December 24th 2007

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A thousand years and tens of thousands of kilometers ago, I arrived in Amsterdam to begin work on a quartet project with Ab Baars and his trio that includes Wilbert De Joode and Martin van Duynhoven. Things began simply enough on the 23rd of September: a short flight to Amsterdam after no sleep in Oslo (thanks to the assistance of Paal Nilssen-Love), some loose discussions with Ab and Ig Henneman about tour plans over dinner, and a trip to one of the best bars on the planet: Krom (Duvel served in frozen glasses, bartenders who whistle along with Thelonious Monk 45s played on an old jukebox…).

Rehearsals started the next day in a studio around the corner from Ab’s place. It was great to see Wilbert again and to really get to meet Martin for the first time. I’ve been interested in this trio for years, and have bought all of their albums and have heard them in concert whenever possible. (In the autumn of 2002 I listened to them while behind stage, lying on my back and exhausted, as they played an incredible set of John Carter compositions. It was the inspiration I needed before walking on after them to perform with the Territory Band at the Berlin Jazz Festival, the year it when it was superbly organized by John Corbett).

Ab is writing some of the best original music happening right now, and getting this chance to work directly with his music and the group has been something I’ve been hoping to do for a long time. Many years ago, I first played with Ab in a quartet with Han Bennink and Hamid Drake at the Empty Bottle. (Our presence on stage was somewhat pointless. Han and Hamid were having such a good time working together that their creative volume and density pushed Ab to my side of the stage where we both sat down and became part of the audience, spellbound.) I brought up the idea of collaborating together on a project after we left the stage. He looked at me and nodded his head slowly, which I took to mean that he thought that this was a good idea. When we next saw each other, about a year later, I mentioned the idea of the project again, and again Ab gave me the slow nod. Another year went by and we bumped into each other: “Hey Ab, how about-” slow nod. So I gave up, figuring that he was being nice and polite, and really had no interest in working on such a project. Then, about a year ago, Ab said to me, “Perhaps we should do something.” I paused with the intention of trying to give him a slow nod, but instead immediately said- “Yes!”

The collaboration began with three days of long rehearsals. Ab brought in eight new or entirely re-worked pieces (“Von [a portrait of Von Freeman],” “Munmyo,” “Then He Whirled About,” “Straws [a portrait of Igor Stravinsky],” “Return,” “”A Portrait Of ‘Honest John’ [for John Gilmore],” “Goofy June-Bug Forgotten Poet Morning Stomp [title taken from a poem by Philip Whalen]” and one unnamed composition); I submitted four new selections for approval (“Losing Ground,” “Rather Scattered,” “Waltz Four Monk,” and “Memory Moves Forward”). Each of the twelve compositions was radically different from all the others; after the first day of work it felt like we had a hundred tunes to learn. Quickly, however, the material came together and by the end of the third day we were in good shape to start the concerts. I really like the rehearsal process, and Ab is a very good leader, always making sure things are clear and developing in the right way. Throughout the tour the group would discuss the music and make improvements to arrangements and interpretations every night, we were always trying to make the material grow. In the evening of those first days Ab would have me come up to his apartment- which was filled with artist monographs, books of poetry, Jazz albums and cds- to run the themes and improve our phrasing, to ask questions or make comments about how to interpret the material. The work was always about music and fantastic.

Ab and Ig had organized every aspect of the tour perfectly, from the rehearsals to the concert itinerary to the transportation to the accommodations and food. So the first stretch of concerts logically took place primarily in the Netherlands. This gave the band a chance to explore the many aspects of performing these new sets of compositions when the traveling was only a couple hours drive in Wilbert’s van each day. The first shows took place in Middelberg (Café ’t Schuttershof/September 27th), Tilburg (Paradox/28th), and Den Haag (Paard van Troje/29th). These shows were a ball. The communication in the group developed quickly and I was given my first real opportunities to interact with Ab’s tenor and clarinet playing along side the remarkable rhythmic dialog between Wilbert and Martin.

