Erik van den Berg, 2008
An old comedian's joke: What's more beautiful than a violin? The answer of course: Two violins. In jazz terms: better to have two tenor saxophones than settle for just one. If we love the sound of a Selmer or King for its strength and muscularity, paired tenors promise a double dose of excitement, and joyful competition. Think of Wardell Gray's battles with Dexter Gordon; Coltrane wailing beside Pharoah Sanders; Lester Young versus Herschel Evans in the Basie band; Clifford Jordan and John Gilmore blowing in from Chicago...
Goofy June Bug, the meeting of Dutch reedist Ab Baars (born 1955) and his American counterpart Ken Vandermark (1964), offers the uproar you'd expect when acknowledged tenor heavyweights join forces-try Honest John's raw power lines for an example, or the alarming barks in the second bit from Then He Whirled About. But there's plenty more to enjoy here than displays of heroic strength.
Ab Baars has been a member of Misha Mengelberg's and Han Bennink's Instant Composers Pool for more than a quarter of a century. While his own trio with bassist Wilbert de Joode and drummer Martin van Duynhoven (documented on seven excellent CDs on GeestGronden and Wig) has Baars stamped all over it, its music shows more than a few traces of ICP's influence: open forms, varied improvisational strategies, wacky use of juxtaposition, and an unwillingness to treat jazz-or any music-as a fixed art form.
That's where Ken Vandermark comes in. Since arriving in Chicago in 1989, Vandermark has been a key figure in the Windy City's new music scene, organizing and co-directing concert series, and exploring his various interests in a wide array of groups-the Vandermark 5, Steam, Caffeine, the Cinghiale duo, the DKV, FME and Steelwool Trios, Spaceways Inc. and the Territory Band, to name a few. Different as they are, these bands confirm Vandermark's commitment to the tougher side of the American saxophone tradition, as well as his fascination for non-fixed European-style improvising, ICP's idiosyncratic brand included.
Like his Dutch colleague, Vandermark favors a rough, gruff sonority associated with free jazz patriarchs such as Albert Ayler, but like Ab he knows sustained silence and hushed tones can be powerful too. (Hear his feathery clarinet on Memory Moves Forward.) Though they're unlikely to be pigeonholed as just hard-blowing tenors, neither has problems dealing with a rock band's volume level. In his early 20s, Ab contributed high-energy solos to an album by Dutch new wavers Flying Spiderz (1979's Pressure, which pops up on eBay occasionally); Ken played with the punk/jazz Flying Luttenbachers, and has recorded a tribute to George Clinton's Funkadelic. More important, both are associated with Dutch impro-punks The Ex. Ab has performed and recorded with guitarist Terrie Ex since the late eighties, Ken recently joined Lean Left, a quartet featuring the twin guitars of Terrie and Andy Ex.
Another common trait: both players acknowledge their debts to past masters, dedicating albums or pieces to Johnny Hodges, Von Freeman, Sun Ra, John Carter and other luminaries. Independently, each wrote a musical thank-you card to a mutual hero: in 1994 Vandermark dedicated his Day Job to the great trombonist Roswell Rudd; four years later Baars added Portrait of Roswell Rudd to his trio's repertoire.
All of which made it inevitable they'd bump into each other eventually. It happened on November 14th 1999, at Chicago's Empty Bottle, where they found themselves on stage like a longstanding duo (Ab's words), joining forces in an impromptu meeting with loud drummers Hamid Drake and Han Bennink. (The Dutchmen were in town with ICP that weekend.) They resolved to work together again. It took nearly a decade to make it happen, but when they did, in the fall of 2007, it went off with a bang.
Goofy June Bug, recorded in Amsterdam after a tour of 20 concerts all over Europe, is proof of a predictably fruitful collaboration. (See kenvandermark.com for Ken's extensive and entertaining tour report.) Both players contributed original compositions, mostly tied to specific inspirations, though the connections may not be obvious on first hearing.
Take the opening Straws, a mysterious sounding miniature with delightfully tricky timing. The music doesn't reveal as much right away, but the title cues associations with composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn (nicknamed Strays), and one of Ab's heroes, Igor Strawinsky (nicknamed Straws by among others Cecil Taylor-or so Steve Lacy once told Ab). A fragment of Igor's ballet Agon inspired this graceful dance for tenor and clarinet, stirred up by Martin van Duynhoven's well-tuned snare and toms.
Honest John was Sun Ra's nickname for his Arkestra's principal soloist, the late great John Gilmore-admired by John Coltrane and every living tenorist on the planet. Again, there are no literal quotes or reconstructions, but an evocation of the raving, rousing spirit of Gilmore's music. Van Duynhoven's threatening rattles and the dark force of Wilbert de Joode's arco intensify the unsettled mood.
Prince of Venosa refers to Don Carlo Gesualdo di Venosa, whose 16th century madrigals Stravinsky loved, and whose leaping dissonances continue to inspire contemporary composers. Ab took a small fragment of the five-part 'Chiaro risplender suole/ A tutti il mio bel sole' (number five in Gesualdo's sixth book of madrigals: a lament over love in vain) and turned it into a thing of aching beauty. In his weblog, Ken wrote: Another extreme piece among extremes, and again Ab used such simple and straightforward materials to create a staggering amount of tension ... impossible and perfect.
Three years ago, on a solo tour of Japan, Ab bought a shakuhachi, the traditional end-blown bamboo flute. He's been studying the instrument ever since, and in 2006 was ready to record his first shakuhachi improvisations, for the Wig album Stof, with Ig Henneman on viola. Tellingly, on this second occasion the wispy flute is featured, not on the Asian Munmyo (based on a recording of ancient Confucian music from Korea), but in Vandermark's eerily touching Memory Moves Forward. In Ab's hands shakuhachi adds a tentative, unadorned sound that's as close to his own clarinet playing as to traditional Japanese music.
One clue you think you can't miss: Goofy June Bug. This soulful, swinging tune with a joyous post-free solo by Ken sounds like a nod to tenorist Archie Shepp and his tune Wherever June Bugs Go. (Some might even hear echoes of Dutch tenor hero Hans Dulfer, who Van Duynhoven collaborated with in a similarly swinging vein, in the 70s.) None of the above, says Ab: the title comes from a poem by American beat and Zen Buddhist Philip Whalen. Ab found the line Goofy june-bug forgotten poet morning stomp in a Whalen poem and was immediately taken by its musicality. (You can hear that line's rhythm in the melody.)
More connections: Whalen dedicated that poem-Plums, Metaphysics, an/ Investigation, a Visit, and/ a Short Funeral Ode-to the memory of poet William Carlos Williams, who in his turn inspired Then He Whirled About. Ab lifted that title from The Artist, a lightfooted poem in which Williams suggests a ballet dancer's pirouette.
The two tenors flow in the rhythm of Williams's phrases -
blissfully spiraling from line to line,
- only to be cut off by a sudden,
But the show was over.
Erik van den Berg, 2008