Jazz Vocalist Heleen van den Hombergh


Heleen van den Hombergh

Heleen van den Hombergh is a wonderfully talented Dutch jazz vocalist who, alas, doesn’t have much of a following in the English-speaking world.

Above I’ve linked you to a performance of “Orange Blossom Scent,” and of course I’ve also offered a literal minded bit of imagery.

As a small symptom of Hombergh’s relative neglect, though, note that she doesn’t have an entry in the English language Wikipedia, a source that gives bits of bandwidth to such (in my humble opinion lesser) musical talents as Kirk Whalum, Steve Cobby, and Lydia Lunch.

On the other hand, she is renowned in the lowlands and in discerning places far beyond where jazz is appreciated. On Tuesday, September 17, 2013, she sang at Jazzclub Notorious, in Buenos, Aires, Argentina, with Manuel Frago on the piano, Pablo Motto on the bass, and German Boco drumming.

The Turn of the Century

hombergh-heard-in-the-sceneAs she tells her story on her website, her career took off when the already established pianist Bert van den Brink heard her sing in 2000. [Here’s a link to some of van den Brink’s work.] He has described this moment as “love on first hearing.”

Brink and Hombergh soon joined forces with one another and with Tony Overwater on bass, Joshua Samson on the drums. This was the quartet that did the CD Heard in the Scene in 2002. A critic at the time called her a “remarkable newcomer” and hailed Brink as her “discoverer.”


Bert van den Brink

They covered songs by Gershwin (“My Man’s Gone Now” and “I loves you Porgy”), as well as by Rundgren and Stevie Wonder. They also did some of Hombergh’s own compositions, such as “Jungle of Stone.”

I get mad at the sight of madness/Just crossing the street.

The lyrics of “Jungle of Stone” are straightforward. They’re the common complaints of a dweller in a city who longs for escape and a return to the countryside. heleen-van-den-hombergh-rush-in-the-woodsYet the beat, Brink’s mood-setting on the piano, and Hombergh’s pure unaffected voice, together convey the message with an unusual directness and forcefulness probably not felt since Henri Rousseau pout down his paintbrush.

That quartet performed at the North Sea Jazz festival, and at a variety of other venues both in the Netherlands and elsewhere.


A Second Album

The second album of Homburgh, and her three instrumentalists, was Rush in the Woods (2004). Hombergh, who trained in the sciences before she made music her vocation, here indulges in her passion for the rain forests of the globe. It isn’t the jungles of stone so much as the actual jungles that are the objects of concern here.

She sings in these tracts about the butterflies to be found there, (“Beauty in Blue”), the strangler fig (“Fatal Embrace”) and the tropical canopy itself, “Treasures.”

There is a garden/three hundred feet up high/where a million eyes are watching/the clouds and crowds go by.

falling-treeThat choice of subject matter, and indeed the underlying philosophy of the album, reminds me of the old riddle, “If a tree falls in an uninhabited forest, does it make a sound?” My problem with that riddle has always been that it makes a false assumption: that the only ears, or the only ears that count in some Berkeleyan sense, are human ears. When there is no human under a certain canopy, there may not be any sound, we like to think. How selfish!

Let’s talk about “Fatal Embrace” a bit. This is, as mentioned above, a song about the strangler fig, a vine-like tropical plant that begins life in the margins of a tree, somewhere perhaps in the midst of a trunk, and then grows in both directions, downward toward soil and up toward the canopy and unmediated sunlight. In time it may kill the host tree.

columnar-treeThe biosphere is full of growths that kill their hosts: cancer cells, viruses, and so forth. The difference with a strangler fig is that it isn’t committing suicide when it does so. It doesn’t kill its host until it is strong enough to stand alone, so it becomes what is known as a “columnar tree” with a hollow center.

The life of a strangler fig is a subject rife for philosophical meditation. It would seem to show that nature is always “red in tooth and claw” even when there are no literal teeth, claws, or red blood! Nature is always a struggle of life for survival, with a willingness to take the life of other organisms implicit in that struggle, even when the willingness is of a vegetative character.

Hombergh makes it a ‘battle of the sexes,’ with the unfortunate nurturing original tree getting the feminine pronoun. It’s his devilish nature that makes him kiss and seal her lips.

More Recently

Skipping forward several years we come to 2011, when Hombergh and a new set of collaborators produced the CD, Way Back Home. By this time, her pianist – or, rather, her keyboardist – was Jeroen Vierdag. Her guitarist was Karel Boehlee. Further, she was no longer the only vocalist in front of a mike. She had Kristina Fuchs along to do back-up vocals. Her new percussionist, Bart Fermie, also did backup vocals.

heleen-van-den-hombergh-way-back-homeHombergh does have some admirers among Anglophones, thankfully, and one of these is clearly C. Michael Bailey, who has written a fine appreciation of her work in a recent issue of AllAboutJazz.

Bailey knows what he likes, and writes of it instructively. He admires the growth between Rush and Way Back. It is the kind of change in perspective, he said, that comes about when “life happens” and when an artist is open to it.

Several of the Tracks in Way Back are more introspective than those in Hombergh’s earlier work. The names of the tracks indicate as much: So That’s What You’re Worth, for example, or Jealousy, or Messenger Soul.

Let’s conclude this, then, by listening to her perform “So that’s What You’re Worth”

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