including the ecstatic asides of Baars, Delius and Van Binsbergen. A striking feature of this music is that whereas quartets usually make every effort to sound like a big band, Abelen seems to enjoy clambering onto his audience's lap with his large ensemble.
Rudie Kagie

Na twee eerdere cd's met zijn vaste kwintet en een met een ad hoc-tentet bereikt trombonist en componist Chris Abelen nu een groots resultaat met een ongebruikelijke bezetting. Zijn band (met saxofonist Tobias Delius, gitariste Corrie van Binsbergen, bassist Wilbert de Joode en Charles Huffstadt op drums) krijgt versterking van het Zapp! String Quartet en klarinettist Ab Baars. De bescheiden Abelen meet zichzelf mondjesmaat soli toe en stelt het collectieve proces centraal, met inbegrip van extatische terzijdes van Baars, Delius en Van Binsbergen. Opvallend: menig kwartet spant zich in om als een big band te klinken, maar Abelen lijkt er juist genoegen in te scheppen om met zijn grote groep bij de luisteraar op schoot te kruipen.
Rudie Kagie
Vrij Nederland 4 juni 2005
Chris Abelen
Space
BVHAAST
De Volkskrant

One does not hear from trombonist Chris Abelen very often, but whenever the former member of Contraband and the Willem Breuker Kollektief makes his appearance, he always succeeds in making up for lost time. In his fourth CD his quintet joins forces with the ZAPP! string quartet and reed player Ab Baars. Together they perform Abelen's own, pleasantly short pieces with a free and screeching part for Baars and a both original and fulfilling contribution by the strings. Though the music is catchy, it is nonetheless unconventional.
Koen Schouten

Van de trombonist Chris Abelen, voormalig lid van onder meer Contraband en Willem Breuker Kollektief, hoor je niet zo vaak wat, maar als je wat hoort, is het meteen helemaal goed. Op zijn vierde cd brengt hij zijn kwintet samen met het ZAPP! Strijkkwartet en rietblazer Ab Baars. Zij spelen Abelens eigen, aangenaam korte stukken met een vrije en gierende rol voor Baars en een origineel, volwaardig aandeel van de strijkers. De muziek ligt soepel in het gehoor maar is niettemin gespeend van conventies.
Koen Schouten
De Volkskrant 9 june 2005
Chris Abelen
Space
BVHAAST
UnAMERICAN AFFAIRS

