Guus Janssen has long been one of the most exciting and versatile pianists in Amsterdam's bustling music scene, but he’s too often overlooked when viewed alongside Dutch jazz pioneer Misha Mengelberg or the more conceptually radical Cor Fuhler (who's lived in Australia since 2010). Recently Janssen has turned up as the pianist in the ICP Orchestra, the powerful unit Mengelberg formed with drummer Han Bennink in 1967. Mengelberg no longer performs because of advanced dementia, and I wouldn't quite say that Janssen has replaced him—no one could do that. But Janssen has fit in nicely, contributing tunes and improvising with the other high-powered players in the group with great sensitivity, wit, and creativity, at least based on the ICP concert at Constellation this past May.
Janssen moves easily between jazz tradition, free improvisation, and contemporary composition (in recent years composing for others has occupied much of his time). He recently released Meeting Points (Bimhuis), his first album of jazz-related material since 2008, and although the live collection is a kind of conceptual grab bag (one track dates back to 1989, and there are six different Janssen-related projects on the release) it provides a vibrant reminder of his special talent and easy range. There’s a sly, darting duet with Lee Konitz—the famous disciple of one of Janssen’s most profound piano influences, Lennie Tristano—and an extroverted duo with Bennink. I was particularly knocked out by the version of Janssen’s "Rondo"—a tune originally recorded when he was a member of bassist Maarten Altena’s brilliant octet in 1987—with Clusone Quartet, a precursor of the better-known Clusone 3, which flourished after the pianist ended a brief partnership with them.
Naturally, I’m most excited about the most recent material. There are a pair of 2012 tracks by a fascinating septet with bassist Ernst Glerum, trombonist Wolter Wierbos (both members of ICP), guitarist Raphael Vanoli, trumpeter Sanne van Hek, drummer (and brother of the pianist) Wim Janssen, and tenor saxophonist Peter van Bergen (another singular Dutch musician who's been sadly overlooked in recent years): two variations on Janssen's aptly named “Pogo 1” are a quick-blink hoot, with the group ripping through all sorts of musical non sequiturs at blazing speed.
Just as great, though adhering to more conventional structures, are several pieces by a quintet with Glerum, Wim, violist Oene van Geel, and reedist Michael Moore (yet another ICP cohort). The album’s opener “Koto à Gogo” rides on a terse break beat, with alternating melodic smears and jagged little improvised phrases, and “Vrij naar AT” is a jaunty, high-speed tribute to Art Tatum. Below you can check out that lineup’s performance of “Janus Bifrons,” a gently swinging theme with a lovely melody voiced alternately by Moore and by Janssen and van Geel in unison. Although the melody is gentle, the quintet doesn’t play it with kid gloves, injecting dissonance and rude counter lines in the trademark disruptive ICP manner that forces the musicians to think on their feet.