Hell: what a year. Even if I factor in the less-than-inspiring turnout at our Pacific Northwest gigs this past March, 2007 has been one incredible period for the band so far. So much so that if you had told me, even last December, that we'd be where we are right now, I'd've thought you were loopy or something.
Our Bakersfield appearance of eleven days ago was the perfect continuation of the good vibes established with January's "IJG on Ice" east coast tour (vibes which had already been extended by the late March shows we did in SoCal -- especially our Dizzy's hit, an annual tradition that always yields a good time). The behind-the-scenes machinations here really point to the essential without-which-not of this business: stubborn, single-minded persistence. Getting the group to a place where it can be self-sustaining seems to require a maniacal degree of stick-tuitiveness (what's that definition of insanity again?). At least, in the case of Bakersfield, the madness was not entirely mine -- Kris Tiner (whose new CD, by the way, is absolutely gorgeous) had been trying to get us into that festival for a few years now. Thank [insert the deity of your choice -- or not] that he finally succeeded, and thank (festival director) Doug Davis for taking a chance on our wacky monstrosity, because we broke numerous personal bests with this show: 1. the highest per-person fee I've been able to pay without losing money myself, 2. the biggest audience we have ever had, 3. the first time (I think) we had ever had bona fide dancing by audience members, 4. the first time we have ever had a trailer (all to ourselves), 5. the first time the big band has ever been fed before a show, 6. the most CDs sold at a single show (19), 7. the most CDs I have ever had to sign after a show (I didn't count, but it was a lot). It was quite unbelievable and quite delightful all at once.
Needless to say, it's a fucking shame that Kris and Damon (Zick, one of the other IJG stalwarts), who have both been in the front lines with this group for a long time, and have both weathered some pretty out-and-out shit gigs with us, weren't able to cash in on the fruit of their hard work by joining us for the Netherlands trip. Suffice it to say that both gentlemen had very good reasons for being unable to go abroad, and both know (I hope) that they will be more-than-welcome to make the return trip, should one be offered. Of course, their subs were both able and beautiful players, about whom I shall have more to say by-and-by. All of this is just for the record.
Anyway, last week's journey out to the "low countries" was not without its share of stresses, but not for the reasons I had expected. Daphne and Thandie came along for the tour as well (we had some vague notion of giving Thandie a "character building experience" that none of her toddler buddies could match), and I'll confess that one of my biggest worries getting on the plane was that the little one wouldn't sleep at all during the flight out. Turns out she passed out somewhere over Ohio, and slept, well, like a baby until we got over the North Sea. By then we were flying into the sunrise, and it was the next day. Her folks, in the meanwhile, had fretted the night away, wide awake. Ah, parenthood!
However, I digress. I learned during a frantic layover in Houston that not one, but two of our esteemed number (Phil Rodriguez and Josh Sinton) had unfortunately missed their flight to Holland earlier that afternoon. Turns out international flights out of JFK are very difficult to make. Kudos to the dudes for not giving up: in the end, Phil was able to get an alternate flight (to Belgium, I think) that got him over in time for Wednesday's gigs. Poor Josh fared less well, but he nevertheless arrived in time for the Bimhuis gig on Thursday. Whew.
Anyway, mine was the next-to-last of the IJG flights to arrive Wednesday morning (May 16), and by early afternoon the entire group (sans Josh) had been shuttled (courtesy our Dutch drivers -- Hans, Jo, and a few others whose names I didn't get (volunteers all, by the way, and a more cheerful bunch you will not find anywhere)) from Schiphol to the hotel in Den Haag, a quaint little number located next to the World Forum Convention Center (the locus of the festival). In addition to Daphne and Thandie, we were accompanied by a few other significant others / auxiliary members of the group: Matt Lichtenwalner, affiliated with Jill; and Kay [sorry Kay, don't know your last name], affiliated with Cory. Both would prove to be of invaluable assistance -- Matt as a videographer and all-around "what can I do to help out?" sort of dude (if this band ever gets somewhere, I can easily see him in a tour manager sort of role), and Kay as a dispenser of CDs and collector of money. I hereby officially thank them both for their help.
European newbie that I was, I immediately noted a few things about our temporary home-away-from-home: 1. Everyone speaks English to some degree. Even the TV is primarily in English. 2. It is not unusual to find beer in vending machines. Heineken is the beer of choice in said machines. (Okay, so the system isn't perfect.) 3. Everyone smokes. A lot. It's like they don't believe in cancer. 4. The coffee, which is exquisite, comes in very small doses. (And incidentally, I didn't see a single Starbucks the entire time I was in-country.)
