The Dutch improv duo plays tonight as part of the Open Ears Series' five-year anniversary.

Photo of Baars-Henneman Duo

The Open Ears Series has presented weekly improvised music shows for five years upstairs at the Blue Nile. To celebrate, organizers have booked a special series of performances including tonight's show at 10 p.m. by the Dutch duo of Ab Baars (tenor sax, clarinet, shakuhachi) and Ig Henneman (viola). They'll perform a program they call "Autumn Songs," a series of pieces inspired the season we're just starting to feel.

"Autumn in America can be nasty or wonderful if you go to the Northeast with all the colors," Baars says during a conversation on Skype. "['Autumn Songs'] means autumn in all its facets - saying goodbye, or death, or wine that is presented. Sometimes the compositions will be inspired by a poem or a picture or the wind. Anything is possible."

This program will be composed to the extent that the pieces have pre-determined beginnings. "Most of the compositions are little themes or forms that are starting points for the improvisation," he says. "It can be a line of five measures, or a little graphic painting or drawing to set out a form." This video from a previous show on this tour is of a piece inspired by a haiku by Basho:

Chilling autumn rains
curtain Mount Fuji, then make it
more beautiful to see


Baars is no stranger to New Orleans, having performed here with the ICP Orchestra, with Ken Vandermark and The Ex. He and Henneman visit New Orleans this time as part of a 14-date tour of Canada and the United States. "In America, people really enjoy listening to improvised music, but it's a small group who listens to it," he says. "People drive hundreds of miles to see you and hear you and talk to you. The Netherlands is so very small and everything is reachable within an hour, so I always find that stimulating."

The couple have been together for almost 30 years, but they didn't start performing together until 1999 when they were living in Rome. Friends had organized a festival and suggested that they play as a duo. There was a moment of hesitation, but they decided to give it a try. "It turned out to be very, very stimulating and a very creative way of working together," Baars says.

Improvising together has not caused stress in their personal life. "When the concert is not that good or we didn't like what the other one played or something went wrong, we never talk about right after the concert," he says. "We keep it for the next day, but actually, this hardly ever happens. We are quite good at talking. We both realize it's improvised music, and things can go in a direction that you can't control. We live with the fact that this can happen." 

For him, the fact that they know each other so well is their strength. They don't necessarily play to each other's strengths, but "we know that we can trust each other," Baars says. "We can bring the music really to the edge of the unknown. It's a great combination of sounds and ideas, and we can really stretch out things.

Although he has traditional jazz in his background and picked up the clarinet after listening to Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson's bands, that sense of adventure and exploration is the driving force - the moment when he's both participant and audience for the music. 

The appeal is not knowing what's going to happen, being surprised," Baars says. "Finding a way to build something or to destroy something or develop something with other musicians. When that works out, it's a great feeling to create something on the spot."