Dutch alto saxophonist Benjamin Herman’s latest album, Café Solo, couldn’t be simpler in concept: get a swinging trio together, record a collection of standards live, and make the sound of the horn the focal point of the
album. Sitting in a comfortable chair, with Ernst Glerum (bass) and Joost Patocka (drums) behind him, Herman delivers a series of relaxed performances that take the
listener all over the saxophone.
There’s a compelling intimacy in the performances that makes it easy to imagine the three are playing a final set in a near-empty club in the middle of the week. They’re playing for
themselves, and kissed by midnight, the performances have a moving honesty shorn of
Herman provides a guided tour of his horn’s versatility and nuance, as well as his complete command of the instrument. On the opening track, “Namely You,” he demonstrates its warm woodiness in the lower registers and achieves an almost brassy quality up high. The track opens with bass and drums setting up an easygoing swing, and Herman makes a
straightforward statement of the light-hearted head before proceeding to dance all around its edges in his solo. There’s nothing flashy about it, just an old-school, straight-ahead
commitment to emotional integrity and swing.
The second track, Thelonious Monk’s “Reflections,” deepens the late-night quality, and
Herman’s breathy approach and occasionally flutelike sonority whispers secrets.
“Summertime” communicates heat and humidity, and Herman’s feel for the blues is expressed in a deep, wide sound. On “Cabin in the Sky,” he narrows and tightens the horn’s sound, and his native impishness peeks through. It’s an energizing quality that’s almost always present,
especially in up-tempo numbers.
Herman bends and stretches breathy notes to the breaking point in the smoky ballad
“Isfahan.” The trio delivers the sonic equivalent of a Herman Leonard photo: sarabandes of smoke etched in cool against the shadows. Herman finds a bit of clarinet on his horn in the
upper registers on this one.
The album continues with a relaxed and bluesy “Begin the Beguine,” with its swinging fifties bass line (and-three-and-four-and-One). The trio gets out of town with a smoking bass and brush drums under Herman’s twisting and turning lines on “The End of a Love Affair.” The
disbelief and lament in Herman’s tone on “You’ve Changed” says it all.
The album closes with two live tracks recorded at De Kring, an Amsterdam club, in July 2012, with Miguel Rodríguez on piano: “Vakhal Inkoma” has a sixties pop feel, and Herman manages to get a rub-board sound out of his horn on this one. “Soy Califa” opens the doors to a little
island breeze, and Herman stretches out under the sun.
The studio sound is as live, immediate, and rich as can be, even though my review copy was burned from mp3 files. The CD and vinyl versions must be truly sumptuous. In the press
release, Herman praises engineer Joeri Saal at Studio 150 for his magic with an “old Studer reel-to-reel tape recorder and the studio’s jumbo collection of vintage equipment.”
Café Solo’s relaxed, unhurried, uncluttered surface makes for great background music, pleasing without requiring much attention. However, if given the attention it deserves, the album will
repay the listener with a satisfying reminder that an accomplished player can reveal
unsuspected delights in even the most familiar tunes.
Note: U.S. buyers can purchase the album through the Dutch iTunes store or at the Dox Records website. (Dox, located in Amsterdam, will happily ship to the U.S.) On May 14, the
album will be available as a CD or digital download in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico through Distribution 13. No date has yet been set for the vinyl release.
© 2013 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.