“A stepladder with a missing foot”
by Remco Takken
Everybody knows what it feels like to walk down the stairs, and suddenly there’s one more step than expected. Your foot touches into a vacuum for a split second, but finally you hit the ground safely enough. You only had this slight delay, but there’s this fine sensation of confusion and excitement going through your whole body. It’s like a jazz saxophone solo played in 5/4: after some perfectly logic steps, the music suddenly seems to stand still for a little while, only to continue like nothing happened. Leaving the listener confused, and keen on not missing the same step again. Uh-uh, here it is again ……….
It’s because we just don’t feel it, this fifth count. Of course there we all know and love Take Five by Paul Desmond with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, or, for classic rock-fans among us, there’s Living In The Past by Jethro Tull. For the advanced: Five-Five-Five on Frank Zappa’s Shut up ‘n’Play Yer Guitar-album. But none of us really has a good scope of this funny five-four rhythm. It’s just not the same like we understand the four-four. That one we live and breathe. We even seem to recognize some kind of downbeat swing in a ticking travel alarm. With counting in five, it’s all different.
Interestingly enough, in Holland there’s this guy who has made it his life goal to fully map this specific region of odd-metered music. And all his 5/4 compositions are in the jazz vocabulary. Pierre Courbois is a renowned European jazz drummer, deeply rooted in the jazz tradition of Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, and equally interested in European, Indonesian and Indian classical music at the same time.
Courbois’ songbook-in-five consists of a ballad, a blues, swinging up tempo themes-with-improvisation, riffs with a jazz-rock feel, a re-working of Coltrane’s Giant Steps. There’s nothing odd with this repertoire. So it seems, listening casually standing at the bar with a beer. But be prepared: the emotional stepladder that makes up this ballad, has a built-in missing foot.
Monk Award winning trombonist Ilja Reijngoud knows about the nasty turn-over in this music. Reijngoud lets the listener unaware, in order to give him or her a deadly crash on the dance-floor. And it’s not only the slide trombone-player who’s keen to get you off your feet.
Saxophonist Jasper Blom grooves this music to life, and he’s only one in a long row of talented young soloists in Courbois’ groups. Since Eric Vloeimans’ departure, trumpet-player Toon de Gouw is the one to rely on: modest and solid, a true anchor in the horn-section.
Meanwhile, the rhythm section is dealing in poker faces. Niko Langenhuijsen (double-bass) and Willem Kühne (piano) know exactly how bandleader Courbois wants likes his music the best. In five, with all six of ’em. Mind you, this ballad is only the beginning. Just wait until they get to the blues.
In the reading of Pierre Courbois’ Five-Fourth Sextet, as he likes to call it, the group gets a firm grip on music history before it is thrown off the stairs. It’s common knowledge that the blues form consists of – more or less – twelve bars. Some musicians might have played an extra bar for good measure, or they cut one out to make it eleven. Sometimes, a blues song wandered around for minutes, just on one chord.All is well, but this is only a mere facet of blues history. Sometimes a slow blues was even played ‘approximately’ four-in-a-bar. If a blues singer needed more space, he slipped in an extra piece of time. It’s efficient, unpretending, and easy to do when you’re accompanying yourself on guitar or piano.
And in this light, it’s just as if bassist Langenhuijsen stretches his blues-riffs a little bit to give it this super whining effect. There’s this little bit of extra dullness, so characteristic of authentic southern blues. But in reality it’s a specially cooked up Pierre Courbois brand fifth count that makes this blues progression work like a classic slow blues.
But there’s more to playing in five than slowing things down. In Courbois’ up-tempo pieces, he makes things work exactly the opposite way. Keen accents of piano and drums would give you the impression of a light 5/4 bossa-nova, (jequibau) or a piece of quasi-old time swing.
But then: bonk! The record skips a groove, and you’re hearing the downbeat of the second bar already. Hey, we’re not in 6/8 here, no! The group is playing one little note less, it’s the five-fourth sextet, remember? Get a doctor to put your hips back in place, and an accountant to help you out with your balance. In the mean time, be sure to keep up your straightest jazz face!
Remco Takken is a free lance jazz writer. He has published in De Volkskrant, Javaanse Jongens Jazz Agenda and Jazz Nú Magazine among many others. This concert review has previously been Published in Dutch e-zine Alternate Take. Used with permission.