Since the concerts were so close to Amsterdam Wilbert would usually pick us up in town, then we’d play the shows and he’d bring us back after we packed up. This meant that, between the rehearsal period and the early shows in Holland, I had a lot of free hours to explore Amsterdam. For the first time I really got a sense of the city. Moriyama made another appearance after the Oslo gallery encounter, I found one of his monographs hidden in an English language bookstore in town and quickly purchased it. Other photo concerns lead me to FOAM (Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam) where I saw a very interesting Hans Eijkelboom exhibition called, “Paris-New York-Shanghai,” which compared the typologies and patterns between those three cities. In their bookshop I found a great collection of G.P. Fieret photographs in rough grained black and white. Another afternoon was spent at the Van Gogh Museum. As I looked at “Wheatfield with crows,” black birds against an impossibly blue sky and field of various golds, I realized that the last time I had seen the painting I was standing next to Malachi Ritscher. For me, it will now always be associated with that painful fact.

One night off was spent at Terrie Ex’s place, having a great dinner with his family and Andy Moor; playing cards with his daughter and somehow winning a game that I didn’t understand whatsoever, and staying up late with him and Andy listening to incredible Ethiopian music on cassettes Terrie had purchased while on a road trip through Africa with Emma. “Listen to it! It sounds like broken music!” he’d yell above the music booming out of the stereo. The three of us talked about all kinds of music, and why the idea of pulse grooves vs. metered time was so hard to convey to some musicians, when the strength of an elastic sense of rhythm was so evident in the music we were listening to. I slept longer that night at Terrie’s house than I had since my arrival in Europe a month earlier, almost a ten solid hours.

The tour continued with more work in Holland (October 1st in Eindhoven/Café Wilhelmina, October 6th in Utrecht/SJU Jazzpodium) scattered between gigs in Maasmechelen, Belgium/Chateau Vilain XIII (on October 2nd) and Zurich/Spheres (on the 4th). As the group began solidify its understanding of the written material, the initial excitement of performing together shifted to the issues of working as a collective- What did each piece imply musically? How did the rhythmic feel of one piece differ specifically from another? Why was the correct execution of the composed material not necessarily enough to properly set up the improvised elements from night to night? In addition, certain aesthetic struggles had to be addressed. We realized that in some cases the interpretation of the pieces varied from musician to musician. This set of issues became most problematic at the gig in Zurich, where a certain level of exhaustion from the long travel that day didn’t help matters. In Utrecht we played a set as part of the Fire In The City Festival on a bill that included a duo with Terrie Ex and Lasse Marhaug, and the Frank Gratkowski’s quartet with Wolter Wierbos, Dieter Manderscheid, and Gerry Hemingway; all of the musicians were also mixed into ad hoc groupings- quite an array of music that night. At the end of the evening it was super to hang out with everyone. Andy Moor and Emma came by after checking out a group from the Congo that was playing that night in Utrecht as well (based on the brilliant recordings Terrie had played a few nights earlier of the ensemble it may have been the better show to catch…). Things just got better when Marcel Kranendonk put Joe McPhee’s album, “Tenor,” on the stereo- the recording has remained as spellbinding as when I first heard it 25 years ago.

From this point the tour “really began,” time for trains instead of Wilbert’s van. These legs of the tour started in Germany- first stop Köln. As we walked out of the Bahnhof towards our hotel we were greeted with posters for a Daido Moriyama exhibition plastered all over the place- somehow I wasn’t surprised. What was surprising was the strange set of elderly women we saw in the various U-Bahn stations over the next few days. On one afternoon, as Ab and I were hurrying to make a connection on the subway, we passed a woman who made an extremely loud guttural sound as we went by. “What was that?” Ab asked me in a kind of shock. “Some kind of grunt I think. Maybe she thought we were getting too close.” “Oh, thank god,” came the reply, “I thought it was a huge fart.” Others belonging to this assortment of experiences included two women walking around the enormous Berlin train station with coat hangers still inside the shoulders of their coats, and a lady serenely waiting on an underground platform with a falcon on her shoulder.

