Two qualities attracted me immediately to this lovely, smart, provocative Native American project by Ab Baars: It's not obvious and it's not American.What I mean by "not obvious" is probably - well, pretty obvious. Most musicians,?when paying homage to Native Americans, lower the dipper into pretty shallow water. They sample clich?s, such as the four-beat drum pattern (accent on the first beat) so familiar from countless cartoons; or the ceremonial minor thirds and pentatonic melodies of innumerable flute songs. Some write program music, limning the outlines of a gone world, like some historical novel, or epic poem. Others, in a New Age vein, project romantic fantasies of a spiritual wholeness and vaunted simplicity gone missing in today's world, not bothering to ask if, in fact, Native Americans might well have been just as complex and - dare I say it - perplexed by the world as we are.
But I don't hear most of that in this music. I hear keen and probing interest, humor and respect (though not pious reverence). I hear non-generic explorations of specific Native American melodies and song types, from New Brunswick, Canada, to Washington State, in the U.S. I hear three creative minds tackling old musical subjects and transforming them into new, engaging works.
And while I also hear compassion, sadness, and, from time to time, a sense of loss (more about that later), I don't hear guilt, and that is what I mean by "not American." Its makers, in Holland, are thousands of miles from the scene of the crime. No doubt they have their own cultural burdens to bear, but Indian genocide isn't one of them.
So how did Ab Baars, an ocean, a century and two cultures removed from Native America, decide to take on such a project? Turns out he's been preparing for this all his life.
"Since my youth," he tells me, "I have been interested in 'Indians.' A few years ago I was asked to play a concert at a distribution of prizes for Dutch writers. I was invited by H.C. Ten Berge, a Dutch writer/poet/essayist, who won one of the prizes and is known among other things for translating stories from North American Indians, specializing in British Columbia and Alaska. He did a lot of research on this subject. He wanted to have some 'jazz' for this occasion, not knowing that I knew of his interest. I arranged a song from the Kwakiutl for this occasion, "Sea Eagle Ghost Mask," from a Folkways record. It sounded very nice for the trio and the others suggested we arrange some more. A project was born."
Ab owns piles of Native American CD's, but the main source for this project was a book by one Natalie Curtis (no relation to the famous photographer, Edward), called The Indians Book. Natalie Curtis, who died in 1921, was a student of the composer Ferrucio Busoni, and traveled all over North America, making recordings and transcribing music and stories.
Ironically, Curtis's book is the source of many of those very Indian clich?s referred to above, since composers from Hollywood to Broadway often used it when they wanted to invest some measure of "Indian-ness" into their work. But Baars studiously avoided such pitfalls.
"I thought a lot about how I should make the arrangements," he continues. "I wanted to make a living music that would fit my world, my music and would fit as a vehicle for improvising. Not a romantic sort of folklore."
And there you have it. Using a wide variety of material as launching pads - a power song, lullaby, victory song, healing song, love song - plus a couple of humorous ringers, Baars has managed to honor his historical sources while fashioning an absolutely contemporary album of improvised music.
The symbiosis between jazz and Native American music that probably occurred around the turn of the last century has yet to be fully explored by scholars. But Baars cuts right to chase on the opener, "Wai-Kun," proposing a kinship between that old, four-beat tom-tom rhythm (played as a telegraphic pattern on saxophone) and four-four swing, as if to say, "You want Indians and jazz? Sip this, kemo sabay." Ab's expressive, modulating tenor tone - warm and dry - declaims and cries at the same time. His mood catches the mix of exaltation and human vanity suggested by the story the song is based on, a Winnebago tale about a mouse who thinks he can reach the sky, when, really, it's only the log he's hiding under that he's touching.
"Indiaan," one of four cuts not drawn from Curtis, was written by the analytical ?Dutch pianist Guus Janssen. Its peek-a-boo quiet, pure clarinet, atonal melody, and clicking percussion evoke Jimmy Giuffre's "cool jazz." ?Ditto for drummer Martin van Duynhoven's minimalist, skipping feel which, happily, comes back many times during the recording. ?
Where do new forms come from? A Kwakiutl song, "Klawulacha," says Chief Wakiash found a new dance by journeying around the world on the back of a raven. Makes sense to me. The trio captures the moody feeling of voyaging spirits, as Ab warbles and smears in the low register of his tenor, having a conversation with himself, a la Henry Threadgill. And, indeed, new thoughts and forms take shape before our very ears.
