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Fresh Sound, the adventurous concert series curated by Bonnie Wright, began its 2013 season with a superb show by the ageless Dutch percussion legend Han Bennink last night, with string virtuosi Mark Dresser and Mary Oliver before a standing-room-only crowd at Space 4 Art in the East Village.

Bennink is a master of all jazz styles, and an entertainer of the highest order. Even though he often struck his drumset with enough force to send shockwaves through the room, and even though the 90 minute set was full of blistering free improvisation, a feeling of levity prevailed as the drummer injected a constant stream of goofball energy into the proceedings--drawing laugh-out-loud moments by the dozen.

He began "Habanera," alone, covering the surfaces of his kit with towels to mitigate the assault as a blur of kinetic energy dropped into an abrupt silence. Oliver and Dresser carried on with intriguing string textures, her violin moaning over his multiple hammer-ons as the drummer dumped a bundle of sticks onto his snare.

Dresser's "Mento," followed, the bassist establishing a trance-like reverie with loaded double-stops and eerie overtones as Oliver wove a melodic counterpoint into a series of widening tensions when Bennink began using his brushes to swat at imaginary flies. Suddenly, the dynamic shifted into a furious groove powered by thumping bass and pyrotechnic drums as Oliver took it out, sounding like a strange combination of Stuff Smith and Billy Bang.

Switching to viola, Oliver directed the trio into a Misha Mingelberg piece that found Dresser pulling thick Wilbur Ware type-lines before Bennink broke things up with a violent fusillade that ended in silence and a comic apology.

The art of dynamics has rarely been more acute. The trio would often head towards waves of cacophony that subsided instantly into still pools of pianissimo hush. As Dresser and Oliver worked up rapturous orbits of intertwined harmony, Bennink left the room and began slamming doors only returning to make shadow animals against the white wall backdrop.

Placing his boot on a floor tom, the percussionist began a solo with double-stroke rolls on either side of his foot, which dragged along the drumhead to change the pitch before cueing the Herbie Nichols piece, "Dream Time," which started off in a very heavy swing mode--Oliver gliding along the meter and Dresser walking, then stumbling, skipping and dancing over the inexorable groove of Bennink. They didn't stay in the mainstream long, though, and as Dresser refracted the blues through an undulating prism with windmill strums and eking overtones to lead the trio into uncharted waters.

Ninety minutes never elapsed so quickly. Engaging and deep, Bennink, Oliver and Dresser proved that challenging music can also be lots of fun.

Photo by Bonnie Wright

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