The gig in Köln at the Loft on October 7th was another move towards the next wave of developments for the quartet project. Each sound check on the tour provided us with a chance to examine the fine points of the pieces and improve the execution of passages and written ideas, and Ab utilized this time to the fullest. His consistent methodology helped put the conception between the members in sync. Ab was also extremely open to input from everyone on ways to make the music work better. For my pieces the same held true, ideas from the band only helped to improve the material. After reviewing the details this way, every concert was seen as an opportunity to dig deeper and reach further with the compositions; we felt free to explore the improvising possibilities since the there were less and less concerns about understanding how the music worked.

The group had a travel day to Berlin, where I met up with Håvard Wiik and Erle, who had recently moved to town. On the afternoon off before the quartet’s gig on the 9th at the Aufsturz, Håvard and I visited the Hamburger Bahnhof museum where my favorite work was the Beuys and the few paintings by Picabia on display. Other hours were spent in bookstores, especially a fine shop where I found a great book based on an exhibition put together by Julien Levy of photographs by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Walker Evans; and Rudy Burckhardt’s, “An Afternoon In Astoria,” as a cut-out! Randomly picking up a design catalog, I opened it directly to a page featuring the layout for a monograph of Moriyama’s photos.

Before our concert the band had dinner with Toby Delius at his apartment. This put us all in a great frame of mind to play a really strong show to a fantastic audience, great to be in this city again after so much time away. From Berlin it was on to Munich to play at Unterfahrt where I saw an old friend, Colin Gilder, who I’ve known since the NRG Ensemble days more than a decade ago. He was an organizer and driver on some of our early trips to Europe. The first time I met him we had an overnight journey by van and I sat in front to help him stay awake with conversation. Of course within five minutes I was promptly asleep. When I woke up hours later with the sun streaming through the windshield he was still talking so I guess he didn’t mind me sleeping too much.

After Munich we went to Austria for some shows, first in Wels for a set on a double bill at the Alter Schlachthof on the 11th, then to Vienna at Porgy and Bess on the 12th where the house was packed and enthusiastic, aside from a few people who kept talking so loudly they were distracting Ab between tunes. Then, once again, the “Everything’s Going Perfect” jinx came into effect. All the concerts and logistics had been going so well, someone in the group made the mistake of saying so, which meant it was time for something to go wrong.

We had an 11:30 am train to Maribor, Slovenia to catch on the morning of the 13th, and our hotel was right across the street from the Westbahnhof. Ahh, to sleep late, just a three minute walk to the station, so the decision was made- meet in the lobby at eleven and off we go to Maribor. At 11:03am, as we stood under the postings for arrivals/departures in the Westbahnhof, Ab turned to me, a bit pale: “We’re supposed to be at the Sudbahnhof across town.” What ensued wasn’t exactly panic, but it was something close. Wilbert decided we should take the tram instead of a cab to avoid traffic, so we piled onto the narrow streetcar with all our luggage and instruments and proceeded to pause each and every hundred meters for the tram stops… Not surprisingly, we missed the train to Maribor by only five minutes. Thankfully there was another one leaving in an hour, so we sat in another smoke filled Austrian restaurant drinking coffee before moving on.

