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Last night's Friday 13th Improvisers Summit (featuring Han Bennink) at the Neurosciences Institute was a wildly successful affair, by any criteria. Bennink is a that rare performer who can set off waves of laughter, while playing explosive and uncompromising music.

Because behind all of the showmanship was a true master of jazz drum aesthetics. There seems to be nothing this cat can't do with a pair of drumsticks. Whether he was putting one in his mouth, or sitting on the floor playing the hardwood slats, Bennink created propulsive and irresistible grooves for the audience, and the members of this all-star quartet to assimilate.

Mark Dresser delivered a bravura performance that once again cemented his position as one of the finest contrabassists the world has ever known. Mary Oliver, on violin and viola, more than held her own--she straddled the divide between Ornette Coleman's organic polyphony and the more urbane capabilities of people like Leroy Jenkins and Mark Feldman. Finally, trombonist Michael Dessen is that rare master who always leaves you wanting more.

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Bennink kicked the concert off with a violent series of drumstrokes that set Dresser off into some manic sawing on his bass while Oliver and Dessen each slid under and over a target tone. Dessen began braying huge notes with wide vibrato-- then Bennink unscrewed a crash cymbal and sent it spinning across the stage on edge--timing perfectly when it would drop with a snare drum hit. At times, Bennink would strike his drums so forcefully, you wondered how they held up--just as soon though, he would draw his battery down to a pianissimo hush. Suddenly, an actual melody emerged from the free chaos-- and everyone was swinging like a fat man on a rope.

Dessen and Bennink dropped out, and for the next ten minutes or so, Dresser and Oliver engaged in a duet of furious bowing with Dresser tossing in his astonishing extended-techniques like double-glissandi and amplified overtones. Oliver's viola took on a very spooky theme, which she heightened with tension-raising intervals and long chromatic slides up the fingerboard. Drums and trombone reentered and it was back to the freebop melody, (Hypoxmastreefuzz), by Misha Mengelberg.

Another Mengelberg tune followed, "I'll Remember Herbie," which began with Oliver sketching out the mournful theme and Dessen adding colorful touches. Dessen's solo carried a muted, for-lovers-only kind of timbre before widening into pointed discourse and dark blatting. On this tune, Bennink played it straight, driving the quiet groove forward with tasteful brushes and restrained swing.

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While Oliver switched over to the violin, she invited the drummer to take over-- which he did with a remarkable display of stick magic. He began by inserting one stick in his mouth and striking, then rubbing it with the other--opening and closing his jaw to achieve multiple tones. He then left the kit altogether, and sitting on the edge of the stage, ripped out a series of high octane martial drumming on the hardwood floor and the sides of his shoes. He was able to find the spots in the floor that achieved a tuned-percussion effect--and he closed his solo by yelling "Salt peanuts" to the already laughing audience.

Keeping with the "spooky-theme", the band launched into "Friday 13th," by Thelonious Monk. Dresser laid down a seriously swinging bass vamp while Oliver and Dessen took the tune out. Dessen surfaced with his most mind-boggling solo of the evening-- referencing the exuberance factor of guys like Roswell Rudd and Ray Anderson with ecstatic chortling and infinite manipulations of timbre. Dresser's solo began with quicksilver runs along the fingerboard interspersed with dramatic slapping of the strings, and pauses to activate the strange overtones and unusual harmonics on his bass.

"For Bradford," by the bassist was next, and the band hit it hard--Dresser's loping, lurching theme exploding of the fingertips of all involved. Dessen built a delicious solo on intermittent single notes that reeked of the blues, courtesy his masterful use of the plunger mute. Oliver followed, stretching the boundaries of conventional intonation, but doing so in an organic, inevitable fashion.

Bennink began the final piece, another Mengelberg original, "Zombie-Zooa," by sitting on the stage playing two large pieces of aluminum foil with brushes. Somehow, he drove the ensemble's nimble interpretation of the freebop head as if it were written that way.

This concert, as advertised, was one of those "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunities. Joyous and creative, music doesn't get any better than this. The Neurosciences Institute was abuzz with positive energy all the way into the parking lot.

Photos by Jeff Kaiser

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