--Your titles: all those colors, all those portraits, a sketch. Do you feel like a painter this time out?
Setting him up for the question, do you think of clarinet and tenor as colors or the painter's brushes? Interviewer favoring the latter.
"No. The portraits are homages to people who were important to my musical development."
--Like Pee Wee Russell.
"One of the few clarinet players I always get back to, some sort of Ornette avant la lettre. He's often very far from traditional dixieland playing, so open and independent of harmonic patterns or scales. I like his sound, and the way he develops little phrases, giving answers to his own questions. His parts really stand on their own."
That inspiration makes sense if you've heard Baars with his own trio or Misha Mengelberg's ICP Orchestra: he can play solos with a clear internal structure, which may be directly at odds with the form and chord changes his accompanists are playing. That free-standing approach also helps explain his commitment to unaccompanied solo playing, a tradition he knows well, from Coleman Hawkins' a capella tenor works to Stravinsky's solo clarinet pieces.
"Misha and Sunny Murray are among the few musicians who make me wish I could play like that on my own instruments. Saxophonists don't have the same effect on me. It's too close by, saxophone music. I don't want to play saxophone or clarinet like it should be played."
--That's why you're attracted to the music of eccentrics: Pee Wee, John Carter, Von Freeman, vintage Sonny Rollins?
"And Albert Ayler, who I love very much but never tried to imitate. I'd rather copy Misha's or Sunny Murray's way of playing and phrasing."
--'Gammer' is a portrait of Misha at the piano?
Laughing. "Yeah, call it an homage to his melodic and rhythmic development. The title means 'donkeylike.'
--It does sound like his one-finger noodling. Is the portrait of Han away from the drums? His shy side?
`Rood' is Dutch for 'red,' by the way.
"It's a way of playing I evolved during duo and trio improvisations with Han on ICP concerts, where it can be very difficult to find space to do anything. He'll trap you into trying to play as fast and loud as him. But I began to hear that if you do the opposite, spread out what you play, what he plays is very strong and your own things come out much better. It's a portrait of Han because you can still hear the drums under it."
--It's striking how much weight silences have in your solo music, and how different silences have different weights; silence is like another voice.
"In silence I do feel the pulse going on. So for me it's never really silence in the sense that nothing is happening."
John Carter's influence on Baars has been direct; he studied with Carter in Los Angeles in 1989--Ab's trio CD 3900 Carol Court is named for John's street address--in particular his alternate clarinet fingerings, extending the horn's upward range.
"'Verschoten Geel' means 'faded yellow.' When I hear John's music I always think of a bright yellow: his clarinet, but also his writing for groups, especially the chords in high registers. The day I left Los Angeles, I left from his house, and there in his garage was a beautiful yellow sports car I'd never seen before. He said, 'Oh yeah, I'm a sports car fanatic.' But now that he's dead, and his music is hardly played, I see the car faded too. The things I play are inspired by the way he'd play arpeggios and trills while circular breathing, one of his specialties. But I try to keep it simple, make a little melody out of exercises he showed me. That, and double-tones. That's something else I'm interested in, developing ideas in two registers of the instrument."
If your knowledge of fingerings is really advanced, you can stitch together a double melody in splittones, in which (since you can find more than one fundamental tone which has the same overtone) the two melodies may move at different speeds. Baars' friend and occasional collaborator Guus Janssen has a composition for bass clarinet, "Sprezzatura," which deals with the same idea--a concise example of how Dutch composers and improvisers work along the same lines.
--About 'Rollins' Williamsburg Bridge': I don't think there are foghorns on that stretch of the East River.
"Of course I know the story of Sonny Rollins practicing on the bridge, sometimes together with Steve Lacy. But also Han once played me a piece by Rollins that starts with a few low foghorn sounds. I thought, 'Perhaps I can use that sometime.'
"Along with 'Celeste', which means 'heavenly blue' in Italian, and 'Verderame'--Italian for 'copper green'--it's a short piece inspired by the composer Gy?rgy Kurt?g. I like it that he writes touching short little melodies, nice colors, simple rhythmic patterns. That can be very inspiring to an improviser."
As inspiring in its way as, say, Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom."
Baars has mentioned before how much he's learned about the value of simple ideas from playing with free-improvising last-of-the-punks The Ex. His droll tenor intonation has a good dollop of Von Freeman and bridge-era Rollins in it. It also helps to know that when he was growing up in the southern Netherlands, his first saxophone was tuned sharper than A440, typical of small-town wind-orchestra horns years ago.
" 'De Fluisteraar van Zeeuws Vlaanderen' is dedicated to my uncle who gave me my first saxophone. He's a self-made man, invented everything himself: saxophone technique, writing, arranging, speaking English. Everyone in my mother's family is like that: taught themselves to read and write. He was very good on ballads--played them very soft, with extra noises, but he also had a very big sound--very impressive. We talked a lot, practiced together. In the '60s and '70s my uncle had a dance band, and was billed as 'De Fluisteraar van Zeeuws Vlaanderen'."
The latter is Holland's far southwest. 'Fluisteraar' means 'Whisperer.' Incidentally Varik is a pretty town near where the Waal and Maas Rivers almost meet; Baars can see it through the green trees across the blue water, from a window in the friend's house where he goes to compose and to prepare solo concerts.
Not a painter? Don't believe him. Like a painter he lets things develop from aspects of or problems in technique: brushstrokes, planar surfaces, lights and shadows. He adjusts timbre and intonation and dynamics with careful attention, a twist of the tip of the brush to change the effect as the stroke is in progress. (And he knows all his tools can do; listen to 'Verderame', how escaping air and pad-percussion combine to give illusion of ((those other)) brushes on snare drum.) His solo music can sound stark, but it's opulent too, because he's so obviously in love with the sound of his instruments. His almost tactile tone is one sign; another is the huge size of the sound he gets from either. He's not afraid to sweep his horns off their feet, a romantic at heart. And so, inevitably, as we watch the brush move, one Portret emerges clearer than the rest, the one drawn from the most perspectives: portrait of Ab Baars.
--Kevin Whitehead 1997
author of "New Dutch Swing" (New York: Billboard Books).