about ‘Frim, fragile, fun’ (2015) – Jeff Tamarkin

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“Throughout, the musicianship is never less than top-notch. Busstra prefers single-note runs on the guitar, relegating the harmonies to Frerichs’ piano…”

Guitarist/Composer Marnix Busstra to release new recording  “Firm Fragile Fun” on November 3rd, 2015 (BuzzMusic Records)

 When Dutch jazz guitarist and composer Marnix Busstra titled his new 11-song album Firm Fragile Fun (Buzz Music, November 3rd, 2015), he wasn’t plucking random words out of the air. Each of the 11 tracks on the album bears a vivid single-word title, assigned to it by non-musician friends based on their visceral response to the music. Three of those titles—“Firm,” “Fragile” and “Fun”—Busstra says, best “sum up the spectrum of feelings within the album,” but he could just as easily have chosen any of the others, say “Crazy,” “Joy” and “Deep.” Firm Fragile Fun—which features Busstra (who plays guitars, electric sitar and bouzouki) accompanied by pianist Rembrandt Frerichs, double-bassist Arnold Dooyeweerd and drummer Pieter Bast—is that kind of recording: multi-dimensional and multi-layered, its grooves packed with a vast range of emotions and textures.

“What I am trying to communicate with this music is that anything goes and everything is allowed,” says Busstra, “and for me that has a few different aspects. All of the moods in this album are aspects of real life. And in my opinion, there are no forbidden areas; one mood is not better then another.” As an example, he cites the lead track, “Stress,” whose tempo changes course often, skittering from manic and fractured to swinging and driving. “You won’t find a piece called ‘Stress’ on a New Age album, because that doesn’t fit in the profile of New Age,” Busstra says. “But to me stress is a part of life that you also have to learn to deal with. You shouldn’t label it as a good or bad emotion or state of mind. Or take ‘Firm’ and ‘Fragile’; they are meant to be opposites, but each has its own value.”

With Frerichs, Dooyeweerd and Bast, Busstra has found the ideal collaborators for such tricky, complex navigations of this plethora of musical temperaments. Like Busstra, each is a highly respected and experienced veteran of the jazz scene in the Netherlands. While making the recording Busstra placed his absolute trust in their abilities to find the vocabulary that the music called for. “I don’t tell the musicians what to do before we start,” he says. “In the many years that I have worked now I have learned to let go. The only thing that matters is that we take the compositions as a starting point (which takes it away from calling it ‘free jazz’). Therefore, every performance is unique in itself and a surprise, not only to the audience but also to us. Its unpredictability keeps it fresh, exciting and new. You can’t be too preoccupied with what you think the composition should be or should sound like. That will only frustrate you in the process.”

As he set about creating the music for Firm Fragile Fun, Busstra kept his mind open to all possibilities. “When I compose, there are always two phases,” he says. “First there is the idea for a new piece and then, secondly, I have to work it out. I always work in ‘periods’; in one specific period I just collect ideas and don’t do anything with it. I have notes and scribbling everywhere, thoughts and ideas on little pieces of paper. Then I decide I have enough material to work on and to dig into. I start choosing the best ideas and then the hard work begins: to transform every idea into a good and solid piece.”

Once the rough sketches for the compositions were in place, Busstra and the other members of the quartet assembled in the studio, where they recorded everything live. “We did several takes of each piece and then chose the best one,” he says. “There were almost no overdubs.” Busstra also prefers to record using classic analog equipment. “Working with the computer comes in very handy at times, of course, but it doesn’t always have the best effect on the sounds, especially not when you work with ‘real’ instruments. So I absolutely prefer an analog sound as much as possible. I like it to be as ‘Blue Note‘ as possible.”

Firm Fragile Fun is the second release by the quartet simply dubbed the Marnix Busstra Band (one of several outfits in which Busstra is leader or participant), following 2013’s Sync Dreams. In the CD booklet, each of the four musicians offers his own take on what they’ve created. Ferichs, curiously, calls the band “a weird combination from the outer limits of the Dutch jazz scene.” Expanding on his bandmate’s statement, Busstra explains, “Holland is a small country, and each jazz band has its own identity. These four musicians that I work with now each come from a different scene. We are fresh and curious about each other. I think it works very well for the four of us, and that’s all I was hoping for.”

Indeed, that curiosity and freshness is embedded deeply within the music. From the adrenalized rush of “Stress” through the late-night barroom ambience of “Smoky” to the giddiness of “Crazy” (“I can’t listen to it without laughing,” Busstra says), Firm Fragile Fun is a wild ride. “Joy,” the leader explains, “is actually a kind of children’s song, which works very well on the bouzouki. Rembrandt plays a Keith Jarrett type solo, which expresses the joy.” At the other extreme are the self-explanatory “Mild” and “Moody,” the latter loosely based on Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints.” For “Firm,” Busstra injects a Coltrane-esque solo rare to the guitar and “Fragile” focuses on complicated harmonics. “Deep,” Busstra says, “is the most conceptual song on the record” and “Gone,” the closing tune, is Busstra’s personal pick for strongest composition in the set. “At first I believed this track had to be the opening song on my album,” he says. “The intro felt so inviting. But gradually it dawned on me that this track would work so much better as the grand finale.”

Throughout, the musicianship is never less than top-notch. Busstra prefers single-note runs on the guitar, relegating the harmonies to Frerichs’ piano. Busstra’s melodic sense, he says, can be attributed to his study of the Indian sitar but, “My role in the music can be compared to the role of a saxophone. My basic expression lies primarily in the melody.” The rhythm section, meantime, is both powerful and ever-adaptable, full of unanticipated twists that keep the listener attentive consistently.

As they were recording Firm Fragile Fun, Busstra realized that, in some ways, the “anything goes” attitude and approach he and the band were taking to the creative process was akin to that of a group of young children at play—nothing was pre-planned or calculated. “Toddlers are without prejudice and that is what’s most important in this kind of music making,” he says. “Being reckless and unpredictable? Yes, please! In a concert or on a recording you’re on an adventurous journey; you take a giant leap together and you have to try and survive and make it work. That’s what brings out the best in a person!” And, as Firm Fragile Fun certainly demonstrates, in a jazz quartet as well.