I recently had the great pleasure of seeing Dutch saxophonist Benjamin Herman tear it up in a trio set at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and so was more than happy to review his thirteenth solo disc Deal when the opportunity arose. Though Herman might be less well-known in North America, he's firmly established overseas and in particular in the Netherlands. He's appeared on more than a hundred records, has played with figures like Misha Mengelberg and Paul Weller, and was already playing on the professional club circuit at the ripe old age of thirteen. He plays regularly in trio and quartet formats, and is as comfortable playing ‘out' music as he is traditional jazz. Also a member of the acclaimed New Cool Collective unit, the always dapper Herman was crowned ‘Best Dressed Dutchman of 2008' by Esquire magazine.
Deal isn't a typical jazz outing but rather a film score (the project idea originated at the behest of Dutch film director Eddy Terstall) that pairs Herman and his band with strings. The disc not only serves up a healthy dose of Herman's ultra-smooth jazz playing but also a more-than-satisfying set of moody soundtrack music that wouldn't sound out of place accompanying some ‘60s British spy film featuring Roger Moore or Michael Caine (in Herman's own words, “I was looking to create an ode to classic European B-movies of the ‘60s and the ‘70s, but without making it sound like pastiche”). In actual fact, the album's tunes were first laid down by Herman, drummer Joost Kroon, guitarist Jess van Ruller, bassist Manuel Hugas, and Hammond organist Carlo de Wijs and the strings added later (with Herman and arranger Willem Friede recording the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra).
Powered by Hugas's driving, G-man bass line and Kroon's rambunctious attack, “Deal Main Title (full version)” achieves immediate lift-off while also imbuing the album with its spy-movie vibe. Elsewhere, “A Man With A Plan” finds Herman in full flight, his alto soaring freely o'ertop the bluesy base fashioned by the band and strings. “Her Boyfriends Are Usually Quite Different,” by contrast, finds him emoting within a laid-back funk context that also offers van Ruller ample room to indulge the raw side of his playing. “Deal, End Title (aka Tempest Storm)” opts for bar-room, ‘50s-styled rock, with Herman's sax alternating between honking riffs and barrel-house swagger. The album's dreamy side comes strongly to the fore in melodic settings like “He'll Never Get Her (Any Other Way)” and “Room 1618,” where the sultry sensuality of Herman's sax (and band) are augmented by the lush caress of the strings, and “Sara Said Yes (aka Sherry Britton)” and “Sara, Sunbathing,” romantic, samba-styled settings that feature some of the saxophonist's most alluring playing. In such settings, his feathery tone purrs delectably, even during its more aggressive runs.
The last cut, a bonus called “Cat,” showcases Herman in an orchestra-less quartet format, and, no surprise, the man rips into the tune with no small amount of enthusiasm and chops. He plays with such bite and ferocity, the effect can be exhilarating, and it's hard not to conclude in the face of such evidence that this eminently poised and confident musician should be a far better-known quantity on this side of the Atlantic than he is at present.