Benjamin Herman relishes building a musical mystery

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      Benjamin Herman remains relatively unknown on this side of the Atlantic, but back home in Amsterdam he's a celebrity—and not only for his beat-driven work with the New Cool Collective big band. In 2008, the Dutch edition of Esquire magazine named him Holland's best-dressed man, and while that's a rare honour for an improvising musician, it's entirely in keeping with the 42-year-old saxophonist's approach.

      “I love to dress well, and I also tend to like opposites,” Herman explains from his home, speaking in lightly accented English. “If I play a certain kind of music that's not very mainstream, then I find it a good combination to dress impeccably on-stage, and leave people with a question mark, like ”˜What is he? What is he up to? What goes on in his brain?' But as far as clothes go, I like making an effort. It's just grown into a big hobby.”

      Herman's ability to find inspiration in contrasting elements extends to his sound on the alto saxophone. Tonally, he's a bit of a throwback, sounding a lot like the great American saxophonists of the 1940s and '50s. But the music he plays—whether with the Collective or with his own quartet, which makes its North American debut this month—is thoroughly cutting-edge stuff.

      “Of course, I've spent many hours in the attic playing Charlie Parker tunes and transcribing his solos, and the same with Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley and Jackie McLean,” he says. “But I've never made it my goal to actually play their music. I don't see it as a lifetime achievement to be able to play exactly like my heroes. It's just never going to work that way.”

      With the Benjamin Herman Quartet, however, the focus is on another of Herman's heroes: pianist Misha Mengelberg, a '60s radical whose ICP Orchestra established a distinctively Dutch approach to what was once strictly an American music. Influenced by free jazz, South African kwela, Caribbean calypso, and corny Dutch pop tunes, Mengelberg helped pioneer the idea of jazz as an idiom without fixed borders. At the same time, however, his association with the Fluxus movement in art ensured that his otherwise tuneful charts often display a touch of the surreal or the provocative.

      “Certain people play Misha's music, but there's also always been kind of a stigma to it,” says Herman, whose recently released Hypochristmastreefuzz is the second CD he's devoted to Mengelberg's tunes. “It's like the idea people had at the beginning with Thelonious Monk—that his music was unplayable, or that it would only sound good in certain settings or with certain people. So it's not actually very common for people to play his tunes. But they're very easy to play. They have little quirky things in them, which makes you have to pay attention a little bit more. But they're actually proper songs, not something that is illogical—and they're fun to play.”

      The Benjamin Herman Quartet plays the Western Front on Saturday (November 20).