Ab says it was unintentional, but "Hevebe Tawi," based on a playful Hopi song about boys and girls pouring water over each other's heads at dawn to evoke rain, borders on program music. Before I knew what the song was about, I could picture falling water in the fluttery explosions of his high clarinet. But it's a great clarinet solo, and a sweet cut, too, with its brushes and a swing-y bass line again intimating cool jazz.
Then, of course, there is "Cherokee," a warhorse, yes, but how leave it out? Charlie Barnet started the craze for "Indian-sounding" songs with this 1938 hit (followed by "Redskin Rumba," "Pow Wow," and Count Basie's "Taxi War Dance"), but, ?ironically, it was written by an Englishman, Ray Noble. Ever masters of avoiding the obvious, the cagey trio drops numerous clues during a ferocious improv, but saves the melody for the very end. Even then, they only play two bars, dropping the familiar tune like a foundling on a doorstep. Ab's vocal-like runs and slow figures over fast rhythms are very Ornette-ish; Van Duynhoven's brushes call to mind another appropriate character - Jo Jones. The arrangement is by reed man Michael Moore, an American living in Amsterdam.
Most Native Americans have a tradition of seeking "power songs," personal incantations earned through spiritual practice, ?that can be used in times of adversity. "Wolf Song," from the Dakota, gives bassist Wilbert de Joode a chance to shine - like moonlight - as he bows above the bridge, wailing a lonesome strain.
The tenor saxophone has long been an instrument for wooing, so why not use it for a Wabanaki hunter's farewell song? Tender, a little unsure, this lover player a slow, short, wandering melody that takes sweet shape in Ab's soft attack and nicely contoured tone.
Most Westerners with an interest in world music by now have seen Inuit throat singers, who toss notes back and forth with great zeal and humor, in a sort of contest. The aptly titled "Jeux" ("Game") sounds like a jaunty hocket, as the sounds are ping-ponged between Baars and de Joode's arco bass. The two then join in for a little improv, which may correspond to the hearty laughter Inuit singers generally break into after one of them has cried "uncle."
"Clayaquot War Song" treads close to my home (Seattle, Wash.), not far from the Quileute reservation. The trio's slow march feel, with snare drums and deliberate melody, has Ab breaking tone on the high notes, sounding fierce, to scare off the enemy.
On "Aotzi No-Otz," a Cheyenne victory song, the battle is over, as Ab breaks into Aylerish multiphonics and screeches. Though this is not program music, it's interesting to note that Native American culture, profoundly conservative, would never have permitted such expressionism. Yet Baars find a mood that feels true.
Oblique entry into the material is the trio's standard operating procedure, so, naturally, "Meshivotzi No-Otz," a Cheyenne lullaby, begins not with the tune itself, but a hushed symphony of rustling nursery noises. When Ab finally plays the chant-like melody on clarinet, it floods the room like sunlight.
"Dsichl Biyin" is a Navajo healing song that evokes a journey from mountain top to mountain top. Ab's choppy, syncopated sax creates momentum and motion, working with - and against - ?de Joode's jaunty minor thirds and van Duynhoven's fwapping brushes.
The album concludes with "The Indians," a stirring elegy written in 1921 for piano and voice by the great American composer Charles Ives. Baars plays this solemn song on clarinet, venturing "outside," with split tones, wails and agonizing cries.
Ives' mood of loss and mourning is a fitting conclusion. But lest we bury them too soon, it's important to point out that Native Americans do not exist only in the mists of history. Where I live, Indians still sing potlatch songs, praise songs, Shaker songs, lullabies, power songs, powwow songs and songs for the winter ceremonies. Their traditional music, like this modern music, exists in the present tense.
And what better way to celebrate tradition than by engaging three active, musical minds in thrusting that tradition into the modern arena? The joy of ?"Hevebe Tawi," the competition of "Jeux," the humor of "Wai-Kun," the gloating glee of "Aotzi No-Otz," the tenderness of "Meshivotzi No-Otz" - the whole range of emotions in this rich variety of material - is a testament to our shared humanity, not the distance between us.
Paul de Barros