On Gloomy Sunday – a continuous solo set recorded in Budapest – pianist Michiel Braam comes off as a sort of Dutch Earl Hines. That is not a comparison to make lightly, and we won’t push it too far. But like Hines, he’s always stood a little apart from his peers. When Hines’s buddies moved on to New York in the late 1920s, Earl remained based in Chicago, under the mob’s thumb. That’d be one explanation for why, even though he played a mean stride bass, Hines never sounded like one of the Harlem masters. There was always something more wayward in his timing and keyboard textures: he could step out of the stylistic frame and look back at it – like a few Dutch players to come.
Braam, who comes from the Netherlands’ southeast and runs the jazz and commercial music program at Arnhem, was never an Amsterdam cat. It might even be a point of pride. Not that he’s a reverse snob; he employed a few Amsterdam regulars in his now defunct orchestra Bik Bent Braam, and has had an occasional trio with Wilbert de Joode and Michael Vatcher for 25 years. Braam came up hearing distinguished countrymen like Misha Mengelberg and Guus Janssen, but Michiel’s whimsy and percussive rattle aren’t quite the same as those of his respective keyboard forbears; he can break away from the mold, the way Hines’s left hand would suddenly strike out. Like Earl he likes to break down the time and then pick it back up. And he loves a low-end racket. The opening “Opus Espresso” is all power bass runs and grumbles; “Opus Walk” has a Tristanic walking bassline under chordal cross-rhythms.
The Hines kinship is most obvious on Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” and Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You,” in the ways Braam will seem to misplace the form altogether, sprinkling upper-register confetti around, only to jump back in, right on time. On the former tune, he may use one finger of his right hand to poke you in the ear, à la Mengelberg. Many pianists play chromatic connecting runs between phrases, but rarely in a halting staccato, as Michiel does here. If you can’t always tell if he’s kidding or playing it straight, that may be because he manages to sound like he’s doing both at once. That’s about as Dutch as it gets – though piano profs like Eubie also knew how to dazzle while joking around. But Braam doesn’t sound like his sometimes serious, sometimes comic lowland elders; he doesn’t have Guus Janssen’s diamond attack, and Misha doesn’t have Michiel’s formidable chops.
Braam can jackhammer the middle range with alternating hands, playing tight clustery chords that convey harmonic direction. And on “Q1,” a riffy blues with the high drama of John Lee Hooker, there’s some of what Louis Andriessen once called Dutch wooden-shoe timing, a deliberate clunkiness, alongside vintage keyboard figurations echoing South Side Chicago and New Orleans R&B. “Pit Stop Ball Ad” roams far in seven minutes, but the melody at its core is redolent of a ‘20s Ellington funeral march.
Michiel Braam is a trickster, and one of his tricks is to show real feeling when you don’t expect it. A kind of un-Amsterdam sentimentality may intrude. His performing the so-called Hungarian Suicide Song “Gloomy Sunday” straight suggests as much. In fairness, this music was recorded in Budapest – and he dedicates the tune to a late student, for whom Braam played it at his funeral. There is a whiff of Hungarian zither in some repeated notes and swirly chords, and another plunge into the lower register, this one more ominous than irrepressible.
He also plays a Chopinesque mazurka by the Antillean composer Jan Gerard Palm, and ends with the slightly cracked “Cuba, North Rhine Westphalia,” where he flirts with habanera and clavé rhythms without pulling them all the way out of the dancefloor. Then he brings it up short without warning, leaving us wanting more.
Kevin Whitehead, Point of Departure