Ab Baars Trio & Ken Vandermark
Goofy June Bug


It was thanks to his being a member of the by-now historical Dutch line-up "anarchistically led" by Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink called Instant Composers Pool Orchestra that I became aware of Ab Baars. The first time for me was about twenty years ago, at the time of the release of Two Programs, the nice album where the ICP Orchestra interpreted Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk as per the Orchestra's highly personal, impossible-to-mistake, usual manner.

It was only ten years later that I happened to listen to the rhythm section of the Trio led by Ab Baars, that so large a part has in the group's success: I'm obviously talking about drummer Martin van Duynhoven and double bass player Wilbert de Joode. The specific occasion was the release of Two Days In Chicago (1999), the solo album by Mengelberg where the pianist, ably aided by some Dutch musicians, collaborated with some US musicians whose names where not so well-known at the time, but are quite famous by now: Ken Vandermark, Kent Kessler and Hamid Drake.

When, about a couple of years later, I happened to catch the Trio live for the first time (they played alongside the excellent trombone player Roswell Rudd), I thought about how a line-up whose music was not at all difficult to listen to (though it was maybe a bit difficult to classify, which in itself can prove to be a problem) was known only by a few. Wilbert de Joode was a musician whose sound was quite versatile and beautiful, but somewhat "thin", and so potentially prone to be lost, if not adequately balanced (something that makes his nice solo album from a few years ago, Olo, so much more indispensable); while on that night van Duynhoven was both what I expected, and a revelation: a snare drum that was dry and precise, a deep bass drum, some well-controlled cymbals, stylistically quite versatile, he was the "jazz" element of the group, compared to the more "chamber-like" de Joode.

It was during that Festival, Controindicazioni, on a different night, that I noticed Ab Baars sitting right behind me. What better occasion to ask him the perfect question: isn't this Ken Vandermark guy still a bit raw? There was a reason for my asking this: on Two Days In Chicago, Vandermark had played on two tunes by Monk (Eronel and Off Minor), in a trio with Mengelberg and Drake; and to me, this unknown (to me) saxophone player had sounded as he was playing the same so-so solo on both tunes, reed whistle-overtone included.

I'll never forget the look in Baars's eyes: the same look (I suppose!) that Eric Clapton had when looking at Glyn Johns when the engineer had argued, against Mick Jagger's opinion, that it was the track You Can't Always Get What You Want, not Honky Tonk Women, that had to be on the A-Side of the new single by the Rolling Stones. Using all the patience he had, Baars explained to me that those tunes by Monk were really difficult, and that Mengelberg had decided to play them at the very last moment, with no real time for preparation.

(But to tell the truth, if I'm asked for a few names of musicians outside the mainstream whom I consider to be overvalued, the first ones that come to my mind are always Ken Vandermark and Hamid Drake. To me, the latter has never sounded as being any better that Don Moye, i. e., a good instrumentalist whom nobody ever considered to be an inventor of anything. Re: Vandermark, maybe it's my fault? I was never enthusiastic about Charles Gayle, and I've always believed that those who listen too closely to Peter Brötzmann end up in a cul-de-sac. Maybe it's just a matter of taste?)

The Trio is at is usual good, the leader on tenor sax, clarinet, and shakuhachi. As it's to be expected, Vandermark is now quite more assured than at the time of those uncertain Monkish solos. The album is not the result of a one-off session, presenting instead the best from two nights at the BIMhuis, Amsterdam (October, 21-22, 2007) at the end of a European tour of 20 dates. The only real so-so thing on this CD is its sound: it's quite clear (though maybe its volume is a bit too much on the low side: one can always turn the volume knob to the right), but most of the time the double bass is nowhere to be found; the drums are clearly audible, and so are the wind instruments, though they are a bit "light"; sometimes it's like we are watching the concert from a high balcony above the stage: very strange!, as if the concert had been recorded using a digital two-track recorder through a stereo mike, listening to the ambience. (But does the BIMhuis really sound so empty and cavernous?)

Given the (well-known) coordinates, the repertory is quite varied, to say the least: there are homages to Strawinsky (first track, Straws); Monk (Waltz Four Monk); "jazzy" moments resembling Mingus (Goofy June Bug); pieces that quote from 16th century madrigals (Prince Of Venosa); "Oriental" moments (Memory Moves Forward, Munmyo). The whole never sounds forced or gratuitous, even if at times I got the impression that this CD was almost intended as a "sampler", being asked to show all this line-up is capable of, at the expense of a bit more listening pleasure (not of the cheap kind, obviously!); this impression gets only to be reinforced by the lack of any audience sounds whatsoever.

As I already said, quite often de Joode's double bass is nowhere to be found; when one can hear it (arco in Honest John, those solo parts in Losing Ground), it makes one long for a different audio mix. Predictably, van Duynhoven's drums are as versatile as expected, with a nice propulsion on Goofy June Bug, nice written parts on Straws, "Oriental" percussion when needed, and clear hits on Losing Ground.

The two wind players share the solo parts (they are clearly indicated in the booklet CD, which benefits from the useful liner notes by Erik van der Berg), and the compositions. It was strange for this writer to hear a certain similarity between the first theme of Straws (whose reference point according to the liner notes is Agon by Strawinsky) and a section of For Calvin (And His Next Two Hitchhikers) by Frank Zappa; also at about 1' 56" of Losing Ground hearing a few notes that sounded (superficially) quite similar to the first theme of Exiles by King Crimson.

Straws is a nice opening, with Ab Baars's clarinet ably aided by Vandermark's tenor sax. There are two tenor solos on Honest John (I liked the one by Baars the best). Losing Ground is good. Not so convincing, though the solo parts are fine, is Waltz For Monk. Prince Of Venosa is quite unusual. We have a few suggestive "Oriental" moments with a shakuhachi and two clarinets. Goofy June Bug, with a nice tenor solo by Vandermark (maybe his best here?), is quite vivacious.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2008

CloudsandClocks.net | June 11, 2008