NDIO was the manifestation of a long-lasting relationship between Frank van der Kooij and the English bass player Hugh Hopper and latterly trombonist Robert Jarvis which had started in the mid 1980s and taken various deviations en route.
Back in 1985 Hugh Hopper had been emerging from something of a self-imposed exile from music, initially drawing on established relationships with Richard Sinclair, and then with Pip Pyle and Elton Dean in both In Cahoots and L’Equipe Out. But, in a move that became typically Hopperesque in the second half of his career, he was also keen to dip his toe into something entirely more risky. In the spring of 85, Hugh had befriended Kees Schep and tasked him with assembling a Dutch outfit that would eventually become Hugh Hopper Goes Dutch. Frank vd Kooij remembers being approached:
“I was practicing with a big band in Breda. There was always an audience during open rehearsals. During the break a man came up to me and said ‘I’m organising some concerts with the ex bass player from the Soft Machine. Would you like to join it because I need a saxophone player for the project’ He said, ‘next Sunday there is a rehearsal for a few Dutch musicians who are involved.’ I remember on that Sunday morning it was a beautiful sunny day and I was walking to this rehearsal place, at 9.45 in the morning and thinking, ‘somebody’s making a fool out of me’. But I went in, sat down, got the pieces – there was a count to four, and we had to play!.” Later on Frank went across to the UK to deliver music to Hugh and collect some more to take back to Holland and thus a lengthy relationship was born, as evidenced on albums such as ‘Alive’, ‘Carousel’, ‘Meccano Pelorus and ‘Hooligan Romantics’
I remember when I interviewed Hugh in 1991 he stated that, thanks to the Dutch connection he was as happy as he had ever been musically. By 2000, various vd Kooij/Hopper combinations had played respectively as Goes Dutch, The Franglo Dutch Band and finally the Hugh Hopper Band, the latter two incorporating trombonist and composer Robert Jarvis who had also become one of Hugh’s most trusted collaborators too – the ‘Four by Hugh by Four’ album (Gonzo) showcased a deliciously organic three way symbiosis between bass guitar, bass clarinet and trombone, augmented by Oscar Schulze’s minimal drumming. In the midst of this band’s three gigs, the core trio repaired to Frank’s house to record ‘Ravel’, heard for the first time here. Whilst Frank recognises this piece as being so named because of the pounding bassline a la ‘Bolero’, Robert Jarvis is insistent it is pronounced to rhyme with ‘gravel’, a nod to a Peter Sellers faux cockney character in his 1958 piece ‘The Trumpet Volunteer’. Jarvis adds “Now, I realise that Ravel can also mean “a tangle, cluster, or knot”, which seems similarly descriptive. Frank recalls “the chemistry between the three of us. It was very intuitive. We never talked very much about the music. A journalist in Holland wrote about us that when he heard us perform it was like looking and listening to dolphins – dolphins can always find each other without any sign.”
By 2003, Frank had composed a completely new set of musical material, that mixed free playing with a more formal minimalist classical vocabularly, and so he assembled a new ensemble in preparation. Using a core of musicians from earlier projects (Hugh, Robert and drummer Kim Weemhof) he added innovative nylon guitar player Niels Brouwer and keyboardist Paul Maassen (a young piano graduate). And, the new band was convened to perform their first gig at the Opmaat Festival in Breda, captured here, live on ‘Zenith’.
Robert told me, “I am pretty sure that the concert had been billed as the “NDIO [New Dutch Improvisation Orchestra]” After a lot of alcohol and good humour, I teased Frank about the name. I said actually I didn’t think we were that “new”, we certainly weren’t all Dutch, the music was obviously based on written scores, and that we weren’t an “orchestra”. Maybe we should come up with something else!”, I ventured, “Never Dance In…” but I couldn’t think of anything for the last letter. I looked at Hugh and he said “Orange”. Frank said “Never Dance In Orange” – yes that sounds good!
Whilst the subsequent NDIO studio album ‘Airback’, recorded in 2005 was a polished, structured and diverse album, for Frank ‘Zenith’ is a much more accurate reflection of what the band was about. “I like the feeling with live concerts that it can get out of control and go to the edge and come back. I like the tension and being able to hear how the musicians solve those problems.” This live performance would feature much looser performances of ‘Wise Men’ and ‘Last Night of the Prawns’, both vd Kooij pieces which would later appear on ‘Airback’ alongside other previously unheard compositions. It is also the first known recording of the gargantuan ‘Big Bombay’ arguably Hugh Hopper’s last great composition.
The final piece ‘The City/Blue Moon Jam’ is another curio, which doesn’t involve Hugh Hopper, but rather is an extended improvisation involving some of the Zenith lineup and a guest. “The plan was that Hugh was going to come to Breda and jump into the studio, but somehow he couldn’t make it. We had this studio organised and thought let’s ask Henk (de Laat) the bass player to join and make a recording. We actually did more recordings but I think they all disappeared except this one which went out. It was such a bizarre piece which ended up in a sort of heavenly Moroccan marketplace. It was so unique”.
Following ‘Zenith’, Hugh would go on to pastures both new and revisited with Soft Machine Legacy, Clear Frame, Brainville 3 and Soft Bounds before his tragically early death in 2009; Robert Jarvis increasingly moved towards innovative sound installation projects; and Frank vd Kooij continued to build on his NDIO concept, eventually creating large-scale classical works for a new NDIO Orchestra, as well as playing with the London based saxophone trio AirKraft.
And whilst their paths would cross again individually, ‘Zenith’ is a chance to witness one of their last full collaborations together, at its varied and innovative best.