Few missions in jazz are as perilous as re-arranging Duke Ellington tunes: you’re gonna do a better job of setting those jewels than he did? With the palette of distinctive voices he had to work with? Kinda dubious.
Still, Ellington helpfully provided a key to how another arranger might pull it off. Duke’s own compositions and charts are famously built around the quirks and appetites of his own musicians, their peculiarities of phrasing and pet techniques. (This was true even when he and pen-pal Billy Strayhorn arranged Grieg and Tchaikovsky.) So: go and do likewise. It oughta work, if the players you collaborate with have their own distinct styles. A kinda big ‘if.’
For Ab Baars, Kinda Dukish is sequel to previous albums in which his trio tackled pieces by clarinetist John Carter (A Free Step), and many and varied Native American chants, tunes and games (Songs—both are on GeestGronden, and well worth having).
“I was very happy with the results of the Carter and Indians programs,” Baars says, “because I was able to give a personal touch to material written by others. I felt confident the trio could transform even such strong and well known material as Ellington’s. For a long time I searched for pieces that had an open feel to them, pieces I could break up, rebuild or change. As I got deeper into it, it was inspiring to realize that Ellington himself applied this process to almost every composition.”
Indeed, in the 1950s, Ellington devoted a lot of time to remaking his early three-minute masterworks for the new long-player format. Concise oldies were stretched out, and sometimes given episodic treatments that might reflect the input of several arrangers, in or out of the band. “Kinda Perdido” incorporates quasi-improvised choruses bandmembers Jimmy Hamilton and Clark Terry wrote out back then, which turned up in various Ellington versions thereafter. (Just hearing the horns play those variations here prompts Martin van Duynhoven to salute Duke’s rimshot-powered drummer of the era, Sam Woodyard.)
For Baars, there was another conspicuous precedent: he was already a mainstay of Misha Mengelberg’s ICP Orchestra in 1990, when Misha recorded his radical takes on Ducal classics including “Solitude” and “Caravan.” But even a cursory listen to “Mix Solitude” and “Mixed Caravan” on ICP’s Bospaadje Konijnehol I will confirm that Ab finds his own ways into and out of that material.
In adapting Ellingtonia for this program, Baars draws on those familiar tunes, relative obscurities (“Aristocracy à la Jean Lafitte” from 1970’s New Orleans Suite, “Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool”) and a 1940 concerto for bass and orchestra, “Jack the Bear.”
“I listened a lot to Duke’s piano introductions, which are very inspiring,” Baars says. “Wrestling with the material, I began to hear all the possibilities that are in it.”
The interpretive leeway is decidedly wide. Sometimes Baars and company luxuriate in the maestro’s exquisite tunes and counterlines, as if Duke’s orchestra had been ingeniously miniaturized, as on “Kinda Half” (after “Half the Fun” 1956, from Such Sweet Thunder) and “Kinda Braud” (from “Portrait of Wellman Braud,” Duke’s pioneer bassist).
Some interpretations are a bit more radical.
One sympathizes with the hypothetical listener who, knowing nothing of Baars but digging Duke’s melodies, cues up this CD and is greeted by the opening of “Kinda Solitude.” The experience would echo that of an unwary ’60s record buyer who, wanting to hear a nice version of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” had stumbled on My Name Is Albert Ayler, the album where the outward-bound tenor saxophonist bends standard tunes to the breaking point.
Baars knows that record well, but here he does it one better: one might miss that his rude tenor introduction is in reality the melody as written (albeit stretched out, like one of those skewed-perspective faces hidden in a Renaissance painting). But by the time that first track is over Ab will play the melody straight, with disarming tenderness. He gets to deconstruct and reconstruct the tune in the same performance. He’s Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cruel, kinda.
The flexibility of his long-term trio—with van Duynhoven and bassist Wilbert de Joode—only increases when they expand to quartet. Trombonist Joost Buis is an old friend and frequent collaborator on the Amsterdam jazz/improvising/new music scene, and an ardent Ellingtonian. He leads a tentet, Astronotes, whose rich, self-titled CD on the DATA label includes a suave remake of the Ellington/Strayhorn “Zweet Zurzday.” (De Joode is the Astronotes’ permanent bassist, and Baars has guested with them many times.) The trio has made way for a trombone before, namely Roswell Rudd’s on Four (DATA), but give it up to Buis for cracking this tight-knit group, and so thoroughly entering into its spirit, on the heads and collective improvisations.
When Joost uses plunger mute to shape his notes, as on “Kinda Gentle,” his open-voweled wah-wahs are easily distinguished from the nasal ya-yas of Charlie Irvis, Tricky Sam Nanton and their progeny. But Buis knows his Ellington trombones too well not to tip his hat here and there. On “Kinda Caravan” he eerily evokes Juan Tizol’s valve horn on the memorable A section, and slideman Lawrence Brown’s bellowing tone on the bridge (even if the notes are still Tizol’s).
If any contemporary bassist can suggest the shock and awe Jimmy Blanton inspired when he joined Duke in 1939, it’s de Joode. His sheer force and percussive pizzicato make other players sound like they barely graze the strings—though he also loves playing arco, to blend with the winds, or revel in his own repertoire of bowed textures. For power plucking and bent bowing, look to “Jack the Bear,” and note how Wilbert survives the inevitable comparison. It’s a thrill to hear him play Blanton’s actual lines on the theme.
Like Duke, Ab knows one way to make players happy is to ask them to do what they want to do already. Martin van Duynhoven’s drumming has always been meticulous, and spanking-clean to the brink of Dutch stereotype. He’s one of those drummers who can make you hear the tune the band’s playing in the contours and phrasing of his drum solo. In fact he used to play “Drop Me Off in Harlem” on solo programs, and lives outside Amsterdam in Haarlem, so that selection was a no-brainer.
You might also look to “Kinda Harlem” as typical of the quartet’s approach to the particulars of small-group orchestration and suite-like forms. Like other episodic narratives, these keep you hanging on just to find out what happens next. For this and most pieces here, Baars made the crucial decision to reach for clarinet instead of tenor. The blend with trombone tips the overall vibe away from any hard-bop echoes and toward the clarinet-dominated swing era in which the Ellington band matured. Ab’s clarinet voice is so flexible he can suggest a reed-section’s worth of personalities even without ‘doing’ Hamilton, Barney Bigard, or Russell Procope.
What these players create here is a minor miracle. A postmodern quartet plays Duke loosey-goosey, and yet dots its performances with moments that recreate the sound and majesty of the Ellington orchestra. It’s the kinda thing you wouldn’t think possible if you hadn’t heard it yourself.
We do not speak for the dead—do not say, “Ellington would have loved (or hated) it,” because how the hell would we (or anyone who makes such stupid claims) know that? So I’ll speak for myself: I kinda love it.