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Yuri Honing: Sounds And Vision

Ian Patterson By

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I come from jazz, and for me doing stuff that is away from what you are used to doing is frightening. But I have learned over the years that being uncomfortable is usually a very good sign —Yuri Honing, saxophonist/composer
Strange that such a gruesome tale, drowning in blood, could have inspired so much great art. So it goes with Bluebeard, the seventeenth century French folktale, which continues to inspire artists to this day. Dutch saxophonist/composer Yuri Honing's Bluebeard (2020)— his fourth album on Challenge Records with his acoustic quartet—is not just a highly personal take on the Bluebeard legend, but arguably one of the most lyrical and musically poetic. It's a stunning work, spare yet deeply layered, and beautifully haunting.

It may seem like an odd move from a musician who, on the one hand, has spent much of his career creating jazz-filtered deconstructions of pop songs by the likes of David Bowie, The Police, Björk, Blondie, Abba, and Radiohead, and on the other hand, collaborating with jazz heavyweights such as Misha Mengelberg, Paul Bley, Paul Motian, Gary Peacock, and Pat Metheny.

Honing, however, is nothing if not a chameleon. Orient Express (2002), a collaboration with Lebanese and Iraqi musicians, saw Honing delve into his fascination with Arabic music. Symphonic (2006) paired Honing with Vince Mendoza and the 51-piece Metropole Orchestra, on a programme that included Weather Report and Joe Zawinul tunes. Honing's love of classical music birthed the Schubert-inspired Winterreise (2007). With musicologist/recorder player Erik Bosgraaf on Hotel Terminus (Brilliant Classics, 2013) Honing explored the nexus of baroque, jazz, rock, and electronic music.

No music is out of bounds. It's all part of Honing's musical make up. So too, the reach of history and art, poetry, and literature. White Tiger (Jazz In Motion, 2010), by Honing's two-guitar Wired Paradise band, was named after the Man Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name by Aravind Adiga. "Bits of Paradise" from takes its title from a book of short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald. "There's a lot of art that inspires me," says Honing. "I try to feed myself from my surroundings."

Honing, who describes himself as a workaholic, has a voracious appetite. "If I want one unit of output then I need three or four units of input. All the artists I know work this way," he says. "It means you have to broaden your horizon as much as you can."

Honing relates to David Bowie, who used his hunger for books and knowledge to feed his music. "There's this little book about some of the books Bowie read..." says Honing, in reference to John O'Connell's Bowie's Books: The 100 Literary Heroes Who Changed His Life (Bloomsbury, 2020). "Like Iggy Pop, Bowie read a lot, and any book that he read he used it for a song. I work the same way. It can be books, fiction, poetry, and especially paintings."

The input that produced Bluebeard, saw Honing immerse himself deeply in research on the legend of Bluebeard. Perhaps the most common version of the folktale is attributed to the author Charles Perrault, published in Histoires Ou Contes Du Temps Passé, Avec Des Moralités in 1697. Other well-known tales written/adapted by Perrault in the collection included The Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella. All of these have left their mark on popular culture, but maybe none more so than Bluebeard. It is a fairy tale like no other.

A wealthy nobleman, Bluebeard seduces and marries young woman, slaughters them, and suspends them from meat hooks in a secret chamber of his château. Bluebeard's own fate is no happier a one, murdered by his final wife and her siblings. It is not the sort of tale to read to your children at bedtime. Jack Torrance did just that to his three-year-old son in Stephen King's novel The Shining (Doubleday, 1977) and look how that turned out

Honing joins a long list of artists who have found inspiration in the story and symbolism of Bluebeard: Bela Bartok; Sylvia Plath; Fritz Lang; and Kurt Vonnegut, are just a few of the many artists who have translated the gory folktale into opera, poetry, film noir and novel adaptations. Bluebeard has also been adapted for the theatre, ballet, cartoons, comic books, as well as board and video games.

