AM.OK: pushing the boundaries of jazz

Interviews 27.10.2023

Part of a generation raised on hip-hop and electronic music, Tijn Wybenga is reshaping the codes of jazz. As a leader, conductor, and composer of AM.OK (Amsterdam Modern Orkestr), he is developing new means of writing and playing such music. He embodies the most vibrant and pioneering spirit of contemporary Dutch music. In the following interview, he tells us how the orchestra came to exist, shares some of his compositional methods, discusses his role as a conductor and reflects on the current Dutch jazz scene.

Tjin, the AM.OK  orchestra has a particular configuration. Certain elements are usual in the traditional jazz big band: a brass section (depending on the period: saxophone, tenor saxophone, trumpet and trombone, and more recently saxophone, bass clarinet, trumpet and trombone), and a rhythm and harmony section (electric bass/double bass, drums, vibraphone, electric guitar, and depending on the period, an electric keyboard). However, there is something less frequent: the presence of a string quartet (initially two violins, a viola, and a cello, now with two violas, and this quartet can eventually become a string quintet when Alessandro Fongaro chooses the double bass rather than the electric bass). What led you to choose this particular instrumental configuration, which is not usual in jazz, but rather in classical music?
First of all, I love classical music, especially string quartet music. For example, Henri Dutilleux's Ainsi la nuit and Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet n°7. So by hearing this music a lot with admiration, I knew that I wanted to be able to express this sound in my music. Secondly, I love both contemporary orchestral jazz and music from small jazz groups like trios and quartets. When I founded AM.OK I wanted to create a hybrid orchestra that could create both sounds. But most importantly: It is the string players themselves that motivated me the most. All four string players are amazing musicians with very special qualities and with a unique sound of their own. Pablo Rodriguez is an amazing 'finger-picking' violinist who can groove so nicely! Yanna Pelser sings and plays at the same time, and has an amazing warm sound. George Dumitriu is a wizard on the viola, playing insane solo and he works with electronics.  Pau Sola is an expert in free improvisation and always drives the quartet's creativity to a higher level. This group is so rich in its possibilities that in the past few years that I worked with them, I learned a lot!

How did you meet the musicians who make up AM.OK?
There were a few musicians that I always wanted to work with, like drummer Jamie Peetand there were a few musicians I met at the end of my studies at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. But most of the musicians I met during small jazz/impro sessions in 'de Ruimte' and concerts in the BIMHUIS. I was really focused on finding people with their own musical narrative and voice, people with a strong character in their improvised playing, and people who lead their own groups. Therefore AM.OK became a 'band of bandleaders' actually! Now, with AM.OK you could fill a whole festival evening with several bands that are all formed within the whole AM.OK orchestration! It is super nice to work with people who know what the struggles are as a bandleader and a composer. Therefore the atmosphere in this group is very supportive and respectful and I am really grateful for that!

The name AM.OK, "Amsterdam Modern Orkest", refers to a frightening and morbid phenomenon: a sudden outbreak of bloodthirsty madness, observed by ethnologists in certain regions of Asia. Why did you choose this reference?
I started with the Amsterdam Modern Orkest as the name and wanted to find a nice abbreviation for it. That became AM.OK. I was aware of the reference 'running amok' or in Dutch 'amok maken'. Which in the Netherlands commonly is used when people (mostly children or youngsters) suddenly get angry and create a quarrel or a little riot. By all means it is significantly less violent than the origin of the word. For the band, I associate it more as against the status quo and rebellious., which for me fits to how the band's music relates to the general development of jazz music.

For your second album, Brainteaser (2021), you used a very interesting four-stage composition method. First, you recorded individual improvisations by your musicians, based on patterns that you had proposed to them, a kind of musical labyrinth that allowed them to travel very freely through the tonalities. The idea was to produce an empirical composition, based on the sound of the instrumentalists and their playing, rather than a composition produced entirely under your direction. You assembled these hundreds of recordings at home, using Live Ableton software, like samples, in an old-school techno or hip-hop style. It should be pointed out that this is a musical culture in which you were immersed throughout your youth. You then wrote your compositions from these assemblages. The pieces were then played live by the musicians, to make them their own, as they involved sound configurations they would never have imagined without the work you did on the computer, sometimes very complex, as you isolated little bits of phrases. Finally, you recorded this disc. I'd like to ask you two questions.

Were the labyrinthine, very free scores you gave the musicians for the first improvisations essential? Couldn't you have chosen pure improvisation, with no direction, to produce your compositions on Live Ableton?
First of all : I am sure that when I had chosen to use pure improvisation with no direction, I would also have been able to produce compositions that would work for the band. However, I sensed that when I had the ability to direct the improvisation, I could channel the players ideas more, so that I could collect different variations on one motive. Or I could motivate the improviser to radicalize their ideas more and more. In that way the improvisation contained more potent moments that were usable for sampling. See it like a director working on a theatre piece. Without the director the actors are also able to produce a good quality performance. But due to the director's work, the performance becomes more whole, more expressive and (hopefully) more exciting!

