Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fred Van Hove: The Most Adventurous Belgian Piano Player You’ve Never Heard Of

The Secret Museum
By Jim Webb

If you speak Flemish, or are familiar with European improvised music, you might have heard of Fred Van Hove. He is a very talented pianist from Antwerp, Belgium who was born in 1937. His father was a self taught musician who sent Fred at a young age to study classical music. Be-bop became an early passion, but once he was exposed to the liberating music of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler in the mid ‘60’s he quickly became a disciple of the new “free”sound in jazz. By 1966, Fred was right in the middle of the blossoming European jazz/improvised music scene that included his friends Peter Brotzmann and Willem Breuker.

He has a unique style of playing the piano that falls between the cracks (and keys) of jazz and classical music. If you enjoy free jazz icon pianist Cecil Taylor, than unquestionably you will like Mr. Van Hove’s sound. Writer Tom Greenland has likened Fred’s piano playing to a “ballerina in hiking boots.” I would add that he explores the keyboard like it’s a musical Potters Field, unearthing unknown sounds and note combinations to create something truly fresh and original. Danger Will Robinson – Fred has been known to dump a bucket of ping-pong balls on the piano strings to alter the sound of the notes he’s playing. With all this talk of free jazz playing and experimenting with ping-pong balls did I just hear you mumble that he probably sounds like his piano is being thrown down a flight of stairs? Granted, it is very challenging music that Van Hove has created. Sometimes when I’m listening to his solo work (Flux), it sounds like he’s actually building a house. There’s some pounding and hammering on the keyboard at times, like nails being driven into wood. He’s definitely not all high energy; his playing often segues into lyrical, introspective sounding passages that hint at his classical studies as a young man. Mr. Van Hove’s artistry is held in such high regard that in 1996 he was named a Cultural Ambassador by the Belgian Government.

I was lucky enough to see Fred perform a solo concert in 2004 at Victoriaville, Canada as part of the Musique Actuelle Festival. I saw twenty- three gigs over three days (with the legendary Steve O.), and Van Hove was the highlight of the trip for me. He sat down at the piano and proceeded to create a totally improvised forty-five minute piece of music that left everyone stunned at its conclusion. Thunderous eruptions of sound would give way to rolling waves of notes that started at one end of the keyboard and made their way across it until his fingers ran out of keys to play. He would also work inside the piano, hitting the strings with various objects to alter the sound he wanted. No matter how out - there the performance got, Fred never lost his musicality. On a good night, the added beauty of watching and hearing improvised music being created is knowing that these exact sounds would never be heard again.

He is a master pianist, but he will challenge your definition of what that means. It is easy to list some of the different styles he has played in: be-bop, free jazz, improvised music, classical, and church music to name a few. Restrictive labels though don’t apply to Fred; he is simply too big a musical maverick to ever fit into those limiting categories. So, now that you are aware of Fred Van Hove, he is no longer the most adventurous Belgian piano player you’ve never heard of. He’s now just an adventurous Belgian piano player. That’s all he ever wanted to be.

-Jim Webb

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