RIP: Willem Breuker

The Dutch newspaper BNDeStem and NOS TV have confirmed the passing of another major artist of the post-war generation – composer-improviser, saxophonist and band leader Willem Breuker – who died at his home in Amsterdam at 65 after a lengthy illness.

A pioneer of the European “free jazz” movement of the past four decades – first with the Instant Composers Pool, then more (in)famously with his long-running Kollektief – Breuker combined the compositional elegance and big-horn punch of the Duke Ellington Orchestra with a commitment to zany fun unmatched in the often sober jazz world. His rare homebrew of quick-shifting arrangements, world-class musicianship and wacky sense of humor echoed both vaudeville of the late 19th century and downtown NYC of the late 20th. We’re talking highbrow concept with lowbrow appeal, serious music that didn’t take itself too seriously, entertainment that twisted the Book of Jazz inside out.

Even among the anything-goes virtuosos of the Dutch avant-garde, Breuker stood out as a master musician with an insatiable appetite for a variety of idioms, from evocative film soundtracks (in the tradition of Rota or Morricone) to simple-seeming yet subversive classical harmonies (Satie, Chopin) to exuberant collective improvisation (from N’awlins jazz to klezmer). He distilled groundbreaking musical styles across genres and generations into a one-of-a-kind amalgam that made him a cult hero among free thinkers around the world.

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