Ahhhhh back home again.
Its been a few days but I’m slowly returning to earth and NY, exhausted and rejuvenated from touring with Dutch reedist and composer Ab Baars’ Trio. I’d been sneezing this for a few months and November 2011 we performed 15 concerts in Europe of all original material call the Invisible Blow. The pieces, based on poems from folks as far flung as Muhammed Ali, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams and Charles Bukowski, were a metaphor for the Invisble Blow of life. Ab was so inspired by the book called On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates that he wanted to celebrate his 20 year anniversary of the Ab Baars Trio by putting together a program using boxing as a metaphor for life and getting older. The inevitable Invisible Blow that we’ll all face one day. Ab also decided to augment the trio by adding guests such as myself and the great French hornist, Vincent Chancey.
In September, I was in Europe to perform some concerts in Germany and I met up with Ab for a couple days in Amsterdam to talk over the scores for the project. Leaving this meeting fascinated with the concepts he had in mind, glad too that it would be a great challenge for me. My voice would need to accomplish all sorts of interesting instructions that I wanted to master. Wonderful knowing too that we’d have so many concerts to focus on the material, lots of space to explore different possibilities provided Ab as a bandleader was open. I couldn’t have imagined how open he’d turn out to be.
Early in November, Vincent Chancey and I arrived on the same flight – two days ahead of our rehearsal schedule, some time to ease into the city and our work before beginning to play. Ab invited the entire group for a band dinner the night before our first rehearsal as a way to break the ice, a way to see how the music will go since it started at the dinner table, meeting bassist Wilbert de Joode and drummer Martin van Duynhoven, whom I’d known from afar almost as long as I’d lived in the Netherlands. The opportunity to get to know Martin up close was such a special one since he turns out to be not only an amazing and unique drummer but an insanely funny and special character who kindly and w/o any trouble took care of one of my bags when we were moving around Europe. He watched it like it was a small child.
From the start of the rehearsals, it was clear that although Ab had strong ideas and direction for the pieces, Martin and Wilbert felt open to challenge Ab’s perspective regarding their particular role or the function of the piece entirely. Ab reacted to this in a beautful way, listening, usually trying suggestions to see if they work. He also invited Vincent and I to speak up about what we thought worked or not. He saw our roles not just as musicians but also composers, integral to the development of the music. I felt more committed to the music the more comfortable I was to say what I felt. As we got into the first concerts, Ab loved it when we took initiative and tried things on the band stand. Before each concert, we talked down the music and Ab would point out things he loved from the night before and new parameters for the concert we’re about to do. He’d also reinforce any idea he wanted retained. So no concert was ever the same. We never knew what he’d ask for or what would be OK. A nice way of being on edge and keeping the music fresh.
First to Krakow… which I found to be a magical place. Misty days, cold staying in an oddly palatial hotel with high ceilings and chandeliers. It was like being in the middle of a spy novel, with my gun at the ready, just in case I was discovered. Walking through the town at night, with its candlelit bars and sultry people speaking a sexy language gave the city a sensual air for me. Plus our concert there was sold out and hot. Then it was on to Warsaw…then Berlin. Berlin I caught a cold that didn’t go away until I returned to NY and that made the tour difficult in spots. Exhilarating too since I had to come up with new solutions to deal with the pieces. Despite this, the Berlin concert was incredible I thought and we had another full house. German pianist Achim Kaufmann came out to check the show, loved it and hung out with us afterwards. An early morning call the next day took us to the Austrian Alps. First Ulrichsberg, where we played a lovely concert in the Austrian countryside. Then off to St. Johann in Tirol, the ski resort town high in the Alps. This concert was also wonderful and we celebrated Ab’s birthday at midnight with a dance party that Vincent DJ’d from his Ipod. We drank and danced the night away and walked back to our Chalet of a hotel under a clear night sky full of stars and planets. Knowing we’d suffer on the trip the next day to play in Vienna.
Oh Vienna. What can I say? I hadn’t been there in 16 years and as beautiful a city as I have ever seen, its a place with a sinister undercurrent for me. I can tell you stories. But not now. Krakow is sexy, Vienna is sinister. Despite all that. the music was inspired this night and the club, the Blue Tomato, was sublime. Packed house and such an enthusiastic audience for Ab’s birthday concert. Austrian Pianist Elisabeth Harnik made the 2 1/2 hour drive from Graz to hang with us and the parents of an Austrian vocal student I had in New York made it to the concert as well! The worst thing that happened to us on the tour happened in Vienna. Wilbert de Joode’s wallet got stolen while we were waiting for trams, scrambling to catch our train to Ljubljana in Slovenia. Some bad info had us caught out there and Wilbert suffered the brunt of it. Fortunately he was able to get his credit cards blocked as soon as possible and besides a few personal things, they didn’t get away with much of value.
