(****) “..the strength of Busstra’s writing and the first-rate playing of his backing band.”
Let’s get one thing out of the way: guitarist and leader of the eminently capable quartet featured on Firm Fragile Fun Marnix Busstra sounds a great deal like John Scofield. Busstra’s tone, phrasing, attack, and even his choice of guitar parallel those of the celebrated solo artist and ex-Miles Davis plectrist. When he digs into the second-line strutter “Fun” and the blues-based ballad “Smoky,” he could provide a real challenge for someone being subjected to one of those DownBeat Blindfold Tests.
Despite the similarities to Scofield’s approach, Firm Fragile Fun avoids formula. This can be attributed to the strength of Busstra’s writing and the first-rate playing of his backing band. The best of Busstra’s pieces provide creative departures (the somewhat mysterious waltz “Moody,” the unfortunately brief “Deep” and the unfortunately faded-out “Joy”) from his stylistic bread-and-butter: a variety of blues-informed fusion-tinged post-bop that we all know and love. Others (“Mild” and “Firm”) are simply strong enough to languish gloriously in the sub-genre.
Busstra leads an eminently capable band. Actually, they are quite a bit more than capable. Drummer Pieter Bast and bassist Arnold Dooyeweerd have earned their battle stripes from decades on the Dutch jazz scene, having played with some of my favorite Low Countries’ jazz artists such as Banten (with cellist Ernst Reijseger), Theo Loevendie, Paul Van Kemenade, Hans Dulfer (Candy Dulfer’s dad!), and Eric Vloeimans. Their playing throughout Firm Fragile Fun is utterly sublime: relaxed and flowing, yet nimble and forceful.
Pianist Rembrandt Frerichs is, by far, the youngest of the group. His playing is as memorable as his monicker: here is a young musician with remarkable chops who’s also developed an easily-recognizable personal style. Fascinated equally with Middle Eastern art music, Baroque music, hammered dulcimers, prepared piano, and jazz of all stripes, he mixes and matches elements of these diverse areas in an artistically appropriate and interesting fashion. In doing so, he threatens to steal Busstra’s show. To the leader’s credit, Frerichs gets free reign here. In fact, some of Busstra’s writing seems tailored for the adventurous young pianist. “Stress” and “Crazy” are up-tempo pieces characterized by rapid-fire melodic lines. Frerichs runs with it, multiplying the frenzied energy by extending his solos to include a variety of moves from inside the piano, as well as with the keys.
Busstra, who’s led his own bands since the mid-1980s has also worked with vibraphonist Mike Mainieri off-and-on for the past decade. Before collaborating with Mainieri, Busstra led the Buzz Bros Band in which he embarked on an exploration of exotic stringed instruments electric sitar and the bouzouki in a jazz context. Each are used on one track (“Deep” and “Joy”) of Firm Fragile Fun. It’s an avenue that Busstra will hopefully continue to investigate into the future, especially in the company of the similarly-inclined Frerichs.