On a fall 2012 coast-to-coast tour across the United States, a Dutch couple headed eastward from Seattle toward Brooklyn, their itinerary drawing them closer to New York as Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the Northeast U.S. They weren't merely enjoying a fall vacation -- multi-reedist Ab Baars and violist Ig Henneman performed 15 concerts along the way, including an opening-night set at Ann Arbor, Michigan's Edgefest, as remnants of Sandy dissipated above their heads. The storm forced some changes in the festival schedule but Duo Baars-Henneman went on as planned, performing their tour program of duets inspired by the autumn-evoking poetry of Blake, Yeats, Stevens, Basho, and others, and also by Charles Ives' song "Autumn." After the tour, Baars and Henneman recorded an album of these Autumn Songs at Amsterdam's Bimhuis, releasing it on their Wig label in February 2013. Quoted inside the CD package, Ann Arbor.com's Will Stewart praises Duo Baars-Henneman's Ann Arbor show under the headline Edgefest copes with Hurricane Sandy complications, improvises an outstanding start. A near encounter with Hurricane Sandy notwithstanding, Autumn Songs, like its poetic inspirations, doesn't primarily dwell on the season's stormiest aspects. That's not to suggest the album is entirely moody and contemplative; Baars squeals and squalls on tenor sax during his opening to "It Bends It Sways," inspired by Hoe Boven Alles Uit by Dutch poet Hélène Gelèns, and Henneman rips notes and sounds from her viola with a sometimes aggressive, abrasive attack.
Yet Baars and Henneman also express seasonal moods in which exuberance is remembered from a summer past, and brilliant hues present a final sensory explosion before cold and darkness set in. Beckoning autumn to linger before departing "o'er the bleak hills," Blake's To Autumn inspired "Brows of Morning" here, featuring Baars' tenor and Henneman's viola soloing separately before they join in a final probing, animated duet improvisation; perhaps this represents summer recalled, but a final return to the song's theme suggests something more reflective and somewhat melancholic. In the dance of Henneman's viola glissandos and Baars' pure clarinet tones in "Nine and Fifty Swans," one might hear the inspiration of Yeats' The Wild Swans at Coole, whose narrator, burdened by the weight of experience, takes solace in the swans' "unwearied" nature even as he awaits their inevitable departure. For "The Clouds Go," with elongated double stops and breathy multiphonics, the duo looked to Wallace Stevens' The Death of a Soldier, in which autumn serves as metaphor for anonymous death on the battlefield. As creative improvisers, Duo Baars-Henneman avoid descending into outright mournfulness, and some of Autumn Songs' best moments are purely atmospheric, as when Baars' shakuhachi conjures the approach of winter in the Ives song and -- most appropriately -- the mists shrouding Mount Fuji in a Matsuo Basho haiku. Autumn Songs eloquently and sometimes brashly suggests the poets' words, with sound imagery ranging from blustery to nearly still, from rough-hewn to delicate, unburdened by solemnity and usually far subtler than a hurricane.