It's probably not that easy to stand out in the world of Dutch avant-garde jazz, with the likes of Misha Mengelberg, Han Bennink, and Willem Breuker rattling around in the scene for decades. Yet Michiel Braam has managed to do just that, leading his Bik Bent Braam large ensemble (which has proven to be just as worthy of international attention as the ICP Orchestra or Willem Breuker Kollektief) or taking off in smaller outfits, or even flying completely solo. When Braam takes his customary place at the acoustic piano, he can be just as inventive as Mengelberg, drawing upon influences from the traditional to the cutting edge, from Sousa to Monk and beyond, but in a sense he can be even more far-reaching, heading to places his Dutch compatriots would tend to avoid, or maybe even run screaming from. For all their justifiably lauded forays into instant composing, nu-swing, improvisation-composition blending, and pure abstraction, the Dutch lions usually shy away from such philistine areas of investigation as pop/rock and funk. Yes, Bennink may play with the Ex on occasion (throw in some anarchist punk and the street-cred quotient grows immeasurably) and expat Michael Moore has a bit of avant surf-rock in his background in the persons of the Persons, but one would be hard-pressed to recall an instance of Mengelberg jamming out on a Wurlitzer 200A electric piano over a groovin' funk vamp, as Braam does here. The second Wurli Trio CD, 2009's Non-Functionals!, finds electric and semi-acoustic bassist Pieter Douma and drummer Dirk-Peter Kolsch nailing the rhythm (as they did on premiere trio disc, Hosting Changes) while Braam has a great old time leading the charge, putting the fun and funk into music whose title suggests no other high-falutin' purpose.
Puzzle master Braam likes to fool around with titles -- forming anagrams that link a couple albums to one another, elsewhere ending his composition titles with the letter X -- and here the nine tracks have names ranging from the leadoff "Non-Functional 1" to the closing "Non-Functional 9" (the intervening seven titles might be rather easily guessed). No worries here that the program might begin to lack interest given what some might see as a limited format; there are plenty of stops and starts, and the tempos and moods vary considerably from one "Non-Functional" to the next. There are also some showcases for Kolsch ("Non-Functional 1") and Douma ("3" and a lovely laid-back "7") to show what they've got as the leader steps out or lays back. "Non-Functional 2" brings the down'n'dirty funk groove as Braam's fingers glide across and batter the keyboard through multiple vamps and turnarounds, cranking up the energy until his rhythm mates can't help but get caught up in his unleashed energy and flirt with jaggedly free territory before catching their breaths at the end. Elsewhere, "Non-Functional 4" slows down the pace to create a dreamy blues atmosphere; "5" heads out on the highway with perhaps the album's most infectious straight-up rockin' and the band in perfect sync (until Braam finds some low-down rubbery squelch to send everything dissipating into deep space); and "6" presents Kolsch at his best, driving the band with a relentless push and throwing all kinds of accents -- including some very nice hi-hat work -- into the mix. Ultimately, the Wurlitzer 200A is a great choice for Braam, in a characteristically sly way, with a sound that sometimes brings a slight touch of comedy: unlike the by now more clichéd Rhodes voicings, the Wurli mixes a bit of roller rink into its late-night club/lounge vibe. So Braam is ultra-cool but winking all the way -- a pure Dutch jazz master after all, even here.