Ab Baars Quartet
Few missions in jazz are as perilous as re-arranging Duke Ellington tunes:
you're gonna do a better job of setting those jewels than he did? With
the palette of distinctive voices he had to work with? Kinda dubious.
Still, Ellington helpfully provided a key to how another arranger might
pull it off. Duke's own compositions and charts are famously built around
the quirks and appetites of his own musicians, their peculiarities of
phrasing and pet techniques. (This was true even when he and pen-pal Billy
Strayhorn arranged Grieg and Tchaikovsky.) So: go and do likewise. It
oughta work, if the players you collaborate with have their own distinct
styles. A kinda big 'if.'
For Ab Baars, Kinda Dukish is sequel to previous albums in which his trio
tackled pieces by clarinetist John Carter (A Free Step), and many and
varied Native American chants, tunes and games (Songs-both are on GeestGronden,
and well worth having).
"I was very happy with the results of the Carter and Indians programs,"
Baars says, "because I was able to give a personal touch to material
written by others. I felt confident the trio could transform even such
strong and well known material as Ellington's. For a long time I searched
for pieces that had an open feel to them, pieces I could break up, rebuild
or change. As I got deeper into it, it was inspiring to realize that Ellington
himself applied this process to almost every composition."
Indeed, in the 1950s, Ellington devoted a lot of time to remaking his
early three-minute masterworks for the new long-player format. Concise
oldies were stretched out, and sometimes given episodic treatments that
might reflect the input of several arrangers, in or out of the band. "Kinda
Perdido" incorporates quasi-improvised choruses bandmembers Jimmy
Hamilton and Clark Terry wrote out back then, which turned up in various
Ellington versions thereafter. (Just hearing the horns play those variations
here prompts Martin van Duynhoven to salute Duke's rimshot-powered drummer
of the era, Sam Woodyard.)
For Baars, there was another conspicuous precedent: he was already a mainstay
of Misha Mengelberg's ICP Orchestra in 1990, when Misha recorded his radical
takes on Ducal classics including "Solitude" and "Caravan."
But even a cursory listen to "Mix Solitude" and "Mixed
Caravan" on ICP's Bospaadje Konijnehol I will confirm that Ab finds
his own ways into and out of that material.
In adapting Ellingtonia for this program, Baars draws on those familiar
tunes, relative obscurities ("Aristocracy à la Jean Lafitte"
from 1970's New Orleans Suite, "Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool") and
a 1940 concerto for bass and orchestra, "Jack the Bear."
"I listened a lot to Duke's piano introductions, which are very inspiring,"
Baars says. "Wrestling with the material, I began to hear all the
possibilities that are in it."
The interpretive leeway is decidedly wide. Sometimes Baars and company
luxuriate in the maestro's exquisite tunes and counterlines, as if Duke's
orchestra had been ingeniously miniaturized, as on "Kinda Half"
(after "Half the Fun" 1956, from Such Sweet Thunder) and "Kinda
Braud" (from "Portrait of Wellman Braud," Duke's pioneer
Some interpretations are a bit more radical.
One sympathizes with the hypothetical listener who, knowing nothing of
Baars but digging Duke's melodies, cues up this CD and is greeted by the
opening of "Kinda Solitude." The experience would echo that
of an unwary '60s record buyer who, wanting to hear a nice version of
"Bye Bye Blackbird," had stumbled on My Name Is Albert Ayler,
the album where the outward-bound tenor saxophonist bends standard tunes
to the breaking point.
Baars knows that record well, but here he does it one better: one might
miss that his rude tenor introduction is in reality the melody as written
(albeit stretched out, like one of those skewed-perspective faces hidden
in a Renaissance painting). But by the time that first track is over Ab
will play the melody straight, with disarming tenderness. He gets to deconstruct
and reconstruct the tune in the same performance. He's Mr. Gentle and
Mr. Cruel, kinda.
The flexibility of his long-term trio-with van Duynhoven and bassist Wilbert
de Joode-only increases when they expand to quartet. Trombonist Joost
Buis is an old friend and frequent collaborator on the Amsterdam jazz/improvising/new
music scene, and an ardent Ellingtonian. He leads a tentet, Astronotes,
whose rich, self-titled CD on the DATA label includes a suave remake of
the Ellington/Strayhorn "Zweet Zurzday." (De Joode is the Astronotes'
permanent bassist, and Baars has guested with them many times.) The trio
has made way for a trombone before, namely Roswell Rudd's on Four (DATA),
but give it up to Buis for cracking this tight-knit group, and so thoroughly
entering into its spirit, on the heads and collective improvisations.
When Joost uses plunger mute to shape his notes, as on "Kinda Gentle,"
his open-voweled wah-wahs are easily distinguished from the nasal ya-yas
of Charlie Irvis, Tricky Sam Nanton and their progeny. But Buis knows
his Ellington trombones too well not to tip his hat here and there. On
"Kinda Caravan" he eerily evokes Juan Tizol's valve horn on
the memorable A section, and slideman Lawrence Brown's bellowing tone
on the bridge (even if the notes are still Tizol's).
If any contemporary bassist can suggest the shock and awe Jimmy Blanton
inspired when he joined Duke in 1939, it's de Joode. His sheer force and
percussive pizzicato make other players sound like they barely graze the
strings-though he also loves playing arco, to blend with the winds, or
revel in his own repertoire of bowed textures. For power plucking and
bent bowing, look to "Jack the Bear," and note how Wilbert survives
the inevitable comparison. It's a thrill to hear him play Blanton's actual
lines on the theme.
Like Duke, Ab knows one way to make players happy is to ask them to do
what they want to do already. Martin van Duynhoven's drumming has always
been meticulous, and spanking-clean to the brink of Dutch stereotype.
He's one of those drummers who can make you hear the tune the band's playing
in the contours and phrasing of his drum solo. In fact he used to play
"Drop Me Off in Harlem" on solo programs, and lives outside
Amsterdam in Haarlem, so that selection was a no-brainer.
You might also look to "Kinda Harlem" as typical of the quartet's
approach to the particulars of small-group orchestration and suite-like
forms. Like other episodic narratives, these keep you hanging on just
to find out what happens next. For this and most pieces here, Baars made
the crucial decision to reach for clarinet instead of tenor. The blend
with trombone tips the overall vibe away from any hard-bop echoes and
toward the clarinet-dominated swing era in which the Ellington band matured.
Ab's clarinet voice is so flexible he can suggest a reed-section's worth
of personalities even without 'doing' Hamilton, Barney Bigard, or Russell
What these players create here is a minor miracle. A postmodern quartet
plays Duke loosey-goosey, and yet dots its performances with moments that
recreate the sound and majesty of the Ellington orchestra. It's the kinda
thing you wouldn't think possible if you hadn't heard it yourself.
We do not speak for the dead-do not say, "Ellington would have loved
(or hated) it," because how the hell would we (or anyone who makes
such stupid claims) know that? So I'll speak for myself: I kinda love