Bluebeard, a story about power, corruption, human curiosity, trust, and betrayal, clearly touches something deep within the human psyche. The words 'bluebeard' and 'bluebearding' have entered English dictionaries, signifying respectively a wife murderer, and someone who seduces and abandons women. "You have all this stuff happening around [Jeffrey] Epstein and [Harvey] Weinstein—they're pretty much bluebeards," says Honing, underlining the contemporary significance of the folktale.

Honing thinks he first came across Bluebeard in the work of renowned Dutch photographer Paul Huf. "As a kid we had a photo book with texts. I remember that all the pages were blue, with this beautiful naked woman who was central in the story. I was just mesmerized by it and threatened by it at the same time," Honing explains. "It had this erotic layer in it. These are combinations that I like, and very important ingredients in human life."

For Bluebeard, Honing's fourth recording with his acoustic quartet of Joost Lijbaart, Wolfert Brederode and Gulli Gudmundsson, the saxophonist and composer found inspiration in "Sonnet VI" (more commonly known as "Bluebeard") by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay.

"Everything about Bluebeard I had found online felt clichéd," says Honing," but then I found this little sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Besides the fact that the quality of it was incredible, it was a radically different outlook. She made Bluebeard into an idée fixe."

In Millay's sonnet, Bluebeard's wife enters his forbidden room where she finds not corpses but cobwebs. Her curiosity leads her to betray Bluebeard's trust for nothing. Millay, curiously, casts Bluebeard in a sympathetic light. This bold originality, and the nuance in Millay's interpretation, were enough to fire Honing's own imagination. He began composing the music for Bluebeard.

The opening tack, "Bluebeard Maze," sets the tone for the album as a whole. The arrangement is spare, Honing's tenor saxophone lyrical and meditative. Subtle, almost subliminal harmonium and vibraphone textures pervade the music like a ghostly subplot. Then there are drummer Joost Lijbaart's unsettling rhythms.

While pianist Brederode, bassist Gudmundsson and Honing play in 6/8, Lijbaart plays in 5/8, missing one eighth note every bar. His accents on bass and snare drums come when least expected. The resulting rhythms are both elusive yet strangely hypnotic, imparting a sort of weightless feel to the music. Honing describes it as "slightly threatening," echoing his childhood response to Paul Huf's photography.

Those who feel the influence of Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden (Parlophone, 1988) on Bluebeard would be bang on the money, though Honing's route was more circuitous. "Actually, it started with Radiohead. If you think that a group is that good then you should figure out why, and where the forces are. I found out that Radiohead is based on three sources: one is The Beatles; one is Jeff Buckley—without Jeff, Thom Yorke would be nowhere—and the third one was this one record, Spirit of Eden, by Talk Talk, because if you listen to that you basically hear Radiohead. In this way I rediscovered that record," Honing explains.

Honing is unequivocal in his praise for Talk Talk's final two albums: "Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock [Verve, 1991] are masterful. They confirmed what I learned a long time ago from pop music, which is that an album should be like a really good novel, so that wherever you start you get the whole picture instantly. That was a long-time ambition of mine."

The influences on Bluebeard are multiple and run deep. On the softly pulsing, lyrically tender "Narcissus," for example, Honing drew inspiration from two rather diverse figures in Caravaggio and Vivaldi. "One of Caravaggio's paintings is called Narcissus," explains Honing. "Caravaggio has my attention for many reasons. There's color and flesh and pace. He was like the first action painter in history. He did it so fast, it was incredible."

Baroque music is never far from Honing's sound, and Bluebeard is no exception. "I was listening to all the Stabat Maters I could lay my hands on," reveals Honing. "In the end I found the one by Vivaldi. It just hit me. The centre part of "Narcissus" is like a tribute to Vivaldi. I wanted this baroque-ish thing, so it's in nine eight." Honing talks of working with these ideas on "Narcissus" until "the reward came."