Electronic processing based on sampling was essential in the composition work, the methods of hip-hop and techno, but you want to keep a very acoustic live configuration. Wouldn't you like to add samples, drum machines, or synthesizer sounds to AM.OK?
Absolutely, yes! I am working on a new album and a show now where I blend sampling and live electronics with the live AM.OK sound. For the album Brainteaser, I chose not to, because I wanted to give the musicians all the space in the sonic spectrum to explore and to experiment. However, in the end, the original samples that I used for composing also had a certain character that I eventually missed in the music when we played it live. Therefore I created a new album called Re:Brainteaser. It is an album with live recordings and remixes of the original samples by producer Lowkolos. In this way, the samples came back in the end! Also, I use the samples sometimes on stage, to introduce a new song with its origin, the samples. As a listener, I personally like it when I can hear the process of the creation in the music itself. So that is why on the next album I will experiment with blending live, sampling, and electronics into the music.

With AM.OK, your role is that of composer and live conductor. You don't play your instrument, the piano, with the band. What influence do you have on the way the pieces are played? Can you completely change the course of a live performance?
This is an ever-ongoing question in myself as well and I experimented with this too. First I only conducted, later I played the full set on Rhodes and synth. Now I do a combination of both. I play when I think the music really needs the sound of the Rhodes, but mostly I conduct. I sensed a difference in the performance when I was playing instead of conducting. The music was more dynamic, radical, and expressive when I conducted compared to when I only played. Conducting is more than just giving time and cueing passages. You can really enlarge the dynamic spectrum, create space for new things to occur, make musical gestures as big and as strong as possible, etc. It is a very exciting thing to do! While playing myself I couldn't do that anymore, because I was focussed on playing my part. I wonder how Duke Ellington could do that, play and lead at the same time!
We have tools to completely change the course of a live performance and this happens sometimes indeed. But usually, it is because a player of AM.OK organically introduces a new idea. The only thing I have to do then is to make sure we keep space for it and to come back to something we know, when I think it's time to move on. Music is a living thing and as a conductor, I don't want to force something upon it, I want to accompany it. The music really needs to ask for a change and usually, the musicians' sensitivity is so charged that they immediately react to that. These moments I cherish a lot! we had a concert where the string quartet suddenly started an improvisation that reminded me of the music in Kubrick's Shining. You can hear it on the recording Aplauso - Live on Re:Brainteaser.

More generally, your songs seem very written. What's the balance between improvisation and score in a live performance ?
This is an interesting topic. Since, because of the music I composed is based on improvisation, the music still has this fresh and spontaneous atmosphere of improvisation. But yes, I composed and orchestrated a lot, because there was so much to say! On the album I think that 30% is improvised, but in our live performances the improvisational part grew and grew. Now it is my role again to balance that out. When we have a long set, the improvised parts become longer, not only because we just have enough 'time' but also because then the audience is ready for a deeper and more personal musical trip. At Jazz Sous le Pommiers for instance there was a beautiful improvised intermezzo in the song Triudium  by Federico Calcagno and Teis Semey. I loved that moment because it was so pure and honest, and at the same time beautifully rhyming with the story of the original song.

Can you tell me if there's a typical Amsterdam jazz sound these days? Or typical of the Netherlands?
Absolutely! And I feel very lucky that I can be part of this sound. People who really push the boundaries of the Dutch jazz sound are Reinier Baas, Joris Roelofs, and Ben van Gelder. Who also contributed to the impro recordings that I sampled for the album Brainteaser. Now there's also a newer generation coming up that again finds their own voice in the contemporary scene like  Kika Sprangers, Sun Mi Hong, Teis Semey, Jamie Peet, and Jameszoo.

How is jazz creation going in the Netherlands? Are you supported? How does the music economy work in your country?
There's a rich jazz scene with a few very good venues and festivals to play. Like the Bimhuis jazz club in Amsterdam and the big international festival North Sea Jazz. Luckily these venues and festivals give artists the opportunity to write new music and première the new creation on their stages. I think that is vitally important for our scene. Places like Bimhuis, Paradox, Tivoli Vredenburg, November Music, and North Sea Jazz are giving these opportunities to artists. I have been lucky to be 'Young Maker" at the BIMHUIS (supported by the Dutch Performing Arts Fund). During the span of 2 years, I was welcome to compose, rehearse, and perform at the BIMHUIS and I recorded both albums there as well. Still, I am in good contact with the management team of the venue and I appreciate this contact a lot. If I have questions about anything about the music scene, I can ask about it. With AM.OK, we are also supported by the Dutch Performing Arts Fund, and therefore it is possible to play a lot in the Netherlands and abroad and to pay all the musicians a good fee for their work. By having this support I know I can push the limit and I can fully focus on developing the best music I can. It is a privilege to have this support and I am very grateful for that! 

Interview by Guillaume Kosmicki

On tour this autumn:
19/10 - Jazz in the City, Salzburg
20/10 - Odeon, Göppingen
27/10 and 28/10 - Birds Eye, Basel (with Vuma Levin)
10/11 - Sendesaal, Bremen
11/11 - Rockit Festival, Groningen

Photos © Rosita Stumpel Breuer
Photos ©


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