Review: Han Bennink at Café Oto

Han Bennink, Rachel Musson 
Photo Credit: Gus Gussetti. All Rights Reserved

Han Bennink
(Café Oto. 5th September 2013. Second of a 2-night residency. Review by Andy Boeckstaens)

Han Bennink has been a key presence on the Dutch scene since the 1960’s and must be one of the very few people to have worked with both Dexter Gordon and Peter Brötzmann. His wonderful straight-time playing can drive an ensemble in the style of our beloved Tony Marsh and John Stevens, but the majority of Bennink’s shows in recent years have leant towards the avant-garde and now he is known more for playing the walls, plonking his boots on the snare drum and tapping a drumstick in his mouth. Witnessing such things at close quarters is one of the joys of listening to music in a small venue like Café Oto.

On Thursday, after brief solos by Bennink and clarinet player Alex Ward, the front row was a decidedly uncomfortable place to be. Using an empty glass on the strings of a derelict guitar, Terrie Hessels leapt around menacingly and inconsistently, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was inches away from violently jabbing the head of his low-slung axe in my face. Concluding his five-minute stint, Hessels hooked the tuning-keys of the guitar under the rim of an adjacent table, yanked it sharply towards him, and a pint went flying. There was smashed glass and beer everywhere, followed a few seconds later by an odd mixture of alarm, bemusement and relief as Hessels left the stage, embracing the startled beer drinker as he went. We should not have been surprised. Hessels is a founder member of punk band The Ex. And he is Dutch.

What followed was musically more enthralling and extremely varied. On viola, Mary Oliver completed the quartet of unaccompanied solos, and later, on violin, duetted with Alex Ward for the first time. Opening the second half, she participated in an impressive section – presumably improvised but delivered with a great regard for form - alongside (unbilled) Toronto-based violinist Phoebe Tsang, and Rachel Musson on tenor sax. This was the highlight of the gig.

Phoebe Tsang, Mary Oliver, Rachel Musson
Photo credit:  Gus Gussetti. All Rights Reserved

The core quartet of Bennink, Hessels, Oliver and Ward played together for just 15 minutes, but the six musicians worked in nine different combinations. Ward, Hessels and Bennink played two short pieces with a focus that was lacking for most of the evening. Even then, the theatrical elements took an upper hand: the drummer waved a football rattle and Hessels scraped his clapped-out instrument across the floor. The left-handed guitarist’s fascination with glass objects continued as he slammed a candle-holder on the table (by this time I had moved to the relative safety of the second row). The closer was a much calmer affair for which Musson and Tsang were invited back, playing with everyone except Hessels.

Han Bennink is an international treasure, a towering catalyst bringing sparkle, humour and character to an art form that too often is dull. It was great to see him in a typically catholic group, but this evening’s potential was overshadowed by extra-musical antics that were unusually anarchic. Even by Dutch standards.

Han Bennink – drums, percussion
Terrie Hessels – electric guitar
Mary Oliver – viola, violin
Alex Ward – clarinet
Rachel Musson – tenor saxophone
Phoebe Tsang – violin

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