There is a misunderstanding around jazz that it is an austere genre of music meant for serious people. With the exception of, perhaps, so-called “classical” music – which, like jazz, is subject to a too-general categorization – the confession that one enjoys jazz is likely to get eyes rolling. In a recent article, writer Shuja Haider put it this way: “I generally do not raise the subject [of jazz] with anyone unless I know they are also into it, as though it was a sexual kink or a fringe religion.” Though this is meant tongue-in-cheek, the grain of truth is difficult to deny. Jazz remains, for some, a secret hobby, because of the shame brought on by its associations with self-seriousness or pretentiousness. You will find almost none of this in good jazz music, however, and, contrary to the prevailing orthodoxy, the necessary lack of pretension is what makes free jazz such a great place to start for the new listener.
New Acoustic Swing Duo is an album by saxophonist Willem Breuker and percussionist Han Bennink in 1967 on the, at the time, newly constituted ICP label. ICP stands for Instant Composers Pool, which referred to the act of improvisation named by the group as “instant composition.” In other words, it is a European free-jazz album, the type of thing newcomers to the genre are usually warned away from. This warning is issued, one assumes, because of the lack of melodic coherence in such work, but if the listener is willing to put this need temporarily to the side, what they will find is something much more important to jazz: play.
Play is present in the title of New Acoustic Swing Duo, a hilariously anodyne description of the music contained therein, but it is most apparent in the music itself. The opening salvo, “Music for John Tchicai,” begins with a passage where both players lay into their respective instruments with furious abandon before moving into a more contemplative mode. Bennink solos rhythmically on some hand drums alone and then Breuker begins to play scales, softly at first, before building in intensity in response to the percussion. Left alone for a moment, Breuker buzzes on his instrument until he’s joined again by Bennink – this time on a full kit – and they launch into the chaotic finale with an admirable “screw it” mentality.
On “Singing the Impalpable Blues,” Breuker pushes his sax to its limit, distorting the sound to the point that it no longer sounds like an acoustic instrument at all, but more like guitar feedback. At times, the thing it most closely resembles is electronic noise master Merzbow. He’s testing it, seeing what it can do. Sometimes he maybe goes too far, but he pulls back with a shrug. This is the risk when you play. Throughout, Bennink punctuates the amelodic sentences of his partner, before playing something more like a duet at the end. “Mr. M.A. De R. In A.” showcases an impressive display of endurance from Bennink, who explores every corner of his drum kit with the power of a boxer as Breuker scrabbles away on the sax. The drums disappear for a moment as the sax wails only to be replaced by what sound like trash can lids, as if Bennink had just went out back of the studio to find them. The sound of the lids and the sax together evoke a city street with workmen plying their trade as sirens blare.
“Gamut” is by far the longest composition on the album. At just over 20 minutes it’s a slower burn than the shorter compositions that precede it. Breuker develops a growling vibrato in the prelude, while Bennink alternates between tom rolls and cymbals before taking the floor alone and playing every part of the kit in much the same way as he does in this recent performance, where even his shoe becomes a medium of percussive expression. This section moves into a slow, sultry movement led by Breuker. It’s the most melodic passage on the album and demonstrates the total control he exhibits over the tone of his instrument. But things go off the rails again because that’s how they stay interesting. The piece proceeds in the fashion until the end, when you can almost hear the two performers look at each other and signal that it’s time to let loose one last time. Bennink’s drums sound like a runaway train as Breuker’s sax flies above observing. Someone lets out a “whoo-hoo,” buried in the mix and the album ends.
This reissue also includes a concert Breuker and Bennink recorded in Essen in 1968. The concert has them wielding a similar frenetic energy as they do on New Acoustic Swing Duo. It’s a fascinating document of how their approach to music permutated in a live setting. There is little separation between one “song” and the next and the occasional background chatter enhances the atmosphere of improvisation and play inherent in their music. It’s a great exhibition of Breuker’s humor, as well, if one can tell jokes with a saxophone. Unfortunately, the percussion does not sound quite as dynamic as it does on the album. It is no fault of Bennink’s that this is the case, it’s simply due to limitations in recording technology.
Part of what makes jazz easy to group in with other out-there pastimes is the seeming difficulty of getting into it at all. Context is important when one listens to music: where it comes from, who the people are playing it. To some degree or another, most people discover music by finding something that is similar but not the same. A guest verse or a cover song can open an entirely new door. This is true of jazz, too, of course. But unlike other genres of music, the connections and contexts seem labyrinthine to the newcomer. From New Acoustic Swing Duo, one might move on to explore Breuker and Bennink’s other work – the latter passed in 2010, but the former is still active, Machine Gun, their collaboration with Peter Brötzmann is a good next step – or the work of ICP, which is still ongoing and has an impressive stable of artists. But no matter where one turns next, the sense of excitement and play present on New Acoustic Swing Duo – even more than 50 years later – make it an ideal jumping off point for the free-jazz curious.