Review: Zapp Quartet

In today’s Waterloo Record

The Zapp Quartet from the Netherlands was in town Monday to give a concert at the Music Room with Canadian clarinetist James Campbell. The Quartet specializes in jazz repertoire, so the usual suspects for this combination (Brahms, Mozart and Weber) were given the night off in favour of John Scofield, Mike Keneally and Allan Gilliland.

Peculiar, a John Scofield composition, was first on the program. Cellist Emile Visser laid down the one bar ground bass with the other members imitating the sound of a guitar and a hi-hat with pizzicato and slapped strings. In keeping with Scofield’s post bop style, the piece was a collection of sounds and motivic cells ripe for improvisation, a circumstance exploited to great effect by the Quartet.

In Gita Minor by ex-Frank Zappa guitarist Mike Keneally, the Quartet transformed themselves into an electric guitar. The imitation was spot on but like almost all efforts in the axe-thrashing genre, the piece was without strong direction, overlong and rather self-indulgent.

Campbell joined the group for Picasso and Lump by Zapp’s violist Oene Van Geel. Lump was Picasso’s Daschund and the piece is based on their relationship as captured by photographer David Douglas Duncan. As such, it is fully of whimsy and figures of easy contentedness. The players’ ability to effortlessly go from accompanist to soloist was truly remarkable.

After a delightfully sweet version of Debussy’s The Girl With The Flaxen Hair, the group played another piece by Van Geel, entitled Hamer, reminiscent of the casually tuneful style of Reinhardt and Grappelli.

Joined again by Campbell, Zapp closed out the first half with Jazz Suite by Canadian composer Allan Gilliland. The second movement, Waltz for Mr Evans, was particularly lovely with a lush bed of compound chords providing the perfect frame for a gently tragic clarinet melody.

The ease with which Gilliland switches between idioms was even more apparent in Wind Machine. Flitting between bluegrass, tango, minimalism, Penderecki-style dissonance and a cool walking bass groove is normal practice for Zapp and as a result, the piece was one of the highlights of the evening.

The Debussyian sensibility of La Blues by Canadian composer Gene Dinovi showcased well Zapp’s ability to make beautiful ensemble sound. The piece went for a walk in the middle before returning again to the opening material.

Unseen Variations by Van Geel was mesmerizing. It was without rhythmic pulse or harmonic direction, instead featuring the small motivic figures most often found in the music of Berg. Zapp exhibited excellent control throughout and expertly created a whole soundscape with precisely calibrated changes in tone colour.

As an encore, Campbell joined in for a deliciously off-the-cuff rendition of I’ve Got Rhythm.

What was most captivating about Zapp was their entirely unaffected approach to music. It is not entirely uncommon in the classical music sphere for groups that market themselves as “different” to take great pains in emphasizing that fact. The idea playing a few jazz chords makes them less inhibited and therefore inherently better than musicians who slave away trying to perfect Mozart. This is a tiresome approach and one often used by ensembles that have very little to offer but their “difference.”

Based on Monday evening’s performance at the Music Room, Zapp is of the opinion that there is room for everyone at the table and are happy to borrow from all manner of improvisatory styles. This means jazz, blues, country fiddling and Tin Pan Alley standards but also 19th century art song. It’s classic postmodernism at its best and a whole lot of fun to boot.

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