To say that it was great to be back in Slovenia again just doesn’t do the experience justice. Our first gig was in Maribor on the 13th, and David Braun organized a beautiful night for us, ending with a traditional heavy meal with strong beverages after the concert at the Narodni Dom. Martin was on a roll, it was like having dinner with one of Walter Matthau’s movie characters. His sense of comic timing and use of facial expressions are impossible to transcribe, but the double-take Martin gave me when one of the dinner guests said that the cadavers of alcoholics have perfect arteries and was evidence that everyone should drink more (“Uh, what about their livers?” Martin asked. “Well, they look terrible, but you really only need about ten percent of your liver to survive.”), was right out of the “Odd Couple.” Ab later told me a story of a night when he and Martin were waiting for a streetcar in Amsterdam when an enraged and belligerent drunk came up to them demanding their money. It was raining and Martin just looked at him and pointed to his head, “Sorry, I can’t deal with you right now, I’m having a bad hair day.” The guy immediately started to laugh and began a rather looped conversation with Martin and Ab before stumbling off, calm and pacified, into the wet Amsterdam evening.

Ab had tons of good stories, either from his own experiences or some that he had heard or read elsewhere. There were a number of conversations about Stravinsky during the tour, inspired by the fact that we were playing Ab’s piece, “Straws.” On one occasion he told me about a time after Stravinsky first moved to Hollywood when he heard a performance of some of his works. He arrived late and sat in the back of the auditorium in order not to create a scene, which turned out to be a good idea since the interpretation and performance of the his music was atrocious. With each mistake or miscue Stravinsky would cringe or flinch. This went on throughout the first half of the concert. When the lights came up for the intermission, an elderly woman sitting next to him turned and said, “I used to react that way when I first heard this modern music too, but don’t worry- after a while it gets easier.”

The next night the quartet traveled to beautiful Cerkno, and aside from a man, who sat in the front row and grimaced at us for two sets straight, we had another wonderful evening and a fantastic meal of local food cooked for us, with the chance to see more good friends (Bogdan, Brina, and Bostjan). From there it was back to Austria for a gig in Graz on the 15th, which turned out to be one of the tougher concerts on the tour. The frowning man in Cerkno must have sent his cousin to the show, another guy glared at us for the two sets at the Stockwerk. Of course he was pretty much the only person we could see in the audience since the lights directed at the stage were so bright the rest of the listeners were hidden from sight. Before the concert Ab and I were interviewed by the architect, Michael Habernz, on his radio show where we had a nice dialog about the music and the process of working together.

At this point it was time to head south to Italy for the last series of concerts before heading back to the Netherlands. Our first show was in Udine, where we had the greatest food of the tour. The organizer explained a whole system of growing food and livestock, bartering with other suppliers and exchanging goods that were developed according to old school methods. He explained that “organic food” was nearly impossible at this point, genetic engineering had infiltrated nearly every aspect of farming, but it was possible to utilize traditional methods for healthier and better tasting goods. The lunch we had at his restaurant sold me on the idea completely. Despite being thoroughly exhausted at this point, I needed to get some laundry done after lunch and got directions from the hotel to a coin wash. I found the Laundromat without trouble, but inside there wasn’t anyway place to pay for the machines and no one was working there. A young Italian man watching his clothes dry noticed me stumbling around with a bag of dirty laundry and told me to go to the African shop around the corner, there was a man at the counter who could help me. Incredulously following his direction I found the store, which was filled with about a dozen Africans in heavy discussion. The man at the counter took one look at me and said, “One second, I’ll help you with your laundry.” We left his shop and he got the washer running for me. “Come back in an hour, your clothes will be finishing up in the dryer.” As he walked back to his store I realized that he must be fluent in at least three languages, what was he doing in Udine running a Laundromat? I turned to step out of the door and Wilbert walked in with his bag of dirty clothes and glanced around confusedly, as I must have looked fifteen minutes earlier. “You’re not going believe this, but you need to go around the corner to the African shop…”