Other song titles on the album also refer directly to their source of influence. "She Walked In Beauty, Like The Night" is the title of a poem by Lord Byron, though Honing admits to being just as taken by some of the choral adaptations of this poem that abound. "It was a combination. Sometimes a mixture of different subjects can become a song. I thought of the rhythm that a woman of that beauty would have when she walks into a room. Some women know how to walk," he laughs. "I thought, 'how would it sound?' And that is how I started working."

In arguably the album's boldest step—and marking a total departure from anything he has attempted before on record—Honing recites "Sonnet No. 6" by Edna St. Vincent Millay. "It was a bit of a risk and it felt very awkward," admits Honing.

It was Honing's partner, the painter Mariecke van der Linden, who persuaded Honing to recite it himself, rather than use a native speaker. "We worked through the sonnet for a few hours to make sure that the meaning was very clear," says Honing. In the end, the recital was recorded in one take, with Honing accompanied solely by Wolfert Brederode on harmonium, playing the same chords as on "Bluebeard Maze."

"I had fun with it," says Honing, "but you know, you have to overcome stuff. I come from jazz, and for me doing stuff that is away from what you are used to doing is frightening. But I have learned over the years that being uncomfortable is usually a very good sign," he laughs.

Not long after recording Bluebeard Honing recited another poem at a memorial for a dear, departed friend, in front of fifteen hundred people. "I kind of like it because poetry is like music. You can do music with it. So, what I do with notes I can do the same thing with these words. It's an interesting area. The voice is so incredible. I also listened a lot to Dylan Thomas himself reciting his poems. It sounded like singing to me. Of course, I see my saxophone as a voice, more than as a saxophone," Honing adds.

Honing's saxophone has the final word, so to speak, on the album's final track, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," where the saxophonist stretches out with a passion that contrasts starkly with the spare quality of the music on the rest of the album. "I thought of Dylan Thomas and 'rage, rage into the night...,'" says Honing. "I thought that the album should end with a very, very angry Bluebeard. He doesn't kill this wife but gives away his castle because she didn't respect his privacy."

Even as Honing's tenor howls and rages, he still limited the number of notes that ended up on the album. "When I listened back in the studio I thought, 'Well, if you listen to just two minutes of this solo the point is made, so let's fade out.'"

An economy of notes has long been a hall mark of Honing's playing, but on Bluebeard perhaps more so than ever. "I like space. Music is a product of silence," says Honing. "What I really like about these incredible musicians that I am able to work with is that they understand why I need this minimalism."

Honing attributes his embrace of less-is-more to a revelatory moment in his late teens when he heard Bill Evans. "He played a chord with three notes, and every time he did that, I heard four," recalls Honing. "I thought, 'There's a thing I want to do.' It's the same with acting. At the moment when something really devastating happens, a really good actor barely moves anything. I try to do the same thing with music, so that people can fill in what is also there, because I know that there is a lot more there than I play," he says enigmatically.

"I choose certain notes for certain reasons but there are chords underneath and all sorts of surroundings there. In that way the music is accessible, but it has depth, which is important, so any listener can choose how deep he or she wants to go. I like hiding complications, because I don't like complicated music that is complicated for the sake of being complicated," Honing explains. "You have to have really good reasons to complicate stuff."

In Honing's approach it could be said that there are echoes of Samuel Beckett, the Noble Prize-winning writer who seemed hellbent on eliminating words altogether, searching for the music of silence, the longer he wrote. The comparison chimes with Honing. "My engineer, who is a dear friend of mine, always jokes 'I expect any moment now that there will be an album with you not playing at all,' Honing relates, laughing.

From initial kernel of an idea to final fruition, Bluebeard was painstakingly, lovingly crafted.

"I'm a very precise, very slow-working composer," says Honing. "To be working on a song for a couple of months is very normal for me." It is maybe no surprise to learn that another passion of Honing's is sculpture.

