One Remarkable Host

BY ANDREY HENKIN | The billing for the January 16 concert initially promised a trio – Dutch drummer Han Bennink making one of his cross-Atlantic forays to play in trio with trumpeter Dave Douglas and bassist Eric Revis. The possibilities for such an intimate gathering were delicious but it was not to be. For upon entering Club Midway, there were far more than three people on stage and thoughts of a quiet introspective evening – yes, Bennink, though a raucous European dynamo, is more than capable of that – were dashed. Joining Bennink and Douglas were alto saxophonist John Zorn, tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, trombonist Luis Bonilla, and Matt Penman, subbing for Revis.

Club Midway is one of a host of new music venues opening on the Lower East Side in some bizarre defiance of that neighborhood's escalating real estate prices. Primarily a rock club, it has two former claims to fame – in 2003, while called Guernica, a bouncer was killed enforcing the smoking ban. Prior to that it was Save the Robots, an after-hours club that had membership cards, back in the pre-Giuliani era that tolerated such things.

Han Bennink returns with Friends, and shows who calls the rhythmic shots

Though not billed as such, the show became part of the unofficial Han Bennink & Friends annual series that happened for a couple of years at the now-defunct Tonic (why that club closed and others don't is a mystery). Even the vibe was the same – long room, no seats, bad sightlines, same guy who used to work Tonic's door. And the format was the same, with a jam session-type feel and smaller groups bookended by full ensemble blowouts.

The personnel radiated from the core of Douglas. Zorn and Douglas shared frontline duties in the former's Acoustic Masada; McCaslin is in Douglas' current band; Penman tours with the trumpeter in the SF Jazz Collective. But most importantly Douglas and Bennink have cultivated a relationship since the trumpeter toured as a guest with the drummer's Clusone Trio back in the '90s.

What is usually most appealing about these Bennink & Friends meetings is hearing the Dutch drummer's authoritative timekeeping, a quality of his often lost behind some of his on-stage antics. As the one constant of the evening, Bennink had the opportunity to shape much of how the music progressed, breaking off a squall with sudden but well-placed swing or conversely subverting even flow with choppy punctuations.

While the opening and closing improvisations were satisfactory entries, highlighted by a grisly exchange in the first piece between Zorn and McCaslin – who few knew could play in such incendiary fashion – the middle numbers were a little haphazard and more than a little inconsistent. McCaslin leading Penman and Bennink through a remarkable version of Ellington-Strayhorn's “Isfahan” was a highlight; Bonilla's extended trombone techniques on Cole Porter's “I Love You” were underwhelming; and what sounded like an Acoustic Masada melody by Zorn, Douglas, and rhythm made one nostalgic for that band, which ceased operations after more than a decade together.

These kinds of encounters are often a mixed bag. The chance to see Bennink though always trumps any concern. He has proven, since backing up Eric Dolphy in 1964, that he can play anything with anyone anytime. As with any good host, the people who come to the party don't really matter.