Performances by the Dutch ensemble Willem Breuker Kollektief are more art happenings than mere musical events. Evolving out of the leader's pioneering free-jazz experiments with the Instant Composers Pool in the '60s, the 11-member group channels an anything-goes ethos into impeccable arrangements with all the spirit, sophistication, and punch of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Often compared to Spike Jones' zany yet brilliant City Slickers, the Kollektief tweaks preconceptions about art and art spectatorship. Nowhere, except perhaps among the elite of New York's downtown ironists, will you find such a tangy home-brew of superior musicianship, highbrow concept, and lowbrow drama, which borders at times on vaudevillian goofiness.
Although Breuker's willful iconoclasm may be dismissed as shtick by outsiders, his vision presses far beyond superficial gimmick, and has attracted an international cult following. The saxophonist/composer revels in rebelliousness, but tempers his wild streak with a disciplined compositional ethic, a deep respect for tradition, and an insatiable appetite for a great variety of idioms. From Nino Rota's or Ennio Morricone's evocative film scores to Erik Satie's subversive Euro-classical simplicity to the exuberant collective musicmaking of New Orleans jazz, Willem Breuker has absorbed groundbreaking musics across genres and generations, distilling these ideas into an original amalgam that works on many levels at once. Hunger! is no exception.
Though hunger is a fairly dismal subject to address in song, Breuker manages to bring a full range of emotions, including joyful optimism and a bit of nutty fun, to his five-movement suite of the same name. The group prefaces its new album's centerpiece with an ironic, old-time take on "Yes, We Have No Bananas," complete with ukulele and "singing saw" solo breaks. Sounding more like cabaret cheese than pomo hipster fare -- though in some circles that's the same thing these days -- the tune sets up an odd juxtaposition of something your parents might call pleasant entertainment vs. the chameleonic-symphonic power of the next song, "Distant Thunder," the intro to the "Hunger" suite.
The subsequent sections, "Bread Riot" (with its Fantasia-sized arrangement and barreling tenor sax solo) and "Red Sunrise" (with its brassy, bluesy swing and Gypsy-fied violin lead), carve out moody yet vibrant space. Then comes an old-timey reprise, "Time Is an Empty Bottle of Wine," an original sing/whistle-along straight off of the wedding-reception circuit, circa 1953. The suite closes with a nod to Chopin and high seriousness, leaving the listener reeling, uncertain of how to weigh the total-music experience. Challenging and entertaining, Hunger! is masterful in its commitment to confound.
Willem Breuker Kollektief performs Tuesday, March 28, at 8 and 10 p.m. at Yoshi's, 510 Embarcadero West (Jack London Square), Oakland. Tickets are $14; call (510) 238-9200.Pieter Boersma