The chiselling of the music is exemplified on "Narcissus," where Lijbaart plays three notes on a mini xylophone. "It's only three notes but I wrote them down for him to play," Honing laughs. "I want these three notes there because I know it will raise the game, you know. It's also what I learned about composition from Misha [Mengelberg], he said: 'Before you write it down you should hear it very sharply and make certain it's the best possible sound at that particular place.' I took that to heart many years ago."

Bluebeard, in fact, is part of a larger project in tandem with painter Maricke van der Linden, which involves the music with paintings and sculpture. Honing describes the project as a Gesamtkunstwerk—total artwork. It is a concept that Honing and van der Linden realized around Honing's album Goldbrun (Challenge Records, 2017).

On Goldbrun, Honing channelled his passions for classical music, history, and art. The concepts of Europe and heroism were at the centre of that album, with the music of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss providing particular inspiration. Honing and van der Linden exhibited the music, paintings, and installation art, at the Museum De Fundatie, in Zwolle, in 2018. An exhibition of similar design based around was due to be held in the same museum space in May, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced its postponement.

Goldbrun won Honing an Edison Award, the Dutch equivalent of the Grammy. It was Honing's second consecutive award, following that received for Desire, and his third in total, fifteen years after picking one up for Seven (Jazz in Motion, 2001), recorded with jazz legends Paul Bley, Paul Motian and Gary Peacock.

For most jazz musicians, anonymity with the general public is the norm, but Honing is well known in his home country. Desire was not only the most successful Dutch jazz album of 2015, but the highest-selling album overall. Clearly, Honing represents more than just jazz.

"I'm quite deeply into art and I'm part of the whole debate around cultural events and how you should develop and support it," says Honing. "But also, what really helped, to be honest, was there used to be a talk show in Holland for fifteen years that was very popular, and the person who presented it was a friend of mine. He just loved my music, so I was on his show many, many times, so at some point people know you."

Pop culture and pop music are just as important to Honing as the jazz, classical and folk music that inspires him. "There's so much we can learn from pop music. Jazz musicians tend to do a slow ballad, then a bossa nova, then something fast and then a blues, maybe in a different key. Pop musicians don't think that way. They tend to have more focus. They think, 'what is the album about? 'all the time, and I like that. Pop music taught me how to compose. If you listen to Bowie, for example, it's just one good idea. One good idea does the trick. I just keep on exercising that. I never understood all this stuff about genres and the way you should listen to them," says Honing.

"All the greatest jazz musicians that I know listened a lot to classical music and also a lot to pop music. I know Charlie Parker was a big fan of [Edgard] Varèse. I know Wayne Shorter knows everything of [Arnold] Schoenberg; I know that because I know all the work of Schoenberg, so I know where Wayne got the melody for "Nefertiti,"" Honing says, laughing. "And it's fine, we all steal."

Honing points to 2016 as a banner year in pop music. "Bowie's Black Star was released, then Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool, then A Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave, who I'm a big fan of too, and then a brilliant album You Want it Darker by Leonard Cohen. Those four albums, in one year, kind of knocked me out. The quality of everything. What can I do with my saxophone to work off these influences?"

One influence that many jazz critics attribute to Honing is Jan Garbarek, a comparison that Honing can relate to, though perhaps not in the way the critics imagine. "People are always talking about it, but I don't see much connection. I like him, but I never used him as a reference. I used [John] Coltrane, and Jan Garbarek, just like me, is a child of this heritage. He's so specific about what he wants to play, and in that sense we're similar."

There are several other saxophonists, however, whose influence Honing is only too happy to acknowledge. He describes Lester Young as "the greatest thing I ever heard in my life," though it was another tenor great who actually turned Honing onto jazz. "I got into jazz by Stan Getz, by accident." Honing describes "accidentally" going on a family holiday to Montreux, in 1977, at a time when he was studying classical music. The holiday coincided with the Montreux Jazz Festival, where a Columbia artists All-Star concert featured the likes of Dexter Gordon, Benny Golson, George Duke, Maynard Ferguson, and Getz.