On the 17th the band traveled to play in Bologna, which is supposed to be one of the great cities in the world for food. As luck would have it, we were on the edge of town so it was another afternoon of sandwiches and me shooting photographs to kill time. Then to Rome on the 18th still completely, if not more, tired. However, when we got off the train and stepped into the chaos of that city I saw a poster for a Mark Rothko retrospective being held at the Palazzo Delle Esposizioni. Exhaustion be damned, I was going to that museum. Maybe it was the sleep depravation or maybe it was the complexity of the streets, but within ten minutes of leaving the hotel I was completely lost, so a half hour stroll turned into a two hour march. It was well worth the effort though, what an amazing exhibition- fantastic pieces from every aspect of Rothko’s career. Getting the chance to see his early figurative and biomorphic paintings, and the very late gray work was extraordinary. I went to the sound check with the other guys charged with inspiration. As with all the other shows on this leg of the tour, Ab spoke to the audience in Italian each night, introducing himself as Ab Persico (Baars means the fish, “bass,” in Dutch). Things started off a bit rough for this show, the location of the gig had been changed more or less last minute, and a woman in the audience kept trying to control her laughter throughout the first set. I figured that she’d leave, but like the angry old men in Cerkno and Graz she decided to stick around. In this case, however, it seemed that she actually came to enjoy the music and was listening enthusiastically by the end of the concert. There wasn’t a chance to eat anything before the performance, but the hope was to grab a nice meal afterwards- we were Rome! But it was not to be. After the gig we were lead from one end of the block to the other and back again while it rained, nothing was open so dinner consisted of a piece of stale cake and a beer back at the hotel. Our last concert in Italy took place on the 19th in Porto San Giorgio, a town more or less the opposite of Rome- mountains, quiet, space… A beautiful little venue called the TAM club, some morning coffee in the village, then to a train to Bologna, a plane to Amsterdam and a nightcap at Krom before getting some Netherlands sleep.

As with the rest of the tour, Ab had things planned perfectly for its conclusion. Nineteen concerts, then a recording session both live and “studio” at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam on the evening of the 21st and afternoon of the 22nd. What began as a staggering range of material had become a clear set of aesthetics that allowed the quartet project to develop into a truly original collaboration. By the time we played at the Bimhuis the book of twelve pieces was more than just thoroughly understood by the group; we had become completely free to spontaneously move anywhere within the material that made sense collectively or as an individual. And right up through the second day of recording the band was discussing refinements to the compositions and arrangements- this series of concerts never became less than a total work in process. In my estimation, Ab’s pieces developed in the following ways: “Von” (from a jazz sensibility to something that changed interpretation and arrangement on the spot, every night), “Munmyo” (from an adaptation of a traditional Korean piece featuring the clarinets to a set piece of the extreme aspects of the original placed against my solo solutions), “Then He Whirled About” (shifted arrangement several times but settled with a bass feature at the top and tenor duo at the bottom), “Straws: a portrait of Igor” (in many ways one of the most difficult pieces of Ab’s for me to play, trying to make the tenor saxophone sound appropriate on a homage to Stravinsky was very hard, but Ab’s combination of instruments and the voicings he used on the material made it possible for me to find solutions), “Return” (this remained a tour de force for Ab’s tenor playing at each performance, always on the edge intensity and fragility), “A Portrait Of Honest John” (another piece that went through radical shifts in arrangement and interpretation, again Ab’s voicings were spectacular- I don’t think that two tenor saxophones have ever created that much interval tension), “Goofy June-Bug Forgotten Poet Morning Stomp” (this became almost some kind of post-Archie Shepp soul tune, a blast for me to solo on), “untitled” (another extreme piece among extremes, and again Ab used such simple and straightforward materials to create a staggering amount of tension; relatively quiet clarinet tones rising against arco bass, no drums, resolving somehow into a re-worked phrase of Monteverdi- impossible and perfect).

