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Gig Review: The Ben Van Den Dungen Quartet, Mumbai

The Dutch saxophonist led his band of superb musicians at the NCPA this past weekend

Sunil Sampat Jul 16, 2019

The Ben Van Den Dungen Quartet performing at Mumbai's NCPA. Photo: Narendra Dangiya

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Jazz is alive and doing very well in Mumbai, thank you. And more often than not, it is high-quality jazz that we encounter these days in our city. A decade ago the local jazz scene was oscillating between fusion, a cocktail of rhythms from different regions and electronic sounds, a deviation from the main body of the art form, and the playing of covers in the tradition of restaurant dinner dance entertainment, which has prevailed in Mumbai for decades. The jazz scene has changed for the better.

On July 13th, master Dutch saxophonist Ben van den Dungen led a quartet of superb musicians at the city-based NCPA’s Experimental Theatre in a concert entitled Saxophone Colossus — presumably saluting Sonny Rollins, who made an album of the same name. While van den Dungen is a high-quality tenor saxophonist, his sound was enhanced by the presence in the band of Karim Ellaboudi on piano, D Wood on bass and the wonderful Japanese drummer, Ko Omura. It was a beautifully balanced jazz band of four highly proficient masters of their instruments who played in perfect balance throughout the evening. While van den Dungen’s saxophone sound was bold, authoritative and clean, Ellaboudi, who somehow seems to improve at each outing, was free-flowing, lyrical and beautifully complemented the sound of the tenor. Omura was subtle and yet very free with his swing and timing while Wood, whom van den Dungen described as the “heartbeat and the soul” of the group was brilliant.

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Ben van den Dungen during the Jazz Concert at Experimental Theatre, NCPA in Mumbai. Photo: Narendra Dangiya

The quartet had chosen their setlist intelligently; it provided the right mix of tempos and rhythms and paid tribute to some of the master composers in jazz. The initial piece was “Strollin’” from Charles Mingus’ famous album Nostalgia in Times Square, followed by the jazz standard, “What’s New.” Van den Dungen has been tutored by Sal Nistico and inspired by, among others, Sonny Stitt; in “What’s New,” these influences were evident in van den Dungen’s handling of the tenor. In the next piece, Billy Eckstine’s “I Want To Talk About You,” also recorded by John Coltrane, van den Dungen also shows every contemporary saxophonist owes a bit of his sound to Mr. JC.

Veering into a little Latin sound, the quartet played a unique arrangement of “My Heart Belongs To Daddy.” This is from a 1950s movie in which Marilyn Monroe sang this song!  In their version on Saturday, Ellaboudi excelled on the piano. His interactions with the other three musicians were very creative and loved by the full house. In yet another innovative twist, the band played the jazz standard, “Broadway” in a New Orleans street sound rhythm.

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Switching to two memorable compositions of Thelonius Monk, the band played “Pannonica” (named for Nica, the huge patron of jazz and jazz artists) and Hackensack, the town in New Jersey where Monk often recorded. Paying rich tribute to the ‘spiritual style’ of Coltrane’s later years, van den Dungen played “Psalm” from the famous album A Love Supreme and did it full justice. The concert ended with two more masters being saluted, Horace Silver in “Cape Verdian Blues,” an up-tempo Latin composition and Miles Davis with “Move.”

This performance was quite flawless and the audience, comprising of a varied range in both ages, as well as musical tastes, seemed happy as they stepped out of the auditorium. That is what an evening of good jazz can achieve. The only criticism of the band could be that they didn’t play longer!

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