"My father had booked this hotel and I was in this hotel room when Stan Getz was playing saxophone in his bathrobe on his balcony. I thought: 'These guys just do what they like, and they have so much fun. Stan Getz played that night and he played "Infant Eyes" with Bob James on keys, and he knocked me out. Anything that I ever heard from Stan Getz is nothing less than pure beauty. For me, he's one of the great saxophone players of all time.

"The other guy that I listened to a lot that nobody talks about is Dewey Redman. He was quite an inspiration to me, especially the years he was with Keith Jarrett's American Quartet with Charlie Haden. I thought it was incredible stuff. He's so underrated. He could play horribly as well, but when he had his nights, he was a bloody miracle."

The musician Honing knows better than any, however, is drummer Joost Lijbaart, with whom he has collaborated since the 1980s. The pair met a year before both began studying at the Conservatory in Amsterdam. "We were with a small group of musicians working our asses off, day and night. We just studied and played as much as we could, and we worked as hard as we could. That was one thing we had in common," Honing relates.

"By the end of the Conservatory, before we did our final exams, we had a conversation. I said, "There are two things we can do. We can become hired guns and wait until the phone rings, or we can do it ourselves and immediately start working internationally. Holland is such a small country and there is so much competition. It's impossible to make a decent living here. So, we decided to do it ourselves.

"It turns out that I was pretty good with press and content development, and Joost was pretty good at arranging the gigs. We actually made a deal and that deal is still going. We're pretty tough on each other, but the great thing with Joost is that we still get along We're like an old marriage," Honing says, laughing.

Honing and Lijbaart's musical adventures have taken them all over the world. Inevitably, they have encountered a vast amount of indigenous music along the way. Honing is clear about which music has had the greatest impact on him. "That will be the Arab music tradition, without a doubt," he states. "There were two turning points. The first was when we got into the Middle East for like ten years, and I just fell in love with the music of Umm Kulthum, and the Rahbani brothers of Fairouz. We got really very deep into that repertoire."

It was discovering the maqams, or Arabic melodic modes, that would have the most profound effect on Honing's approach to music. "What we call the smallest distance between notes is like a C to C#, but in the Arab world they have ten distances. So, I have learned to tune incredibly precisely. On the other hand, there's like a sadness in Arabic music that is always present. In a way, like blues. I find it really interesting that they play music that is nostalgic or melancholic without getting into the regular notes that represent that," Honing explains.

Another turning point, as Honing describes it, came with the recording of Schubert's "Winterreise" "I found out that just playing the melody I could open up a whole universe, and I used all these micro-tonalities. And I still use them. I do a lot of tuning stuff. It's a big secret weapon in how my music sounds. The piano is tuned very wide, and I'm always tuned too high, so you get an edge to whatever you do, and I use these micro intervals to get more expression. All these ideas came from the Arabic music tradition. They advanced my tuning incredibly.

"I feel more and more a composer these days," says Honing. "I'm patient enough and I have found ways to compose that make sense. As a composer, you start by making songs like the Real Book, then you make music that is very complicated and you add all these harmonies, and then you think, 'why?' Honing laughs. "As long as you can't answer that question it's not good enough. It takes just as long to learn to compose as it takes to play an instrument well. That's one of the great things about getting older. I have very little patience with some things, but I do have patience for music. I waste all my patience on it," laughs Honing.

It's all there in Bluebeard. The pop-style artwork of the album cover. The pop influence of Radiohead and Talk Talk. The spirit of Lester Young and Stan Getz. The baroque feel. The poetry, paintings, and fiction of a lifetime. The micro-tonalities. The arc of history. And patience. No end of patience Bluebeard in itself is a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk—total art.

Photo: Mariecke van der Linden

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