Bram Stadhouders & Baroque Orchestration X (B.O.X.) – Suite X
(Buzz / Challenge Records ZZ 76138, Review by Frank Graham)
Having studied classical guitar and baroque music from age 6, Dutch maverick Bram Stadhouders (b.1987, Tilburg) knows his sackbut from his theorbo. Improvisation, homophonic textures and counterpoint are of course all part of the common lingua franca of jazz and baroque music, and with Suite X he sets out to find fresh perspective on these enduring and fundamental relationships.
Joining Stadhouders are Flemish lute player Pieter Theuns and his Baroque Orchestration X ensemble, and Dutch free music drummer Onno Govaert (Cactus Truck, John Dikeman). If B.O.X.’s embrace of traditional instruments ensures a certain air of authenticity, their famously broadminded outlook allows Stadhouders to weave strands of free improvisation, electronica and neo-classical composition into his colourful musical fabric – Suite X is an album that thrives on unexpected contrasts and juxtapositions.
The light, airy melodic lines of opener Dyx are led by Jon Birdsong’s medieval cornetto (aka cornett). The instrument is a strange brass/woodwind hybrid, and as Birdsong explained in a recent email exchange with LJN “I usually refer to the cornett as cornetto – as is the Italian term – and I mostly call my modern valve cornet a trumpet so it might be less confusing..”. As the elegant theme floats above a dense harpsichord under-scrub, the sound world is not unlike that of fellow renaissance music scholars Towner and McCandless.
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The guitar and lute prelude to Ax is as stunning as the ensemble voicings which follow. It is one of only two tracks where Birdsong plays the modern valve cornet, and as his bright-toned Markus Stockhausen-esque horn solos in free time, old and new sit in perfect equilibrium.
Dux pits Stadhouders’ mildly psychedelic distortion-drenched guitar against a heavy but elastic groove, while the curiously unresolved harmonic tensions of Trix suggest a certain kinship with Kenny Wheeler. Lax develops slowly out of a series of repeating minimalist patterns, Birdsong’s plaintive cornetto once again catching the ear before Stadhouders’ impressive closing statement, which carries fleeting echoes of Metheny and Frisell.
Pick of the ballads is Prix, a somewhat pensive but beautifully poised piece played on nylon stringed guitar. The temporal and tonal ambiguities of Ix produce the most disorienting moments of the set, but it’s probably Mox where the most spectacular musical collisions occur. The opening synth patterns and chorale-like theme recall a John Surman solo recital, and as a thumping techno beat kicks in Stadhouders cleverly breaks up the flow with a string of unpredictable cross-currents.
Closing track Rox is the longest and perhaps most ambitions piece of the set, and once again Stadhouders’ orchestrations are every bit as crisp as his writing. In lesser hands such a fusion of old and new could have been a musical car crash, but Stadhouders handles his materials intelligently and with purpose. A record that can sit proudly within the genre-fluid contemporary European mainstream, Suite X is a remarkable achievement.
LINK: Suite X from Proper Music (Release Date 26 May)