Han Bennink – Nerve Beats: A man becomes his drum. (music review)

One of my most treasured discs is Dutch percussionist Han Bennink’s album Nerve Beats. Re-released in 2000, it is the extraordinary capturing of an amazing improvised solo concert in 1973 that I wish to holy Christ I was at. (I was too young, and if I was old enough to attend concerts back then I probably would have been at a Queen concert!) I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have been like to see this live. One of those moments that you never recover from.

Han Bennink is one of the pivotal figures in Jazz improve, though it should be noted he moves easily and freely between all jazz styles which few jazz musicians can do. This particular album consists of three tracks: Bumble Rumble (above), Spooky Drums (below) and Nerve Beats (below below).  As he progressed through the performance Bennink must have gotten more and more manic – at least that is how the performance comes across in the way its been ordered. He also sings, yells like a mock karate artist, and rummages through a whole assortment of instruments: didjeridoo, saw, whistle, piano, trombone, etc. He even employs an early drum machine on the title track, laying down a simple beat, over which he unleashes a noisy, over-blown clarinet solo; oddly, he continues this section for a good four minutes, whereas few of the other instruments can hold his attention for much more than a minute or two. (see the all music post for this referencing.)

What I love about this disc – and what makes me play it (usually while doing accounting) so often, is the feeling that anything is going to happen.  For some reason I never fall into that oh so familiar rut where music becomes a part of my neural pathways to such an extent I lose all connection with the work as stand alone and separate from me. I love that I never seem to appropriate this album. I like to think it can’t be owned.  There is something about Bennink’s playing that makes me believe even he can’t lay claim to it – so there is no way I can. And for all this inability to colonise, I also never feel that I am outside of it. I am as much a collaborative listener – in the safety of my own home I will hasten to add – involved in the pure thrill of engagement, as I am with any of the beautiful albums I return to. Maybe its just his enthusiasm.  I get similar feelings listening to Han Bennink that I do listening to Lol Coxhil whom I also return to over and over again. There is a timelessness to the improv and I don’t know how these men can do that with recorded music.

There is a stunning appreciation of this great great album on the wonderful blog Meshes of the Afternoon, that I am going to copy down here, for those of you who want to keep listening and read as you go. I’ve had this album playing a lot over the last week, as I had to catch up on my half yearly bookkeeping and only music like this seems to be able to keep the wings on my soul well oiled while I burden myself with tasks like data entry. Oh!  I really love the cover art too – its so lush and beautiful. I will add the excerpt from Meshes of the Afternoon. I hope you really enjoy the music.

I love love love this album!

Notes taken from Meshes of the Afternoon blog:

Nerve Beats was unearthed by Atavistic in 2000 as part of their Unheard Music series and is Han Bennink’s first extant solo recording. Recorded in 1973 for Germany’s Radio Bremen, it comes from the same era as Peter Brötzmann’s Live in Berlin ’71: a quartet date on which Bennink, at certain points during that historic concert, revealed himself to be a chameleon with a massive setup composed not only of drums but of exotic percussive and wind instruments, along with what the liner notes could only describe as tins and home-made junk. Two years later, Bennink was still exploring these eclectic rhythmic forms that had their roots in the musics of India and Africa, adapting them to the spirit of free music as it was being created by a group of audacious pan-European youngsters. Many have commented on Bennink’s ability to play quite freely as well as within the confines of tradition, straddling jazz’s old school and its vanguard with equal conviction. “Bumble Rumble” attests to this, with its fluid, militaristic drum rolls interlocking with Bennink’s whistling to create an anthemic overture, telling the audience to make way for the emperor’s arrival. At three minutes, it’s concise, engaging, and entirely unlike what is to follow on the two lengthy tracks that make up the bulk of the concert.

That said, “Spooky Drums” is pure cacophony. Amid a wave of cymbal crashes and furious tom rolls, Bennink spits out volcanic gibberish to his audience’s delight. The growls, howls and spluttering outbursts weave in and out of his rhythms, beginning at the point where the other ends and vice versa. When Bennink picks up a trombone or a clarinet, or one of the other odd items he inevitably has lying around onstage, he plays them with outrageous multiphonic effects, sounding like a Tuvan throat singer crying from the belly of a brass prison. And when he mixes the delicate sound of musical pipes with the thundering punctuations of his drumkit, it sounds like the most natural thing in the world. It is no exaggeration to say that “Spooky Drums” pushes jazz’s rhythmic possibilities to their absolute limit. This is the sound of a man becoming his drum. We’re exhausted from the sheer physicality of it all, but by the time we reach the climactic series of wonderfully muffled snare hits and tittering cymbals, we’re only ten minutes inside the beast! There is yet to follow Bennink’s experiments with pre-recorded orchestral music, drum machines, marimbas, tablas, music boxes, and whatever else is in reach.

The pre-programmed loops that introduce “Nerve Beats” may lead unsuspecting listeners to assume that this is a leftover from the concurrent German electronic/new wave scene. But the dissonant clarinet that hovers throughout the mix makes it obvious that we’re in a very different realm, somewhere between Stockhausen, free jazz, and multi-idiomatic world music. His cymbals ring like alarm clocks, his trombone like Martian war calls. If “Spooky Drums” is an epic journey, “Nerve Beats” is a cartoon soundtrack. Who is this man who plays 5,000 instruments and then deems it appropriate to scream at the top of his lungs? Is he angry or joyful? The audience’s nervous laughter at each of Bennink’s outbursts suggests that they may have asked themselves similar questions. Indeed, this isn’t the pure rage of Brotzmann’s Machine Gun; anyone who listens to that album knows what kind of emotions lie behind it. Machine Gun was a collective call to revolt. Nerve Beats, on the other hand, is a defiantly individualistic approach to improvised music that is all the richer for its humor. The only thing of stability is Bennink’s distinctive roar: a scream which, every time it appears, draws the entirety of its universe into a black hole from which it emerges purified once more.

The man himself in performance: