20 Years Ab Baars Trio (and Counting)
by Kevin Whitehead

          Twenty years is a long time for any band to stay together, let alone without personnel changes. But after following the Ab Baars Trio almost as long, I can’t claim to be surprised. Longevity isn’t just about the strength of individual players—it never is, in such cases. The strength of the combination counts more.
          Ab Baars once said: “People outside Holland always have the idea that music here is about fun and making jokes. But to me, the common thread in Dutch music is a clear awareness of form.” And: “Another reason why Dutch improvised music is so specific might be that most of the important people in it are composers, or have a background which has been influenced by classical music.”
          In a certain strain of Dutch modernism (Piet Mondriaan, composers Theo Loevendie, Louis Andriessen and Paul Termos) art may be orderly to the point of austerity: the beauty of a sun-drenched empty church interior. A certain amount of textural austerity is built into this pianoless trio: tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Baars, bassist Wilbert de Joode and drummer Martin van Duynhoven. The tangle can only get so thick; the trellis stays exposed. These players counter that austerity with timbral richness, instrumental sounds you’d call voluptuous, if they didn’t often turn harsh—as in Baars’ oft-fearsome bray on tenor, and the bassist’s eardrum-punching pizzicato and fiercely frictive bowing. The drummer makes the most racket in most bands, but in this trio, he’s the most overtly controlled player, bringing an orchestral percussionist’s sense of color to the drums. Van Duynhoven’s tunings are so precise, the leader sometimes assigns drums the melody.
          Baars ticks off names of some non-jazz influences on his composing: “Beethoven, for the clarity of form and development of material; Schubert, for his use of ‘simple’ materials; Stravinsky, for his lucidity, especially in his chamber music; Kurtág, because his music sounds like improvisation; Feldman for his sound; Xenakis too, and also for his freedom of thought; and not least Misha Mengelberg, who incorporates everything just mentioned.”
          Ab acknowledges Sonny Rollins’s tenor/bass/drum units as inspiration for the trio. More than anyone Rollins made horn-bass-drums a standard lineup, but Baars’ trio never sounds like that one, or blatantly tips a hat. There are no calypso allusions, no outsize takes on freakish show tunes, no marathon solos reveling in elbow room. If anything, Sonny demonstrates by example that a stripped-down band lacks nothing, when it comes to clearly outlining forms, when the players are in tune with each other and the concept. In that sense, Sonny’s Way Out West points the way.
          Albert Ayler’s epic ’60s trio with Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray left a more obvious mark, as on “Aotzi No-Otz” from Songs. Ab’s trio like Albert’s (or Rollins’s) knows any improvisation can be fortified, and every performance made more cohesive, by timely returns to or glimpses of the melody. Henry Threadgill’s trio Air had a Baarsy respect for composition and creative orchestration, but the balance was different; bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall ran away with it.
          The most useful comparison, oddly enough, may be to a very orderly unit celebrated for outlasting 20 years, known for its opulent sound and well-blended rhythm section, a meshed combo that paid careful attention to detail and dynamics, borrowed techniques from classical music, and added occasional guests. They’re rarely invoked when discussing Dutch improvised music, though Baars helpfully pointed out the connection on the trio’s debut album, by featuring one of their themes: the Modern Jazz Quartet, with its translucent counterpoint and dynamic lead voice—even if Milt Jackson’s round vibraphone tone is far from Ab’s wonderfully garish tenor or piercing clarinet.
          Another thing the MJQ had going for it: a drummer with a keen ear for metallic colors, Connie Kay. Martin van Duynhoven plays an even more crucial role in Baars’s trio, and is a main reason the Ayler analogy only goes so far. Where other drummers who emerged in the 1960s take a splashy approach to polyrhythm, Martin likes a clean line. In that decade he was equally at home with mavericks and boppers—while working days as a graphic designer. “Sometimes I have the feeling I’m describing the same ideas with music and art.”
He once specialized in odd meters, a skill he put to good use with saxophonist Theo Loevendie, a former telegrapher fond of Turkish rhythms. (Martin first played with Baars in a Loevendie band.) The drummer long since gave all that up, but clear articulation of rhythm patterns remains a high priority. With Baars his drums play riffs, melodies and counterpoint as well as time. On pieces anchored to strong rhythmic tattoos like “Visser van Lucebert” or “The Dutch Windmill,” Martin gets a crisp sound from every element of the kit. Deep in Songs’ “Meshivotsi No-Otz,” his sequence of rattling sounds is so precisely calibrated, he creates a kind of klangfarbenmelodie—a succession of shifting timbres that works like a tune.
          He’s a master of the non-obvious. There’s an episode in Guus Janssen’s “Indiaan” that leaves the door wide open to ONE-two-three-four tom-tom cliches, but Van Duynhoven sneaks away toward a limber hiphop beat (and sneaks off that before it’s obvious). For all his precision, he can also conjure a loose-snares, slack-tuned, casually conversational old-school sound, if it suits the moment.

Ab Baars’s first saxophone, obtained at age 15, was an outdoor instrument pitched deliberately sharp; he doesn’t buy my theory his mature self’s sometimes eccentric pitch starts there. Roscoe Mitchell’s puckered tone is one role model, as Songs’ “Clayaquot War Song” suggests. Twelve years in the windy Orkest de Volharding couldn’t have hurt Ab’s lung power. He’s louder than most tenors, and uses that braying tone to sound louder still.
          Friend and colleague Mariëtte Rouppe van der Voort introduced him to the music of Von Freeman, Chicago tenor prized for phrasing way behind the beat, a quizzical soft-reed timbre, and his unconventional pathways through bebop mazes; his rarefied late-solo dissections bend toward microtonality. As Ornette Coleman said and Jackie McLean demonstrated, you can be flat or sharp and still be in tune. Intonation is another expressive tool. Ab Baars got that message—but his pleading tone doesn’t sound like any of them.
          He also learned about oblique solo strategies from bandleading pianists Janssen and Mengelberg. (Ab’s been in Misha’s ICP Orchestra over 25 years.) They challenged him to rethink relationships between theme and solo. Guus pointed out how an improvisation could isolate some particular aspect of a composition; Misha pushed him to buck the forms—to defy them decisively.
          On clarinet, Ab’s mentor was the late John Carter, and a Carter/Fred Hopkins/Andrew Cyrille trio was another inspiration for this one, founded in 1991.
          Back then, Wilbert de Joode already anchored a few bands with mighty authority, like Ig Henneman’s Kwintet, and Michiel Braam’s trio and big band. They all hired him for his highly creative accompaniment, and his sonic-boom percussive attack. De Joode keeps his strings high, old school to the point of archaic; he articulates with a popping sound from the time before amplification, when a band’s bassist had to fight to be heard.
          The Modern Jazz Quartet could indulge in heady counterpoint partly because bassist Percy Heath took on melodic as well as supporting roles. He could play nice and precise, or rattle the neck, and he had great timing. Wilbert too. This trio brings out his inner Mingus, his Heath, his Hopkins and Pops Foster—players who knew how to coax a sound out of the bass, to clarify the bottom end and pull a group along. Bass is the Baars trio’s chording instrument (sounding natty triads on the MJQ’s “Trav’lin”), its second horn, second percussion, and violin; he’ll pick up the bow just for a bar or two, if that’ll hit the spot. When he plucks close to the bridge, the sound is like gunfire. Sometimes rapid gunfire.
          The drummer has a bassist’s tonal sensitivity. The bassist hammers strings like a drummer. The proof of the combination is their singular grooving, raunchily refined.
          Ab Baars got an intensive postgraduate education in clarinet in 1989, spending two months in Los Angeles with John Carter, who’d extended the instrument’s upward range by cataloguing his own accidental squeaks. Before, Ab had always felt like a saxophone player impersonating a clarinetist. Carter’s pealing upper register tone, which could cut through an ensemble without being shrill, was the sort of sound Ab could adapt to his own ends. He grew close to John and Gloria Carter, spent quiet evenings with the family at 3900 Carol Court, in a hilly Culver City enclave.
          While Ab was in California, he got the call that he’d won the Dutch national jazz prize, the Boy Edgar. The last time he saw John was the day after the celebration concert they’d played on in Amsterdam that December. Carter died in 1991. The album named for his street address was recorded the following year.

          3900 Carol Court is the sound of the trio taking off. Three pieces are reprised from Ab’s previous album, the solo Krang. The remake of “Krang” the piece depicts the introduction of his sound into a group context in a literal way. The solo version was loft jazz redux: a focused squalling reminiscent of ’70s loft jazz. The trio take starts with a low hum of gongs and bowed bass, a discreet backdrop for Ab’s tender/bleating/excitable tenor. De Joode slides into a heartbeat throb, and Van Duynhoven into rustling, and they gradually emerge from the shadows, upping their own presence and the overall intensity in a carefully measured way: the art of the long, long crescendo. Then they toss Ab a solo cadenza before they creep back in.
          The trilling solo clarinet ballad “Asor” becomes a tenor vehicle, Van Duynhoven mimicking warring metronomes in neighboring tempos. The flurrying “Glorpjes” is now tethered to free-swinging bass and drums; a leaping clarinet interlude around 4:20 speaks to Ab’s control in free-ish settings. “Kimmel” is based on the pitches of three of Martin’s cymbals, harmonized by bass and tenor. These tunes, tattooed “Visser van Lucebert” and the MJQ’s “Trav’lin” (with its own variation on tick-tock rhythm) confirm every composition gets custom treatment.
          Baars the composer takes non-musical inspiration where he can: contemplating Lucebert’s paintings (one graced the CD’s original cover), leaning into boxer Bep van Klaveren’s ring rhythms (“The Dutch Windmill” with drums and bass at their punchiest, and tenor fighting its way out of a corner), reading a Eugenio Montale prose poem about a butterfly: “Farfalla di Dinard,” quietly fluttering. The title track vividly evokes John Carter’s private world; the elegiac opening solo is an echo of his clarinet across time, from someone who heard him in informal settings.
          The trio’s sophomore album was the terse Sprok, live in 1994. The bluntness of much of the music suggests Mengelberg’s one-finger piano solos, and another influence Baars singled out: punk bands he’s played with, The Ex and Dog Faced Hermans. “The music is so simple, direct and down-to-earth,” he said, “it made me aware of the effect of simple things.”
          The art of simplification informed the trio’s third, a sort of extended eulogy for John Carter.
A Free Step recorded in 1997 and ’98 features Carter’s expansive music condensed for trio. After John’s death, Gloria Carter had given Ab access to John’s briefcase full of scores and parts, revised older numbers, compositional fragments, sketches for pieces with notes on how they might be developed, and some new clarinet fingerings.
          “Reading through this material gets you inside his head,” Baars said soon after. “The last pieces are very open, much more sketch-like, not so rigidly structured.” Such pieces were good springboards. The aphoristic “Sticks and Stones” and “Karen on Monday” come from Carter’s ’60s quartet with cornetist Bobby Bradford. De Joode takes Tom Williamson’s worrying bass on “Karen” as part of the composition—perfect as is. The somber “Enter from the East” comes from John’s celebrated octet.
          In Carter’s 1980s octet (playing his mega-suite Roots & Folklore, a stylized depiction of the rise of African American culture), the bustling players loosely frame the sketch-like melodies, yet never lose focus. On Baars’s A Free Step the blowing is just as loose, but the orchestrations are all their own, and more tightly plotted. De Joode often takes a subtle harmony role, as on the head of “Sticks and Stones”—one of those Carter tunes that seems simpler than it is, an unsingable kid’s song. “Shuckin’ Corn”’s melody for flute, plucked bass, and synthesizer is cleverly recast for tenor sax, drums and bowed bass—and arrives only at the end, like an afterthought.
          A Free Step is a worthy tribute that repays a debt. Baars’s foray into the clarinet’s attic on “Woodman’s Hall Blues” is as close to Carter as you’ll hear. As on tenor, however, it’s in the lower register that Baars really reveals his own identity and character: emotionally vulnerable, despite the voluminous sound. Influences only tell part of the story: the heart of it is all his own tale. If you know his tenor sound, one note is enough to give him away. On clarinet it doesn’t take many more than that.
          The trio get into the deep logic of the material partly because Ab observed Carter so closely, at work and rest, practicing and on the page; he did a critical biographer’s work. But he also remembers the advice Gloria Carter gave him: make it your own.
          “When we started working on the project,” Ab says, “Wilbert and Martin pressed me to forget about my obsession with Carter’s music, and to play it ‘our’ way. And really that’s been our motto with all our other special projects. The various influences I’ve mentioned are more intuitive than studied. Actually the main influence on the trio is the way the three of us work together, and the ideas we’ve developed over the years—even if all that is affected by our wider listening and work experiences. I think the language of the trio has developed in a natural way, by playing concerts and traveling, rehearsing and talking, eating and drinking together. We’ve hardly ever talked about trying to do something in the style of so and so.”
          Fair enough, and to illustrate how the trio enter the spirit of a very particular music without surrendering anything of their own particular and organic sound, there’s the 2000 recording Songs. It’s another repertory project illuminating American roots and folklore: Indian chants and games in this case. Baars’s new sourcebook was that unwitting wellspring of Hollywood tom-tom and hey-ya-ya clichés, 1907’s The Indians’ Book, songs collected by ur-folklorist Natalie Curtis. Her transcriptions confront the limits of Western notation, but she took pains to place every melody and lyric in cultural context, to keep its spirit alive. Every tune has a story. That’s the trio’s way in.
          A “Maliseet Love Song” from the Northeast is taken straight off the page; then Baars varies the pitches while preserving the written rhythm, with the tenor tenderness the song calls for: a man sings it, leaving for a months-long winter hunt, unsure if he’ll make it back home.
          But for all the ways they reinterpret these melodies, Songs is also alive with the humor and play in Native American music. “Wai-Kun” is the jingle from a Winnebago fable about mice who live under a log and think they’re the world’s only people; the mouse who can touch the bottom of the log sings his own praises for touching the sky. All manner of voicelike inflections come into play: exuberant yelps, cries, mumbles and pitch falloffs. Ab’s deliberate wanderings off standard pitch reinforce parallels to the untempered human voice. And the unexpected celeste melody at the end mocks the mouse’s tiny triumph.
          You could look to the Navajo spirit journey/creation myth song “Dsichl Biyin” as a model for jazzed up Indian music—for how to put living breath in those repetitive chants, evoking the timbral language of Native American song. The “tom-tom role” when filled at all falls mostly to choogling bass.
          “Indiaan” is one of three non-traditional tunes on Songs, alongside Ray Noble’s jazz standard “Cherokee,” identifiable only by a scrap of melody at the end, and Charles Ives’s lament “The Indians.” The one traditional song not from Curtis is “Jeux,” from a hocketing game played by Inuit girls, who chant breathy lines into each other’s faces while inhaling and exhaling, in tight, mirror-image call and response. The game ends when one messes up or breaks out laughing. That duo duel is acted out by tenor and bowed bass, playing the game for real. “We would speed up the tempo, get into problems, rhythmically, in terms of breath or technique,” Ab says. “But instead of bursting into laughter we’d jump into a short improvisation and then start again.” Virtuoso breathing, hocketing, syncopation and rapid pulsing, a minimal/rocking rhythm, guttural tone, complementary articulation, gamesmanship, and oral tradition: what’s not to like, from an improviser’s perspective?