Going into the project, I had a general plan on my material in terms of the basic arrangements. These structures changed in certain cases, but the difference between what Ab created on a single page (usually providing the phrases for all the instruments in parallel), which would then imply some possible directions for the music, and my sense of “road maps” for the improvisations was significant. Ab seemed to like my conception regarding a “complete vision” for the improvisational nature of a composition, whereas I was bowled over by the implications in all the details (voicings, dynamics, instrumental registers, etc.) he provided with his material. In many cases, much of the thinking in Ab’s music seemed to be inspired from ideas about counterpoint that he developed when studying with Misha Mengelberg, both for compositions and improvisation. Because of my lack of harmonic sensibility, I tend to work with sonic “images” that build my thinking about organization in almost in a cinematic way. This meant that on my pieces the structural flow remained pretty consistent after the first days of rehearsal in September, but what took place in the centers of improvisational activity would stretch in different directions on each night. One way to consider the general character of our methods is that Ab works through details towards expansion, and I organize events towards expansion; micro activity vs. macro activity. The key to either Ab’s or my approach is the creative attitude of the musicians playing the compositions, what they develop with the material on each occasion.

Briefly put, here are some aspects of the pieces I brought in. All were written while I was in New York during the “Musician” screenings: “Losing Ground” always featured Wilbert on bass, but sometimes Ab approached the trio section for clarinet and rhythm section like Giuffre, other nights like George Lewis, some nights pushing the horn to a disintegrating level. Wilbert would change his strategy to his solo over Martin’s brushwork every time we played the piece. “Rather Scattered” remained a burner, but it took time to organize the vamp content with Ab’s tenor solo on the second half of the tune. “Waltz Four Monk” was a somewhat straightforward Jazz piece on the surface, with tenor (Ab) and clarinet (me) soloing over a swinging rhythm section, but it would move in and out of 3/4 and 4/4 time at will. Of all of my compositions, “Memory Moves Forward,” ended up being most similar to Ab’s, and my original idea for the structure for the improvisations was abandoned. It took nearly half the tour to solve the problem of how to organize the piece so that it worked. In fact, I nearly decided to abandon the piece in Wels, but Ab convinced me to keep working on it and I’m very happy we did- the results were something severe and austere, Ab’s use of the shakuhachi on it was beautiful.

The last gig at the Bimhuis went very well, a good crowd and good music. Pieces that didn’t work at top level at the concert were played beautifully the next afternoon. Our problem now is that we have a dozen master takes, too much for an album, so what will we have to drop? I know that it’s going to be a hard process to make the final selection. Maybe there’s a way to release all of the music in two sets, as they were played in concert on the twenty gigs in September and October…

I know already that this trip with Ab, Wilbert, and Martin will be one of the greatest tours through music I’ll ever be involved with. The amount I learned, from instrumental issues (have since completely changed my ligature set up on all the horns after watching and discussing this issue with Ab) to compositional strategies (register placement, voicings, intervals, counterpoint), to creative attitude (these guys INVESTIGATED the music EVERY gig), to tour logistics (how to make one nighters make sense by sequencing them in a line instead of criss-crossing across the continent each day…), will stick with me forever. It was hard to leave for London on the 23rd, and to say goodbye to Wilbert and Martin after our last dinner together. At best, it will be a long while before we get to work again as a quartet; the next year is already booked for all of us.

Things concluded with one more night at Krom with Ab and Ig, listening to the Monk and other 45s that had been switched or added since we left the Netherlands for the rest of Europe on the 7th of October. A number of the regulars had heard us play the night before at the Bim and had been thrilled by the music, which felt really good to hear. The next morning came too early as usual; time for one more cup of Ab’s coffee at the small table by the window in his apartment, then a taxi to the airport. I arrived early in the day in London, took the tube into the city and went to the student apartment that had been set up for me. There I dropped off my luggage and horns, and walked around the neighborhood to kill some time before meeting Andrew Morgan for dinner to discuss our upcoming project with his compositions and my improvisations. I came across a design store, filled with books and items connected to architecture and typography. Among the magazines I saw Daido Moriyama’s face staring back at me and I knew at that moment that a certain aspect of the autumn was now done.

-Ken Vandermark, Chicago, 12/24/07