REVIEW: Alexander Hawkins - Carte Blanche at Bimhuis Amsterdam

Alexander Hawkins Ensemble at the Bimhuis
Photo Credit Henning Bolte

Alexander Hawkins Ensemble
(Bimhuis, Amsterdam, 27th February 2016, review by Henning Bolte)

After the Amsterdam Bimhuis Carte Blanche of drummer Hamid Drake in January (link to review below),   it was now the turn of excellent young British pianist Alexander Hawkins. He made an appearance with his six-piece ensemble comprised of Shabaka Hutchings (bass clarinet), Dylan Bates (violin), Neil Charles (bass), Otto Fischer (guitar) and Tom Skinner (drums). The most challenging part was the choice he made for meeting musicians from the Amsterdam scene. He opted for combination of musicians from different cultural backgrounds: a young female musician from Buenos Aires, a young male musician from São Paulo, a young musician with a Norwegian-Belgian background and a Dutch born musician. Four local musicians, reedists Ada Rave and Yedo Gibson, cellist Harald Austbø and French-horn player Morris Kliphuis joined and fused into the sextet.

Schleifen, Schatten, Schtimmen … In the first set Hawkin’s sextet excelled in exquisite dynamics, surprising turns and mysterious transitions, not self-evident contrasts and islands of rare beauty. The game the ensemble played emerged from (hidden) cells, and took them through different thresholds of unfolding – undulating and gliding, full of Schleifen und Schatten (loops and shadows), unravelling threads and Helmut Lachenmann-like tonalities on the edge.

Alexander Hawkins at the Bimhuis
Photo credit Henning Bolte

At no single moment did it feel forced, collaged or cut-up. It was this sextet’s very own intriguing game played. Things were kept open in a wondrous way where you could for example hear a Mahler rural military march with a reggae undercurrent. It was kept open, was clearly articulated and never subsided into vagueness. The ensemble played its game at confident alertness. A special mention goes to the unflagging brilliance of violinist Dylan Bates.

For the second set - together with the Amsterdam musicians - the challenge was to trigger and incorporate these musicians’ special colours and strengths. Hawkins adopted a concept that put all musicians on equal ground within a stream and structure alternatively expanding and contracting, shrinking while flooding with diverse energies. It opened free spaces for the Amsterdam musicians almost by itself such that they could gave shape with their very own voice and approach to sound. It became embedded so well that it was clearly noticeable without ever sounding or feeling as “look me soloing”. Walking around, observing, occasionally cueing or adjusting musicians’ lead sheets he employed his very own way and synthesized approach of conducting. It did not fell into any of the well-known, (over)used patterns of open improvisation. It worked wonderfully in both senses, both directions: the creation of a strong common thing and giving space to the expression of manifold individual voices.

Dylan Bates with members of the Alexander Hawkins Ensemble at the Bimhuis
Photo credit Henning Bolte

A very special element built in by Hawkins was the charming use of musicians’ Sprechstimme. Some of the musicians recited poetry overlapping each other in the overall structure and musical flow.  And: there was no fade out as usual, ah! The emerging great groove broke off abruptly, and precisely timed and co-ordinated.

LINK: Review - Hamid Drake's Carte Blanche

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