Safely on the train south the Ljubliana, Wilbert shaken but not stirred we made it in one piece and went to one of the loveliest venues of the tour. I was sad not to see the city in daylight as it looked incredible from the glimpes I caught and we were taking a night train out of there to go to Romania. So no chance of seeing it this trip…great concert there as well and a nice turnout. My cold was in full swing and it was the most difficult concert of the tour for me. I had to renegotiate everything. But the solutions were interesting and changed the music yet again. Ab thought we sounded most like a symphony orchestra on this night. I was bummed too since I’d been in touch with the promoter there some years before for the FVE. But in the end he was very happy with the concert and it was good to meet him. He’s a funny guy!
Now the night train. I’d only taken a night train once before from Barcelona to a little town called Lugo in Galicia (Northwestern part of Spain). That was OK since it was just two if us and we had an entire cabin and we were’t crossing any international borders. This time we’d go to Hungary through locales such as Serbia and Croatia ending in Budapest to connect to our train to Debrecen, the closest point to the Romanian border in Hungary. It was the longest travel day we had and with a cold, the enclosed air was a drag. Not to mention the tiny sleeping compartment.
When we got on the train, Martin, Wilbert and myself – all slightly claustrophobic and not quite ready to hit the sack made way to the restaurant car, in the hopes that we’d find something small to eat or drink. When we arrived there opened up a whole new world, looking like a car out of the Orient Express…warm reddish lighting, beautiful drapes and a mirrored ceiling! The kitchen was open and the chef was willing to make anything on the sizable menu. The guys ordered a bottle of wine, I drank shnappes and Wilbert and I shared a portion Hungarian Gypsy pork chops which tasted amazing (big lesson on this trip – you can eat WELL on Eastern European trains; Poland’s trains also had good eats!). The 3 of us hung out, talking about Amsterdam, traveling, the Engels (famous Dutch drumming family) and more. We could have stayed there all night but got kicked out when we crossed into Serbia. The restaurant had to close and we had to go to bed. Strange sleeping in a train…throughout the night, I’d get up (we had about 6 border checks) and look out to see freight car after freight car that we rode between. No way to know if you were in Boston or Hungary as it turns out. Strange feeling moving along on rail tracks surrounding by Industrial…whatever.
Our final concert on the road was in Oradea, Romania, in the heart of Transalvania. A eerily beautiful place. With a special frost that I’ve never seen anywhere – white frost stuck to trees, bushes and grass – in the middle of the day. On the way back to the border to fly out of Budapest, it was so beautiful to see and I could imagine why Dracula hates the daylight with this blinding light coming from the trees as well as the sky. Another full and receptive audience, a great hang afterwards with traditional Romanian cuisine. mmmmmm!
On Thanksgiving we all flew back to Amsterdam from Budapest, weary and wired. Bleary-eyed, I turned in early after Ig’s lovely traditional Dutch Stampot dish that was waiting when we got in from the airport. The next day we played the 2nd to last concert in Den Haag. Interesting place that filled up and we got a standing ovation! I felt totally free in the music at this point, leading up to the final concert in the Bimhuis, where we had a full house too! Full of friends and colleagues and people I hadn’t seen before. Afterwards reedist Michael Moore spun Latin grooves in the Bar area and it was a great night to end the tour with. The next morning, an early and final call to record the project at the Bim, san audience. Following this, Ig and Ab hosted a lunch party at their home as a beautiful end to an incredible time.
I haven’t had a more profound musical experience to date. I’ve worked alot, toured, been away on long journey’s with new musicians. Some situations were glorous, some where insane and some downright lame. But this experience was earth-shaking in that I discovered I can do so much more. And someone I respect incredibly saw that and wrote music to bring that out. Ab didn’t do that intentionally perhaps but that’s what happened. Then there was this unique sonic atmosphere to play in. Transparent and warm, most of the time. Then the camaraderie between all of us in the group, we simply got along. There was an openness from the start, the air was clear to say whatever. How wonderful is that? Getting along, laughing, each person feeling at ease to be themselves. Then the music that Ab wrote which seemed tailor-made to all of the participants involved. A wardrobe we got to wear and reorganize to our choosing until Ab points out that this outfit is to be worn on this occasion. It was fascinating to discover how much real music comes out when there is no bullshit. No competition. Just sharing. I feel alive in a way I haven’t felt in a long time, I feel like I’d been given a gift.
Now I am back home…reflecting. Taking it easy and reconfiguring new things for next year. No gigs in town this month but lots happening in the coming months. Shortly you can read about it on the Performance page of the FV site. I’ll be back with more info closer to the end of the year too. Thanks for reading and I thank the creator of the universe for Music.
One way of expressing how the tour affected me is to check out the words of Weldon Kees’ called Small Prayer. This poem was used in one of the pieces we performed and this really resonated with me. I think with all of us. Will let you know when the record comes out as well!
Change, move dead clock
That this fresh day will break
with dazzling light to these sick eyes
Burn glare old sun, so long unseen
that time may find its sound again
and cleanse whatever it is that a wound remembers
After the healing ends
Thank you for reading and Happy Holidays to you!
Learn more about the Invisible Blow at www.stichtingwig.com