Anyway, we made our various introductions (this special international version of the group [personnel here] included west coasters, east coasters, and Europeans) and then set off to our first show, a half-hourish "preview" thing designed to pique people's interest in the festival proper. It was free, it was outdoors (somewhere in the midst of a fun little shopping area of the city), and it was windy as fuck. At one point during the performance I watched in horror as some of Wolter Wierbos's music blew clear across the stage and under the drum kit. Given those conditions, and the fact that we had a few brand-new folks on board, I was genuinely surprised when we made it to the end of the set without any train wrecks.
Now, it's always difficult for me to judge the reaction of any given IJG audience, seeing as how my back is to them most of the time during a show. Of course I was well aware going into this that Europe in general has a fantastical reputation amongst jazz musicians as a fairytale haven of "true jazz lovers." But I have also always wondered how much of that is exaggerated, fed by a level of rejection-by-one's-home-country so telling as to make even the slightest appreciation abroad appear much more significant than it is. I suppose there must be a pretty broad range of experiences out there, but as for the reception we got -- well, it started out great and only got better. This first show had a pretty good crowd going -- it was, after all, outside, and people just got swept up in what we were doing as they were out running errands or whatever. The fact that we didn't scare folks off -- the reaction we probably would have had given a similar public performance situation in the states -- suggests a real difference in the everyday relationship that Dutch people have with the arts. While we have our street fairs, of course, the music is usually that which, by virtue of its commercial viability, most complements the sea of commerce in which it is situated.
Anyway I think with this first show that we succeeded in our goal of charming the people of Den Haag. (And I must say that the preview concept is brilliant, particularly for a festival this young -- it may in part help explain why the thing eventually sold out.) Next we indulged in our first round of Dutch beer, and then everyone piled back into the vans and was driven back to the hotel. This even though we were scheduled to have dinner -- which, we soon learned, was located at the next performance site. (In other words, no sooner did we empty out of the vans then we had to pile back in. And such is how it goes with a large festival like this.)
Site number two was adjacent to one of the many public squares that can be found throughout the city. It was a bit of a bigger stage, a bit windier, with a bit more of an urban vibe. (Like a moron I neglected to write down any of the location addresses (or even pick up a map) while I was in the Netherlands. But I think this area is referred to as the Grote Markt or "Big Market.") There were a few things that were particularly notable about this set -- which was also well-received by a moderately-large crowd. The first notable thing was our MC, whose name I didn't catch, but who is apparently well-known by his countrymen. He announced us in the raspiest, most gruff voice I have ever heard (he sounded sort of like Miles Davis being strangled by Howlin' Wolf, or maybe vice versa). It was quite comical for many of us in the band to hear these strings of spastically-uttered gutteral Dutch words, punctuated by words we recognized, despite the heavy accent (e.g. "[dutch word] - [dutch word] -[dutch word] -[dutch word] -Tuxedo Trouble!", or ""[dutch word] - [dutch word] -[dutch word] -[dutch word] -Industrial Jazz!").
The other notable thing about this show is that we came face to face (for the first time, in my case) with the formidable force known as Spyro Gyra. We thought we had a good crowd, but the Spyros were mobbed. And once they started playing, you could see why. It was like being on a cruise ship without ever having to leave dry land. Silly me: I thought Lee Ritenour was the man!
Actually, the Spyros provided the first of several leitmotifs for the tour. Later that same evening, while back at the hotel, quietly enjoying my fourth or fifth beer (alcohol is like air over there), and mulling over the events of the day, I involuntarily overheard an argument between two members of the group. Somebody had pissed somebody else off, and person number two was not going to take it anymore. (Oh, jeez. Their music is so bubbly, who knew they were such tortured souls?) Jill mentions another occurrence of the SG leitmotif here (find it quickly by searching for the word "grope").
The second leitmotif, discovered after tearing myself away from this eavesdropping situation, emerged during a drunken conversation between Schnelle, Brian, Jill, Matt, and myself. Dan, it turns out, is an anthropologist of sorts; his research has primarily consisted of compiling a dictionary of beyond-the-pale-sex-acts-that-go-by-funny-names, such as the infamous Alaskan Pipeline. These, in turn, would work their way into the various lacunae that populate our music (such as the constantly-changing four syllable utterance that concludes "Hang Ten Through Hell").
So that's the wrap-up for day one. Next: IJG live at the Bimhuis.