Fred Van Hove: piano

Disc one : Dérive (52:51)
Disc two : Ruwe Ruimte (42:52)

Recorded live by Jean-Marc Foussat on January 15th and 16th 1998
at Les Instants Chavirés Montreuil. Label: Potlatch

John Corbett’s sleeve notes claim an analogy between solo improvisation and shadow-boxing. That’s as may be, but Van Hove feels very much like he’s landing every heavyweight punch he throws on these two marathon outings. Frequently occupying the bass register with his high-impact, staccato ostinati, his music can often be bludgeoningly loud and irritably angular.

Yet that’s only half the story. If Van Hove can pound you into submission, he can also find a sweet, rhythmically ambiguous place among the higher notes. His right hand seems to dance across the keys, so intense is the illusion of movement in his playing, yet there’s no hint of gestural sketchiness. Like Crispell, who he can quite strongly resemble at times, he has an ability to weld rhythmic and melodic shapes to logical harmonies. This can sometimes give his playing the air of Messiaen’s more complex solo keyboard works.


Fred Van Hove | Photo: Peter Gannushkin

It also completely side-steps the Cecil Taylorisms to which many avant garde pianists are prone. For all his whizz-bang technical fireworks, Van Hove’s connections with Taylor are not his high-definition runs or the occasional cluster, but the impression that, at the centre of the whirlwind, careful thought is being put into the form of the piece and the development of its ideas.

Van Hove’s playing may be closer to Modernism than to anything else, but there’s a strong jazz connection here too. In particular, his left-hand strategies are often of the bass-line variety, while a hint of boogie woogie even surfaces now and again. His right hand can sometimes recall the great rock ‘n’ roll players, while a rhythmical reference to ragtime can occasionally be discerned within the tempestuous world he creates.

There’s not much to separate these two long pieces — each follows a similar path in its own fashion. Each has a ferocity which is all the more intimidating for its being so apparently casual, and each proceeds by generating and then transforming fairly simple materials, creating an organic flow of music with a surface which bristles with detail. One is reminded of Salieri in Schaeffer’s Amadeus: if there really are only so many notes one can listen to in one evening, the audience at Les Instants Chavires must have gone home with hemi-demi-semiquavers dropping out of their ears. Like Mozart, though (and there’s a comparison Van Hove can’t have had too often), his superficial complexity compliments a formal elegance.

This double CD represents a technical, creative and athletic tour de force. Those who thrive on this level of intensity will find their ears very pleasingly crammed. It’s also worth noting that, for a live document of such astonishingly loud music, the recording is very clear and not at all muddy. Richard Cochrane


Fred Van Hove | Photo: Peter Gannushkin

The liner notes Potlatch CD P2398

An image : Midday, walking down the street at the next corner I see a very tough looking kid, 16- or 17-year-old gang-banger furiously punching out into emptiness. “C’mon, I’ll kill you, I’ll kick the shit out of you!” he calls viciously at nobody. Cautiously approaching, too curious to stop, mid-block the logical blank is filled in as I spy a large wasp, angry as hell, circling him and dive-bombing his close-shaven head. “C’mon, bitch!” the kid spits, but his punches don’t land anywhere, the roundabout wallops only pull his body wildly about and make him dance crazily. Meanwhile, effortless, borne on the wind of the gang-kid’s errant blows, the black-and-yellow insect toys with him mercilessly like a taunting big brother who jabs and snipes without actually punching. Just to prove who’s boss.

Solo improvising can, at times, seem like shadow-boxing. Alone on stage, the player has no partner to spar with, no interactive intellect to strategize against, no bulk of body or instrument with whom to exchange energies. The lonely improvisor lashes out into thin air, flailing, a gang-kid landing no punches. Solo improvisors risk the ridiculousness of picking a fight with no one. But then there are those free players who take on multiple roles themselves, who summon phenomenal powers to become both pugilists at once, filling the ring, or even Belgian pianist Fred Van Hove has no problem embodying several fighters. He is, simply put, one of the most accomplished and daunting figures in improvising, and his solo music has been in a class by itself since the ’60s.

Emotionally exhausting and creatively exilerating, these two set-length solos recorded over two nights at Les Instants Chavirés outside Paris are masterpieces of instantaneous execution. Staggering beauty, with unerring control of momentum, dynamics and details and a long-haul sense of structural architecture rarely heard in free play. One man, both boxers, duking it out in the most exciting match you can imagine. Or, better, Van Hove as the wasp. A being who soars above bare-knuckles games. The grinning hornet that dances in air, whose sting you surely won’t forget.Chicago, July 1998, John Corbett