Zing went the strings of his heart

Lyrical alto saxophonist and canny jazz entrepreneur Tom van der Zaal thought big and cooked up an album with strings. “It’s taken three good years of my life. I wanted everything to be top-notch.”

Bright blue, yellow and red rays of light dart across a stage that almost resembles Madison Square Garden. Pools of sweat bring back memories of the last monsoon season. Crazy young fans dominate the clean scene. Van der Zaal shows pics of his performances at various Indonesian jazz stages. He grins excitedly. “I’m a bit jetlagged. It’s quite a trip and the difference between climates is enormous. But it was all worth it. It is like playing at a pop festival and the people keep you in high regard. Most of the fans over there are young and absolutely crazy. But not merely crazy in the sense of plain enthusiasm. Some of them knew all about my work and said that they had been waiting for my visit for years. It’s fantastic. The tour was cancelled a few times. But it finally came through with the support of the Erasmushuis.”

He hovers over an espresso at Jazz Coffee & Wines on the beautiful Noordeinde street in The Hague. Quite the opposite of Jakarta. A gusty wind comes down from the North Sea. Its residential grandeur warms your bones. The city that seats the national government is the home base of Van der Zaal, a well-groomed, vivacious fellow with a healthy blush on his cheeks. Bon vivant. Go-getter. Having arrived at the second phase of his career, not a young lion anymore, Van der Zaal is out there to compete and cook up new strategies. He’s serious about the definition of ‘new’ and gains traction after his well-received Time Will Tell album from 2019, which featured ace guitarist Peter Bernstein.

His next ‘phase’ involves Sketchbook Of Dreams, which adds a couple of rearrangements of compositions from Time Will Tell to new material that was specifically written for this inspired ‘with strings’ project. “A lot of ideas come up at night. It seems that creativity is inspired by darkness. When I get an idea at night, I get up out of bed and write it down or sing a melody in my phone, even if it’s only four bars. It may be a starting point for something to work on the coming day. They’re like sketches.”

An all-consuming affair. One doesn’t put together a string album overnight. Van der Zaal is much akin to a quarterback that takes up the extra tasks of coach, agent and personal trainer. “This kind of project usually involves a team of approximately eight people. I’ve almost done everything myself. Preparation, arranging, budgeting. I’m quite ambitious and don’t care whether it takes sixteen hours a day. It turned out to be a very good occupation for me during the pandemic. It kept me busy and in fine mental health. And I knew that I had some good thing going on once the restrictions were abandoned. At least, after all this work a good response is what I’m hoping for!”

“It basically comes down to an expansion of all kinds of capabilities. Both business-wise and artistically. Musically, it has been quite challenging. Writing charts and arranging is not something that you just do on the side. I really dug into the practice day and night. Obviously, I’m familiar with the great ‘with strings’ records of Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Frank Sinatra. But I wanted to make my own kind of album. I listened a lot to the treatments of classical pieces by Bill Evans and threw myself into the string quartets of Ravel and Mahler. I am very much influenced by their movements and intervals.”

“Even still, I’ve got a lot to learn and look forward to work more often in this vein in the future. It really fits my style like a glove. I’m a lyrical saxophonist and match well with the warmth of strings. 50% of what I do is sound, so I really need to take care of it! That’s why I’m also a gear geek. I ordered one of those famous Ribbon microphones that amplified the tone of guys like Cannonball Adderley. But it got stuck at customs. I had to use another mic. It’s probably undiscernible but things like this keep bothering me. Still, it turned out beautifully.”

You oughta take Sketchbook Of Dreams to your second date. You won’t take no for an answer. Put it on. The flickering of candle flames heightens the intensity of melancholia. The streetlights wink languorously to the lamp post. The piano is tipsy, telling corny jokes. It’s a lush affair, to say the least. Bordeaux wine-red strings embrace the tender but punchy alto saxophone of Van der Zaal. The palette ranges from Coltrane-ish drama to sweet-tart balladry. The great Dutch pianist Rob van Bavel accompanies beautifully and embellishes the intriguing movements of Dance Of Hope And Prospect. Van der Zaal rebounds from his chair. “Rob is a giant. Every time I hear him play I keep thinking that Holland is blessed to have a guy like this in its ranks. We specifically wrote Dance Of Hope And Prospect for Rob.

A subtle Latin feel is predominant throughout the album. “Our bassist Matthias Nicolaiewski is Brazilian. I keep asking him for new music, the things that almost nobody is familiar with out here in the West. That’s how we came up with Luiza from the legendary Antônio Jobim, one of his lesser-known tunes. It’s one of the most beautiful melodies ever and suits the range of the alto sax perfectly.”

Van der Zaal hired the Grammy Award-winning engineer Dave Darlington to look at the scores. He specifically wrote string introductions so that he may switch between performances with quintet or orchestra and tease audiences with radio edits on Spotify. He considers a vinyl release and is planning performances in Brazil, Indonesia, the illustrious Ronnie Scott’s in London. A man with a plan. “There’s an idea behind all aspects of the album. In general, I have reached the age that I don’t need to make miles any more like a youngster playing for a couple of bucks in bars. I do enjoy playing, of course, but I’m more conscious of what I’d like to achieve.”