Lucas Niggli + Chris Abelen

Be careful when you count the number of musicians on these sessions. For while Space may seem to be by a ten-piece band and Sweat by a 12-piece one, each disc actually features an established improv combo expanded with the members of a contemporary chamber ensemble plus one additional idiosyncratic soloist.  As a consequence of these expansions, the composer/band leader of each disc-Dutch trombonist Chris Abelen on Space (BVHaast) and Swiss percussionist Lucas Niggli on Sweat (Intakt)-has a fuller palate of textures, colors, pitches, and rhythms available.
Both CDs are memorable, although Sweat has a slight edge. The cause may be that it's a studio session, whereas Space was recorded live. Or it may be that Ensemble Neue Musik Zurich (ENMZ) is a closer fit with the drummer's Zoom Ensemble plus British soundsinger Phil Minton, then the Zapp! String Quartet is with the trombonist's quintet and special guest, clarinetist Ab Baars.  More crucially, with only six compositions to interpret-one of which is more than 18 minutes long-the Niggli-led group has enough scope to stretch, in contrast to the Abelen crew, whose improvisations are wedged into 13 tracks that are mostly three to five minutes in length. Additionally, the execution of many of the compositions on Space resembles that of certain comedy sketches on Saturday Night Live: they start off well, but skimp on a finish.
Consider, for instance, "Clean", "AB", and the title track on Space. Despite the second tune having his initials, Baars' a cappella squeals aren't dominant enough to escape the delicate ascending harmonies from the Zapp four-violinists Jasper le Clerq and Friedmar Hitzer, violist Oene van Geel, and cellist Emile Visser. Percussionist Charles Huffstadt contributes concussive metallic pulses, but the end result is strangely inconclusive.  Similarly, the string quartet modulates circling pitches, while the rhythm section of guitarist Corrie van Binsbergen, bassist Wilbert de Joode, and the drummer proffer a pulsating line, on "Clean". Yet, just when this combination seems poised to make a definite statement, the selection ends.
As for "Space" the composition, harmonic congruence from the strings, and pinpointed licks from van Binsbergen take up whatever room is left over from de Joode's thick-toned interface. Then Tobias Delius contributes emotional tenor saxophone slurs that are then answered by plunger work from Abelen. However despite the double-stopping and steady beat, the climax is again inconclusive.
Other pieces show more development. "Coda", which oddly enough is the CD's second-to-last track, finds Abelen constructing a Gil Evans-like backing for his chromatic explorations. The Tilburg-born brassman, who apprenticed in the larger groups of Willem Breuker, J.C. Tans, and Eric van der Westen, displays his command of shifting textures.  As his trombone sounds grace notes in higher ranges, the strings gradually ascend in octaves to accompany him. Although at one point he departs from his usual legato tone to indulge in prolonged double-tonguing, overall his expositions never go beyond the bounds of good taste-sort of like a modern-day Eddie Bert or Frank Rosolino.
Happily, he's able to get the ZAPP string quartet to swing on "Orange", but considering all have backgrounds as improvisers, this is less of a struggle than it would have been for arrangers Evans or George Russell in the 1950 and 1960s. That tune, a pseudo-march, is driven by a military-like fanfare from Huffstadt's snare and a thumping pulse from de Joode. Clarinet trills and vibrating cross lines from the guitar soar on top.  Both strings and guitar are featured on "GO", where pizzicato settings are interrupted by low-pitched reverb from van Binsbergen, whose variations on the theme presage a horn-heavy countermelody.
Built on a series of sonorous pitches, "My Tie" gives Delius a chance to use smears, squeals, and tongue-stops as tart rejoinders to the strings' swelling harmonies. His irregular vibrations poke holes in the quartet's lyricism, preventing the tune from becoming saccharine-and he concludes with a horse whinny.  Finally, "On the Beach" allows Baars and Delius-both on clarinet-to weave polyphonic tones that meander, jump, circle, and occasionally meld for double counterpoint, balancing above alternating pizzicato and arco string tremolos.
As the title suggests, it may have necessitated more perspiration, but the two ensembles hang together more on Sweat then the two mixed groups on Abelen's CD. Even if Minton's theatrical retches, hiccups, and groans are an acquired taste, together Zoom and the new music sextet sound more comfortable than the trombonist's crew.
That's because the drummer, in an Ellington-like fashion, tailors his compositions to the individuals within the group. Slick trombonist Nils Wogram and guitarist Philipp Schaufelberger-in his less rock-oriented moments-have shown their adaptability on earlier Zoom releases, as has new member Claudio Puntin, a clarinetist on a technical level with Baars. ENMZ's tubaist Leo Bachmann is versatile enough to have released his own solo improv disc, with the other members-violinist Urs Bumbbacher, cellist Stefan Tuth, pianist Viktor Muller, and flautist Hans Peter Frehner, plus Lorenz Haas on vibraphone and percussion-similarly adaptable and seemingly unaffected by the snobbism that often infects so-called serious musicians.
"Run and Rush" and "Fever" provide examples of Niggli's architecturally complete compositions. They're also ones that contrast markedly with those of Abelen's that lack resolution.  On the first piece, for instance, a near-impressionistic interlude of strings and flute follows measured guitar runs. These undulating string arpeggios are interrupted by a guitar vamp, which, joined by piano and vibes, develops into a swing riff balanced on Bachman's snorting patterns. As Wogram's chromatic solo unrolls on top of skittering drums and walking tuba lines, Minton interjects dog barks and other odd noises. Midway through is a contrapuntal interlude, featuring a twittering flute and the clarinet playing Spanish-tinged scales. Echoing resonations from Haas' vibes set up the concluding variation that features a pounding rock-like drum beat, distortions and surf runs from Schaufelberger, choked blats from the boneman, and the vocalist perhaps unintentionally parodying a heavy metal singer's unintelligible yowls.
"Fever"-not Peggy Lee's hit-provides even more scope for Minton's vocal ventriloquism following an instrumental exposition made up in equal part of rubato trombone lows, menacing, low-frequency piano chording, pastoral fluting, and strings. Displaying three of his many voices, Minton successively intones like a growling bass-baritone, as if he was a counter-tenor, and with strangled Donald Duck-like spittle. Soon he's intoning in triple counterpoint with himself, as first stretched strings-deliberately dissonant-enter, followed by splayed guitar licks, rattling thumps from Niggli and pedal point bluster from Bachmann. Unexpectedly the composition shifts gears as perfectly formed guitar finger-picking from Schaufelberger, cross patterning dynamics from Muller, and fowl-like quacks from Puntin's clarinet loosen up and distort the sounds. Encompassing string-directed chamber harmonies, the last section reaches a conclusive crescendo.
In many ways, the other compositions serve as a series of postludes to "No Nation", the anthemic suite that opens the CD. Beginning with a compendium of pulses, sine waves, and percussion accents, the initial moderato theme appears after a couple of minutes. First expressed with a hearty neo-bop, double-tongued solo from Wogram, the line expands with sonorous timbres from Bachmann and tick-tocking bounces and ruffs from Niggli. Eventually it opens up for a crooning vocal from Minton, the Perry Como of the avant-garde.
Tension and release defines the composition from then on as plunger cries from the trombone, hard rock flams from the drummer, and floating guitar runs contrast with the simple, sweet Cabaletta-like air that emanates from the ENMZ. Bachmann's reverberations provide the continuo, matched by clanking cymbals and rim shots. As the tune's shape alters, Puntin's feathery double-tongued clarinet line appears to be injecting fralicher phraseology into the mix. With tuba tones and clattering percussion swaggering in harmonic counterpoint finally superseded by throat gurgles, Bronx cheers, and pseudo-scatting from Minton, the composition concludes with frailing hyper-kinetic cadences from Schaufelberger and a broad clarinet glissando, recapping the theme to end on a frantic note.
As examples of musical cross-fertilization from different genres and largish aggregations, both CDs offer intriguing compositional possibilities, although Sweat has more of a positive resolution.

by Ken Waxman
28 November 2005
 
Liner notes by Kevin Whitehead
Is it too much to suggest that on his four CDs so far, Chris Abelen has taken a thesis-antithesis-synthesis approach to bandleading?

