Impressively inventive Dutch pianist Michiel Braam played Wednesday night with his trio as part of “European Jazz Meets Chicago,” which kicked off this year’s Umbrella Music Festival. On Friday his long-running large group, Bik Bent Braam (“Braam Big Band”), will play music from its gloriously rambunctious new album, Extremen, but with one big twist: of the usual 13-piece lineup, only that same trio has made the trip to Chicago. Braam will fill out the roster with ten local improvisers—the first time he’s ever performed the band’s repertoire with anyone but the musicians for whom he wrote it. (See page TK for a complete Umbrella schedule.)

Bik Bent Braam has existed for more than 20 years, evolving over that time into one of the most polished bands trafficking in what’s now a familiar Dutch style: a pastiche of jazz, pop, music hall, and avant-garde, laced with humor both broad and subtle. Extremen, released on Braam’s own label, documents a concert from this past February, but in so doing provides only the roughest of guidelines for the music his audience will hear in Chicago—and therein lies the tale.

“We have some basic material and 13 musicians,” Braam says. But beyond that, the music is pretty much up for grabs. As he explains, this is a 13-piece band in two senses: not only does it comprise that many players, but a Bik Bent Braam set also consists of that many tunes (though only 12 fit on Extremen). Each musician is in charge of one of them, at least to start, and the band members determine the order at each performance. But the BBB aims to alter the parameters of each piece every time: stately one night, urgent the next, and either muted or raucous or something in between. What’s more, all the members have a numbered list of cues that includes not just riffs and phrases in musical notation but entries like “2 Notes in 2 Minutes,” “Medium Swing,” “Laugh,” and my favorite, “Birds! It’s Spring!” By way of hand signals and shouted cues, anyone can use them to shape any of the pieces at any time.

Similar projects have come together in the past 35 years, most famously John Zorn’s Cobra—a set of cues, rules, and tactics that turns performances into “game pieces.” In Chicago we have Fred Lonberg-Holm’s Lightbox Orchestra, where the leader uses (among other things) a box of signal lights, each color corresponding to one player, to guide the improvisations in one direction or another. But I can’t think of a process better constructed to resist hierarchy than the one that produced Extremen. Playing this music in this way, Bik Bent Braam becomes something that even Braam himself didn’t exactly see coming: an anti-orchestra.

“The whole point of jazz and improvised music is about sharing these responsibilities,” he says. “It is not one person deciding how it has to be, the way it is in classical music. I think a lot of groups with a ‘director’ make the musicians very lazy; they tend to sit back and wait for the conductor to do something. Even Zorn is very conductive.” (In Cobra, a “prompter” decides whose cues to convey to the group.)

“For myself,” Braam continues, “it is more interesting to share the responsibilities. From the beginning I was of course the conductor. But over these 20 years, I gave more and more responsibility, and it changed me; so each time I went one step further.... It all comes from my own frustrations with how you work with a big band and still improvise. So after all that time, I think we found a form that works—just as I’m sure it will change in years to come, with different insights. It’s all evolution.”

Extremen brims with small marvels and general delight. The band glides from free improvisation to Braam’s lovely, lively ensemble passages so easily it’s hard to believe that the album represents only one of the myriad ways this music can be assembled: the transitions have a polish you’d expect in a rigorously rehearsed set.

Of course when everyone in your band doubles as a conductor, there’s no overestimating the virtue of having worked with those musicians for two decades, refining the compositions over a period of years—and that’s what makes Friday’s performance such a tantalizing gamble. It helps that two of Braam’s most reliable collaborators will be on hand; bassist Wilbert de Joode and drummer Michael Vatcher are the rhythm section not only in his trio but in the BBB. And many of the Chicagoans taking part—clarinetist James Falzone, bass clarinetist Jason Stein, trumpeters Jaimie Branch and James Davis, trombonists Jeb Bishop and Nick Broste, and saxists Keefe Jackson, Dave McDonnell, Tim Haldeman, and Dave Rempis—know one another from having worked together in a variety of contexts over the years.

“The Chicago players have the recording,” says Braam. “We have only two days to rehearse, so we’ve narrowed the program down to 8 or 9 of the 13 compositions. It’s an interesting experiment for us. Of course, experimenting is the heart of the music, so I don’t see any problem with this. Still, it is the first time we’ve ever done the music with other players. All the Dutch musicians are a little worried now. They say, ‘Well, what if they play it better in Chicago? You won’t want to keep us.'”v

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