Party at the Bimhuis
Long story short, as Ab Baars's trio neared its tenth anniversary, he decided to throw a party. Baars not being one to rush into anything (off stage, at least), the band was eleven-and-a-half before he finally got around to it. But nobody complained, any more than when friend Sean Bergin's MOB had its tenth birthday Bimhuis bash at age nine.
To join him in making merry Ab invited folks who'd helped make it all possible: his trio-mates of course, and four other colleagues crucial to his development as composer, tenor saxophonist and clarinetist.
Mariëtte Rouppe van der Voort is his closest ally from his '70s student days in Rotterdam, when she tipped him off to then-obscure tenor saxophonist Von Freeman. These old friends have always had close rapport, and over the years they've teamed up in numerous outfits, including the '80s trio Trebbel with Guus Janssen, and a memorable 1997 Rouppe group interpreting Charles Ives songs. (I'm still hoping she'll record it.) As this party was being planned Ab and Mari?tte toasted their own 25 years of playing together with the CD Veer and Haul (Wig), exceptionally close-matched duets, echoed here by "Party Talk 2."
Guus Janssen, whom Ab also met early on, was the first leader he worked for who called for different improvisational strategies and resources, and different notions of a solo's arc, from one piece to the next. "Playing in Guus's first Septet was very difficult for me," Ab Baars says, "because he wanted us to 'compose' together in the improvisation, while relating to the mood or materials of the composition. Before that my improvising was more like diving into the unknown after I had played a theme.
"I like both ways by the way."
In the mid-'80s he went to work for another influential leader/pianist, the ICP Orchestra's Misha Mengelberg. "On one of my first concerts with ICP, we played Monk's 'Reflections.' I had studied it and played a traditional solo like a good boy. Afterwards Misha came up to me and said, 'Ab, you don't have to play it like THAT, make up your own story.' That helped me a lot in finding my musical way."
And then there's Ig Henneman, Ab's longtime partner, and a composer and violist he much admires. In recent years they've divided their time between Holland and Italy, where they find themselves playing duo more and more. "I like the way Ig plays and breathes-like a woodwind player, where a lot of string musicians play on and on, forgetting to take a breath. She also minds whatever melody or composition she improvises on, with a great feeling for form. Her composing is important for me, too. She shapes 'simple' material in a logical and transparent way, and again she's always very aware of the form-something true of her completely written compositions as well as her pieces for improvisers."
On the big night, Baars greeted the members of his trio first: bassist Wilbert de Joode and drummer Martin van Duynhoven. "3900 Carol Court" (the title track of their first GeestGronden CD, recorded in 1992), is for Ab's mentor John Carter, who unlocked the secrets of the clarinet's falsetto register for his student, and made him hear the advantages of simple material that encourages free interpretation-not to mention how to reconcile the blues and dissonant chamber music. But around 51 seconds into Ab's solo intro, he tips his hat to another forceful clarinetist rarely cited as a personal inspiration, the Ellington orchestra's Jimmy Hamilton: specifically his climbing birdy riff that anchors the finale of Duke's "Ad Lib on Nippon." It sheds new light on Baars's concept; the host reveals himself in conversation.
For the alchemy of the trio, hear "GF," based on the opening of Beethoven's Great Fugue for string quartet. There has always been special chemistry between de Joode's physical, yanked-string bass and van Duynhoven's natty, precise drumming-although as time passes, each wanders into the other's neck of the woods more often. The trio's collective momentum is equally strong whether the pulse is stated or implied: that's empathy.
The trio had recorded Guus Janssen's "Indiaan" on their 2000 exploration of Native American music, Songs (GeestGronden). It's based on a Penobscot greeting song, taken from Natalie Curtis's book Indian music transcriptions. Hack composers and Hollywood soundtracks long since reduced a few signal characteristics of Native American music-pentatonic scales, a certain tom-tom beat-to one endlessly recycled clich?. Janssen takes the clich? and returns it to a coherent musical context-a droll conceptual feat. This formidable pianist's polyrhythmic three-handed solo is lovely, and dig Ab's Ivesian intrusion with a written theme at 4:03: he pits Janssen the composer against Janssen the improviser.
Quirky and tight-knit as the trio is, it's been remarkably accommodating to guests: the first night Roswell Rudd performed with them, in 1996, it was as if he'd been there all along. Henneman slides right in too, on "Enter from the East" (reprised from the trio's all-Carter A Free Step, also on GeestGronden), owing to the discretion Ab already identified. She sings at a volume that befits the late hour.
But we get ahead of ourselves. Once Janssen had broken the ice, crashing the inner circle, the party guests began to mingle. The ladies push back some furniture and invite Misha to dance, in the first of three improvised interludes. For light and witty conversation, try "Party Talk 3," for piccolo, bass, and Guus. Then Ab relates a brief anecdote, about a provincial butcher shop he saw advertising "fluisterzachte paardebiefstuk"-steak from a horse, that tasted soft as a whisper.
Inevitably, conversation turns to absent friends: the late lamented Carter, and Ab's tenor role model Von Freeman, home in Chicago. "'Von' is I think the oldest trio piece. It's based on his phrasing when he plays those fast tempi: feather-light." This version features Rouppe van der Voort and Henneman on alto instruments, saxophone and viola.
On "Portrait of Roswell Rudd," pianists Mengelberg and Janssen animatedly discuss Rudd's dynamic trombone style, as a band of eavesdroppers keeps it down in a far corner. (The lone performance by the full ensemble is spooky, and dontcha love it when a party turns bizarre like this.) Ab: "When I wrote this 'Portrait' I heard Roswell in my head, playing it in the great trombone plunger tradition. We played it on our first tour in 1998 but never recorded it, and I thought it would be nice to hear his improvisation portrayed by two pianos."
As the evening rolls on, talk turns to old follies and if-I-had-it-to-do-overs: Ab and Misha reflect on "Reflections," and suddenly this gathering gets really weird, the host suddenly standing naked before us, with only his tenor for cover. There is a shocking vulnerability to Ab Baars's saxophone ballads, informed (to these ears) by Von's 38th-chorus abstractions on some favorite standard, Sonny Rollins's sense of the grotesque, and the writhing plasticity of Albert Ayler's sound. But the net effect, touching and garish, painfully intimate, raw and rude and beautiful, is pure Ab Baars.
Got to say this for the man, he has fine friends who know how to enjoy themselves. As Bing Crosby sang it to Frank Sinatra (and vice versa) in the movie High Society, what a swell party it was.