Occasionally, the trio has expanded, adding trombonist Roswell Rudd (for the CD Four—Baars and Rudd tunes) or Joost Buis (on Kinda Dukish—rearranged Ellington), or fellow tenor/clarinetist/composer Ken Vandermark (for two tours, and 2008’s Goofy June Bug). They’ve also teamed with Steve Lacy, the guitarists from The Ex, the Doelen String Quartet, the Nieuw Ensemble, Vancouver’s Francois Houle/Peggy Lee/Dylan van der Schyff clarinet/cello/drums trio, and Chicago’s Josh Berman, Jeb Bishop, Guillermo Gregorio and Robert Barry, that last bunch for a John Carter program. Baars, De Joode and Van Duynhoven also mix with various locals on Misha Mengelberg’s 1998 Two Days in Chicago.
          Ab belatedly threw his 2003 Party at the Bimhuis to celebrate the band’s tenth anniversary and entertain guests including violist Henneman and altoist/flutist Rouppe van der Voort. The trio reprise “3900 Carol Court,” and “Indiaan” with composer Janssen added on piano, and play Monk’s “Reflections” with Misha at the keys. Guests and regulars mingle in improvised interludes. Three numbers—including Carter’s “Enter from the East,” viola now taking the melody—add all four guests to the trio, its furthest expansion on record. “Portrait of Roswell Rudd” features both pianists, jointly painting an abstract action portrait of that trombonist, while the other players maintain an atmospheric, Ivesian distance. Played by septet, “Von,” a previously unrecorded tune from the trio book, could pass for ’60s free jazz. Baars resists any temptation to imitate its namesake.
          In many ways, 2011’s Gawky Stride is a turn toward looser, less structured territory. As in ICP, the longer the musicians play and work together, the less they need formalized rules. For the first time on record, they play free improvisations, “Spray of Rooks” and “Lace Rocked Foam.” (The titles, but not concepts, come from poems in Derek Walcott’s collection White Egrets.)
          “In the past few years,” Baars says, “we’ve rehearsed a lot even when we didn’t have concerts. These rehearsals were mostly about improvising—working on opening up and developing the trio’s awareness of form, and to be more playful without losing sight of a piece’s concept. The goal is to be as free as possible—to feel unrestricted by the material but challenged to apply our individual performance techniques to it. It’s not about playing the compositions in a ‘strict’ or ‘clean’ way but playing with ‘beau geste’: with a generous spirit.”
          Indeed. There’s almost palpable friction between (and within) bass and tenor parts on “Lace Rocked Foam”—but then Wilbert loves those scrunching ‘wolf tones’ other string players avoid. For much of “Ochre Verges” clarinet and arco bass play a cat-and-mouse game of ‘listening and not listening,’ with drums picking up and braiding their threads—until they align over sighing high notes in the endgame. On the free “Spray of Rooks,” the rhythm players’ ramshackle broken-time swing pushes without stating a pulse; “Indigo Weight” has time-playing without walking bass, ratatatt without fixed drum patterns, and melodic tenor with a fragile, egg-shell timbre. Like “Gawky Stride” it’s got a shapely, suspense-building melody.
          “Toru’s Garden” and the haiku-concentrated “Bannered Breakers” find Ab on shakuhachi, which he’s studied in Japan, Canada and Holland. To these ears, he aims for a more idiomatic sound than on his other axes—though as he points out, teacher-hopping is very untraditional.
          For the state of the trio in its third decade, I’d point to “Wake Up Call,” also in ICP’s book, though the trio give the definitive reading. It’s a typically Baarsian construction with multiple momentum-halting exclamation points, torturous mountain ascents and squealy blasts for their own sake; bowing liberates the bassist’s inner clarinetist. But the collective improvising they dive into after a couple of minutes is the sweet meat, where Amerindian inflections (tenor) and rhythms (bass) come back in completely non-obvious ways, not least because Van Duynhoven as ever resists shopworn tom-tom markers.
          The Native American cultural strains—like John Carter’s mesospheric lines, Von Freeman’s tonal/timbral choices, and two decades of rehearsals, meals and concerts—deepen the pool of shared experience that these musicians draw on every time they play. With their ambition and scope, striking sonorities and original outlook, and radical juxtapositions of the rude and refined, they’re a model modern jazz trio.