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John Engels: Looking Back, Moving Forward

Joan Gannij By

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On turning 80: "I have no sense of the time. I'm timeless. I'll keep swinging til it's time to go to the other dimension."
Drummer John Engels has the energy of two forty-year olds, which is pretty impressive, since he will soon be turning 80. He will celebrate this auspicious occasion with the Vogel Vrij (Free as a Bird) tour, a series of concerts at diverse venues throughout the Netherlands (with saxophonists Benny Golson and Benjamin Herman) which began in April and continues through October. A book was also recently published in Dutch: Hé Vogel, Wanneer Spelen We Weer?: Het Muzikale Leven van John Engels (Hey, Bird. When Can We Play Again? The Musical Life of John Engels) by Jeroen van Valk. Van Gennep Amsterdam)

On May 13 at the Bimhuis, Amsterdam's legendary jazz club, Engels will play with three groups: the Louis Van Dijk trio, his newly-formed John Engels Kwintet, and Barnicle Bill XL. The original line-up of the Louis Van Dijk trio will be reunited for this special event. Pianist van Dijk founded the trio in 1964, who collaborated with such international luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Thad Jones and Slide Hampton. "I have fantastic memories with Louis," Engels reflects. "We could play what we wanted back then, and in our own way. We also had commercial work, so we could mix the water with the wine."

For the first time in his more than six-decade career, Engels has formed a quintet under his own name. This dream formation will pay tribute to the famous The Diamond Five, the group (featuring John) which created a furor in 1957-1961 in Amsterdam's jazz club Sheherazade. Celebrating its fifth anniversary is the Barnicle Bill Trio, the group that made its debut at a sold-out Bimhuis for John's 75th birthday concert. The band will perform in its extended version, Barnicle Bill XL. The program includes music by Theo Loevendie, composer and saxophonist, who has been a friend of Engels since the 1950s. He was originally meant to play with the band, but had to bow out because of health reasons. He will be replaced by Tineke Postma or Jan Menu. Loevendie has done arrangements for several pieces which he and Engels have performed and recorded in the past. This music has played an important role in the development of Dutch jazz.

I have seen Engels perform with a variety of musicians on the Bimhuis stage over the years. He is always immersed, engaged, elegant, and clearly in his comfort zone. When I visited him for a recent chat on a broad tree-lined street outside the city center, I had to smile that the Dutch translation of that street's name is Broadway. John loves New York, and his multi-roomed duplex is chock full of framed photos, records, CDs, books, instruments. A razzle dazzle collection of memorabilia worthy of a New York jazz archive, casually juxtaposed with cats: photographs, drawings, some plush animal versions. Although he doesn't cohabit with any at the moment, there are a few cheeky felines who come by for an occasional overnight and a bowl of food. After all, it takes one hip cat to recognize another.

When he heard that I was born in New York City, we jumped right into our love of the 24/7 energy and the endless events taking place in every part of town. He was instantly in his element, regaling me with one story after the other. "Mel Lewis said, John, you should come to NY. It was 1982 and I stayed for three months. He took me to all the places. Every Monday I was in the Vanguard watching and listening. We didn't talk about the drums or the rudiments of the music. We only listened, and we talked later. It's the most swinging town in the word. I'd like to go in a time machine, so I could go back to being 16 and be in NY. New York is the jazz mecca, as well as New Orleans, but for me the Bimhuis is the Jazz Temple." Engels has played on the Bimhuis stages for 40 years, and artistic director Huub van Riel reflects on the drumming dynamo: "I know very few musicians, especially of the older generation, who have remained so curious about developments in the music. Throughout all these years, John has showed up at an enormous variety of gigs, including the most adventurous new music, and he probably will continue to do so."

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