His first albums, Dance of the penguins and What a Romance, featured his working quintet. Proost, his third (though recorded first), was for an ad hoc tentet. Now for Space he’s come up with another ad hoc tentet built around the working band. Two working bands, actually: the Abelen quintet and the Zapp! String Quartet, plus rogue clarinetist Ab Baars, returning from Proost.
Easy to hear why Zapp! garner so much praise, especially at home in Holland where they’re frequently heard: its members have obviously spent a lot of time matching and blending their sounds. Abelen sensibly enough deploys the quartet mostly as a unit rather than four independent voices. At the same time, he strings an integral part of the larger ensemble  rather than using them as “sweetening.”
This embrace of cohesion may seem surprising, coming from a leader who - in the quintet’s early days way back in the mid-1990s - used to boast of the difficulty some members had in adjusting to one another. That difficulty led to a certain amount of creative tension in the rhythm section. But after a few tours, guitarist Corrie van Binsbergen, bassist Wilbert de Joode and the admirably discreet drummer Charles Huffstadt have made their ramshackle groove sound exactly right; listen to them on Corrie’s “Go” solo. And observe the exacting combination of her guitar and Tobias Delius’s tenor sax on “Le Mitan,” sounding like one instrument. (One reason the merger works: she’s always in tune. How many guitarists with a whammy bar can you say that about?) The hornless “Clean” in effect folds her guitar and de Joode’s bowed bass into an expanded string section. (Play that one for folks who say massed strings won’t swing.)
Abelen’s not above using strings in opposition to the jazz axes however: on “In the deep blue sea,” charging Stravinskian strings give way to (and then intermittently challenge) what sounds like a hip blues band. (Van Binsbergen’s superb wah-wah work is out of early electric Miles.) But somewhere during Abelen’s shout-trombone solo, the ensemble roles get all mixed up: fiddles provide the choppy accompaniment, and clarinets enter to play a distant background role of the sort often relegated to strings.
(That said, dig the haunting, hollow, thoroughly clarinetty blend Ab and Toby get here. They’re immediately re-paired on clarinets for the sequel “On the beach,” where their staccato part at the opening echoes those chugging violins on the previous number. Like Ellington, Abelen uses such echoes between pieces to add cohesion to the program.)
Many bandleaders set out to make a small band sound larger, through ingenious voicings; the perverse Abelen often makes eleven pieces sound like less. (All the compositions except “Heel” for Ab & Zapp and “Clean” are for all hands.) One philosophy of improvising promoted in Holland says, when you make a statement, always be forceful. Here players are sometimes content to whisper from the wings, barely audible: even the drummer and electric guitarist. Those murmurs can make for some spooky episodes, as on “Pool.”
Which is not to say the soloists don’t get their spots. The leader is not one to hog the spotlight, but we get further helpings of his clipped, precise trombone on “Le Mitan” and “ Coda.” Every note is cleanly articulated, with a bit of bite, and many phrases go out with lovely spiraling flourishes. Delius’s tough-guy-with-a-heart tenor opens the disc, and returns on “My Tie,” which exploits his great sense of drama: he prowls that uncluttered stage. The title “AB” is selfexplanatory; Baars is likewise all over “Heel,” where he mixes it up with cellist Emile Visser, Clean is for Jasper le Clercq.
Violist Oene van Geel solos on “008” and shows he really knows how to develop a line. It’s one of Abelen;s characteristically jaunty tunes, like “Go” (where the strings really snap, pizzicato) and the marchy raveup “Orange,” with a striking bass countermelody at the top, exploiting de Joode’s peerlessly plosive tones.
Chris Abelen does have his contrary side, and but as tunes like those remind you, he has a lot of fun leading a band too. More than most followers of Hegel do, I daresay.
 
Chris Abelen Quintet

Chris Abelen - trombone
Tobias Delius - tenor saxophone
Corrie van Binsbergen - guitar
Wilbert de Joode - double bass
Charles Huffstadt - drums

Zapp String Quartet

Jasper le Clercq - violin
Friedmar Hitzer - violin
Oene van Geel - viola
Emile Visser - cello

Ab Baars - clarinet

Recorded by Dick Lucas, september 29 & 30, 2004 Bimhuis, Amsterdam