Anagrams and Dutch jazz are a perfect fit. The Dutch have figured out unique methods for taking elements of jazz history from stride through the avant-garde and reconfiguring them into forms that are new and exciting yet leave nothing out. Pianist, composer, and bandleader Michiel Braam is an exemplar of this approach, and the 2005 CD Change This Song by Trio BraamDeJoodeVatcher uses its music and even its song titles to suggest how the best Dutch jazz can endlessly reveal new meanings amidst the familiar. Change This Song includes ten pieces, and each song title -- e.g., "Songs Each Night," "Can Ghosts Neigh?," "Nightsong Aches" -- is an anagram of the album title. Moreover, according to Braam's website, the live Change This Song set list includes a total of 18 pieces that are reordered spontaneously at any given concert depending upon the circumstances of the moment. (And of course, a CD in shuffle-play mode can introduce a similar element into your home listening environment.) Of course, this type of spontaneity is central to jazz and certainly wasn't invented by the Dutch, but the jumbled titles do suggest aspects that are unique to Dutch jazz before you even pop the disc into your CD player. And true to form, once the disc is spinning you can hear Braam's individual influences mixing together while something new and of a singular piece emerges, charting a path that is both "avant-garde" and instantly engaging and accessible.
One is immediately struck by the tunefulness of Braam's music, and the predominance of melody as the springboard for improvisation. The sprightly opener, "Angsts, Once High," sounds like it could be a classic Monk tune, with its wide interval leap in the melody and off-kilter phrasing as the leader's piano, Wilbert de Joode's gut-stringed chamber bass, and Michael Vatcher's drums almost immediately begin a stop-and-start dialogue that circles around the empty space where the composer's strong melody has left a mental imprint. To bring Monk-like phrasing fully into the 21st century and perhaps introduce another angle to the music-shuffling theme, the trio briefly locks into a rhythm suggesting a skipping CD player. "Hotch as Ginseng" flirts with boogie-woogie and introduces a short melodic phrase that unexpectedly becomes an ostinato bridge into a slow-motion fragmented recapitulation of the theme. The snappy "Songs Each Night," less than four minutes long, reveals Braam's ability to squeeze improvisations betwixt and between his catchy melodies in a compact package utterly free of extended-form indulgence, while the longer ballad-tempo "Can Ghosts Neigh?" provides an opportunity for de Joode to state the composer's classic-sounding melody with lovely arco technique.
The extraordinary Vatcher is ramshackle and his playing filled with subtle subversions throughout the disc; listen as Braam anchors one of the album's few rhythmic vamps in "Congesting Hash" and Vatcher skitters about. From start to finish, Vatcher is able to find a space for a snare hit that attacks just where it should but rarely exactly where you would anticipate. In a sense, Michiel Braam's phrasing is not as willfully eccentric as that of Misha Mengelberg (who obviously has had his own share of subversions going on with drummer Han Bennink for decades), but when Braam decides to nail the groove, Vatcher is often there to pull it in another direction altogether (or sometimes, as in a moment of walking bassline while Braam and Vatcher explode with angular fragmentation on the closing "High Agons Scent," it is de Joode who holds the rhythmic foundation). And just when you think you've got the trio's modus operandi figured out, along comes the perfectly titled "Nightsong Aches," a somber, minor-keyed circular chord progression in search of harmonic resolution -- it is elegant, darkly beautiful, and quietly moving, standing in its own solitary and moody universe. On Change This Song, Michiel Braam and his trio members don't view the jazz continuum as a linear progression from point A to point Z. Everything can be used, and everything counts, in their anagrammatic take on Dutch jazz (or would that be "Chad Zutz"?), a scrambled history lesson knitted together by strong melodicism and a singular sense of purpose. [Perhaps to prove that his themes and melodies are strong enough to fit in nearly every context, Michiel Braam also released a companion volume to Change This Song entitled Hosting Changes -- yet another anagram! -- featuring most of the same compositions in jazz-rock versions and the leader on an electric Wurlitzer 200A instead of grand piano, supported by Pieter Douma on "semi-acoustic" bass and Dirk-Peter Kölsch on drums. Braam makes his case beautifully.]