Don’t let the suit and tie fool you. Alto saxophonist Benjamin Herman, voted the Best Dressed Dutchman of 2008 by Esquire magazine, may favor the buttoned-up look of fashionably tailored threads, but he’s one of the most unbuttoned players on the jazz scene today. Herman seems ready to play anything, anytime—as long as everyone involved is having a good time and ready to dance.
Straight-ahead hard bop? He’s there. Funky rock and roll? Got it covered. Standards from Thelonious Monk to Dutch jazz icon Misha Mengelberg? Ready and waiting. Surf music? Hang five, baby.
Whatever genre he’s hopped into, every note is invested with a near-manic energy that doesn’t just catch your ear, but grabs hold of it and takes it for a giddy spin. This week, the Benjamin Herman Quartet—with Anton Goudsmit (guitar), Ernst Glerum (bass) and Joost Patocka (drums)—will be blowing the roof off the Outpost, and Herman would love to see you get up and dance.
In the slideshow at the top of Herman’s home page (benjaminherman.nl), you’ll find this quote from Louis Armstrong: “Way back, I set myself to be a happy man, and made it.”
The energy in Herman’s playing may be the direct result of his own unflagging determination to have a happy time with his music. It’s not that he plays only upbeat music—his “Lamento,” from the 2009 recording Campert (Dox Records), for example, can bring tears. It’s the palpable and highly infectious glee he takes in playing the music for his audience.
“I have always had that,” he says. “I want to make a little extra effort, and I want to give the listeners their money’s worth. I think that’s important, too. I like to get people’s attention, and I like them to get the feeling that they’re experiencing something that they don’t come across every day.”
You’ll find the same glee in his compositions. His 2004 album Heterogeneity (Naxos) features a number of his own pieces, catchy and upbeat, but structurally capable of bearing the full weight of serious improvisation. They sound as if an American TV producer had commissioned Monk to write theme songs for quiz shows in the ’50s.
The sense of fun pervades his every tune and performance, but he’s seriously committed to that fun. Award-winning serious, in fact. A technical master, if not a magician, Herman has taken home several Edisons (the Dutch equivalent of the Grammy) and the prestigious VPRO/Boy Edgar Award for his contribution to Dutch jazz, as well as numerous other awards.
Herman has just re-released his 2008 recording Hypochristmastreefuzz (Dox Records), which loosely translates as Rubbish Under the Christmas Tree, adding to the package a second disc that was recorded live at North Sea Jazz Festival in 2009. The album features the compositions of Mengelberg, and the selections range from hard bop to lush, strings-cushioned romanticism to hard-driving surf music.
Herman enjoys the challenge of this “genre hopping,” as he calls it. “It’s a learning situation,” he says. “If the composition’s strong, you can do all kinds of stuff with it.”
The Outpost appearance will feature standards, Herman’s own works and some of Mengelberg’s. “It’s very important, as a European musician, to have a certain personal style,” Herman says. “That’s why I’m so happy playing Misha’s music; because it’s definitely got a quality that is turning out to be Dutch. All over the world, he’s a Dutch composer who writes great tunes that couldn’t be written anywhere else, and that’s very inspiring. So I try to carry on a bit in that tradition—quirkiness and boldness.”