The Dutch jazz scene is renowned for its avant edge, with, for example, the ICP Orchestra and its alumni gaining international recognition for blending collective improvisation, modern composition, and swinging standards into a unique amalgam that pushes boundaries while maintaining a reverence for tradition. There are, of course, exceptions, but the avant Dutch scene also tends to focus on the historical continuum of acoustic jazz -- from traditional to free -- while avoiding the electric fusion side of the equation. Well, count drummer, composer, and bandleader Arend Niks and his New Niks quartet among the Dutch jazz artists who are perfectly comfortable straying into the electric jazz world -- and with stunning results on their 2012 album, simply titled On. The group's previous outing, 2009's Busy Busy Busy, was a collaboration with the Artvark Saxophone Quartet, and while that album featured some wonderful sax charts over New Niks' electric jazz foundation, it's a distinct pleasure to hear this quartet on its own here. Recorded live at Theater Walhalla in Rotterdam but with a high-quality production suggesting an in-studio performance, New Niks -- Niks on drums, Zapp String Quartet member Jasper le Clercq on violin, Erwin Hoorweg on electric piano, and Andreas Suntrop on electric guitar -- perform 14 tracks of appealing Euro fusion that draws you in with subtlety and melodicism rather than running you over with pyrotechnics and empty flash.
There is no bassist in New Niks and a bassist is not missed, as the group employs compositional strategies and skillful arrangements that fully cover the low frequencies -- with Hoorweg and Suntrop switching off on the heavy lifting. Niks is a precise timekeeper, never obtrusive as he cleanly pushes the groove along beneath lovely melodies and hot solos, driving vamps and inventive yet smooth change-ups -- although even in this fusiony world there are moments of "eloustic acouctric comprovised" music (as the band describes it) suggesting a certain Dutch sensibility. Themes are often played in unison by le Clercq and Suntrop, with Hoorweg laying down a bass pulse and chordal accents that push the harmonic envelope -- he's as adept as any electric Miles keyboardist you would care to name. No fan of Mahavishnu-esque violin soloing should miss le Clercq's soaring, double-stop-filled foray on "Inland Beach Party," while, in a beautiful shift, the immediately following track, "Piep," sets the listener down on a cloud of ambience courtesy of Suntrop's clear, vibrato- and reverb-laden guitar and Hoorweg's gentle embellishments. "Don't Touch That Button" flirts with Western swing; "Way" brackets Hoorweg's modal showcase with wide-interval thematic leaps from le Clercq and Suntrop; "Elegant Hooligan" pounds, swaggers, skitters, and floats in startlingly abrupt transitions. With tracks ranging from two to six minutes, On has no aimless jams, no noodling, not a single wasted note. New Niks may have staked out a rather unique territory among avant Dutch jazzers, but their music is every bit as impressive as their compatriots' inimitable contributions to the acoustic jazz world.