He has come a long way from the boy that grew up in the home of a saxophone-playing father, who passed on his musical genes and business acumen. “I grew up with a strong sense of the tradition and listened to Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke. My father had a job but he played alto saxophone and clarinet. He has great ears and intuition. I have been lucky, because he took me to rehearsals and concerts when I was just a little kid. I studied with Simon Rigter and David Lukasz when I was 16. Around that time I went to my first afterparty at North Sea Jazz, taken by the sleeve by Wynton Marsalis, soaking everything up until 10 in the morning. That was when the jazz bug really got to me.”

North Sea Jazz has moved to Rotterdam. The jazz life of The Hague is close to his heart. For four years now, Van der Zaal and singer-songwriter Toine Scholten have organized the Jazz En Route festival, performances in various places along The Hague’s elegant avenues. “It’s mainstream but we look for a connection with postmodern stuff. We’re not aiming for a new North Sea Jazz. But I have noticed that there is a certain nostalgic feeling among musicians, certainly Americans. They miss that special vibe. Jesse Davis said that one of our places gave him that old North Sea feeling for the first time in twenty-five years. He was talking about our spot at the Indigo Hotel. You wander through a kind of speakeasy bar, then a cocktail bar, until you’re in a great jazz room. It’s a really cool experience.”

Van der Zaal washes away his last espresso with a small glass of water. He smiles, tired but fulfilled. “Once the sound of the last notes has died from the December festival, the organization for next year starts. It is a very time-consuming affair. It’s somewhat like Sketchbook Of Dreams. ‘All or nothing at all’, so to speak.”

Tom van der Zaal

Check out Tom’s website here.

Tom van der Zaal Time Will Tell (Self-Released 2019)


Not-quite-so-young lion alert: Tom van der Zaal’s hard bop gem Time Will Tell.

Tom van der Zaal - Time Will Tell


Tom van der Zaal (alto saxophone), Floriaan Wempe (tenor saxophone), Rob van Bavel (piano), Peter Bernstein (guitar), Matheus Nicolaiewsky (bass), Joost van Schaik (drums)


in 2019 at Fattoria Musica, Osnabrück


in 2019

Track listing

A Not So Beautiful Friendship
Favela Chic
Time Will Tell
The Ballpark Fence
The Gospel Song

The Netherlands is solid as regards to young reed and brass players that recreate the classic mainstream jazz aesthetic in their own image. Among a bunch that includes tenor saxophonists Florian Wempe and Gideon Tazelaar and trumpeters Gidon Nunez Vas and Ian Cleaver, Tom van der Zaal is one of the to-go-to alto saxophonists, a product of the rich heritage of (hard) bop city #1, The Hague.

The manner in which now and then some young birds bring appetizing goodies to the family is heartening. Time Will Tell is such produce, a contemporary take on the classic 50’s/60’s style that was epitomized on the Blue Note, Prestige and Impulse labels. Van der Zaal is assisted by the brilliant Dutch veteran pianist Rob van Bavel, bassist Matheus Nicolaieswky and drummer Joost van Schaik. Floriaan Wempe performs on two tracks. Also present, on four compositions, rabbit in the hat and one of the greatest guitarists in mainstream jazz: Peter Bernstein. Bernstein oozes taste, as clear as plain day light once again on Time Will Tell, his umpteenth performance the last decade and part of an immense discography.

Van der Zaal’s gift of conjuring up fresh rhythmic variations and catchy songs reveals itself in Latin-inspired swingers Favela Chic and Enrichment, which live in the realm of vintage Carribean-tinged beauties like Joe Henderson’s Mamacita or Kenny Dorham’s Afrodisia. The fluent pulse of Dilemma is bookended by an elegiac part that hints at both Black Is The Color and the lengthy psalmodic intro’s of the John Coltrane Quartet. The ballad Time Will Tell runs along a particularly intriguing harmonic route. And what about the snappy, uptempo The Ballpark Fence? Considering the band’s firm push on the throttle, it is appropriate and perhaps not coincidental that the cover shows Van der Zaal kneeling beside a classy monster oldsmobile. To switch to baseball terms: the band hits it right out of the ballpark!

Tom van der Zaal is a lean leopard, light-legged, makes snappily phrased twists and turns and loves his quotes, as is the jazz leopard’s wont. Including the occasional unfeigned whoop or wail, his balanced playing goes to the heart of the melody. Van der Zaal and Wempe rip and roar through the friendly battle of fours and simultaneous improv of Favela Chic, which follow up the vibrant waterfalls and drops from the fountain that Rob van Bavel charms from the piano, supported by his trademark firm and obliquely voiced chords and wonderfully astute bass lines. Time Will Tell is right up the alley of Van Bavel, European class act who is a versatile seeker of new vistas but has remained rooted in hard bop ever since he’s been part of the spectacular Ben van den Dungen/Jarmo Hoogendijk Quintet in the late 80’s/early 90’s. Nowadays Van Bavel is pianist of the premier Dutch hard bop outfit The Eric Ineke JazzXPress.

Bernstein’s intro to Charlie Chaplin’s Smile is plainly gorgeous. Smile is the album’s surprising and swinging cover song and definitely appropriate. Because the energy and palpable enthusiasm of Van der Zaal & Co. on Time Will Tell ignite a broad smile from crown to chin.

Check out the website of Tom van der Zaal here.