A valued member of various Dutch jazz ensembles, trombonist Joost Buis stepped out as a leader of his own group, Astronotes, with a highly regarded eponymous debut CD in 2004. Joost Buis & Astronotes' sophomore outing, Zoomin, didn't arrive until 2010, but it was worth the wait. As on the debut, Zoomin features a number of Netherlands-based jazz luminaries -- reedman Tobias Delius, bassist Wilbert de Joode, and drummer Michael Vatcher, for example -- but like other uniquely Dutch "little big bands" that laid the foundation for the Astronotes tentet, the collective matters most. Bandleader/composer Buis provides myriad opportunities for each individual to shine, but even more impressive is what these ten musicians accomplish working together, mixing up the traditional and the avant in a way that shouldn't make sense -- but does. A Monk-ish bopper slides into squawky free jazz and back again, the brass verge off into a modern classical-style arrangement, and any combination of instruments will take center stage at a given moment. Buis' writing is often quite dense, but there are exceptions: "Biefstuk" (Steak) is comparatively spacious, a downtempo bluesy vehicle for his trombone; vegetarians and carnivores can decide whether the piece is intended as a lament or something more tasty. In a startling contrast, the following "Do Zjin" takes group staccato phrasing to such an intense level that a centerpiece free jazz explosion with pianist Achim Kaufmann running wild serves as a welcome release. "Albast" is pitched perfectly between improvisational and scored chamber music, with de Joode's arco bass explorations and Jan Willem van der Ham's conversational and then jaunty bassoon contributing to the piece's classical flavor. Meanwhile, percussionists Vatcher and Alan Purves shake, rattle, and clip-clop with ramshackle precision on track after track, finding nooks and crannies in the arrangements to insert the perfect slap, crack, or ping.
Conceptually ambitious, "Icy" begins with interrupted train-like ensemble chugging, hinting at a Louis Andriessen influence, before the impressive Felicity Provan enters on cornet in a free passage and the rhythm kicks in with the full band supporting a pyrotechnic sax solo; the music builds into a lovely, somewhat understated scored section before disassembling beneath the assaultive theme. Like "Icy," the title track stretches past the eight-minute mark, but it's a rather different beast, with elongated close saxophone harmonies reminiscent of Tim Berne's Bloodcount, dirty guitar soloing from Paul Pallesen bringing some twang but getting nowhere near Bill Frisell, and Frans Vermeerssen's bari imparting a Mingus flavor, all ultimately seeming rather like Gerry Hemingway's first Dutch-American quintet writ large. But the New Orleans-flavored polyphony, the swing of Armstrong, and the shades of Ellington on pieces like "Hummelo" and "Zest for a Zizz" (with its beautiful trilling reeds) are likely to grab the ears of jazz fans the most. Zoomin is one more example of the history of jazz viewed through the inimitable Dutch prism, and Joost Buis & Astronotes cover this wide territory as well as anybody.