imageI was always going to love Amsterdam and it didn’t disappoint. The city has long been associated with the arts and with quality improvised music. It is a mature, liberal city comfortable in its skin, a place where you can legally purchase honey-cured Moroccan Hash in coffee bars, visit astonishing art galleries or enjoy good music at  Jazz clubs like the Bimhuis.  It is a city like few others, a truly happy place moving at its own pace. In spite of its laid back feel, the unhurried chaos, there is an underlying work ethic that makes everything run like clockwork. Like Venice it is a maze of pretty canals. Unlike Venice, the main source of transportation is the bicycle. An incalculable number pass you as you walk the canals, they even have their own multi-story parking buildings.image

After easing the aches and pains of the road in a coffee house, I made for the Stedelijk, a museum – dedicated to modern art and design. This impressive building with its stunning contemporary architecture, sits in a large park of extraordinary museums. Nearby is the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijks Mueum and along the canal the Nemo Museum of science for children (plus seventy five more). Many are impressive architecturally, spaces where stories are told well. After missing the Lichtenstein’s in London I found an iconic triptych here. Also a good collections of Piet Mondrian paintings and furniture. The great thing about this museum was the presentation. Art does not exist in a vacuum, it arises out of life experiences and is connected to them. The display narrative connected the art works to changes in world view. The leafing contemporary Dutch artists on display were also extremely impressive. image

There are a number of important Jazz clubs in Amsterdam and none more important than the Bimhuis. It had just started a new season after a break (most European jazz clubs close during August). The gig featured a number of important Dutch musicians, mostly associated with the avant-garde. One name stood out immediately – the wonderfully crazy drummer Han Bennink. On this this gig he lived up to his formidable reputation. Han, a true colourist,  utilising extended technique; anything at hand is part of his kit. He also uses his feet to alter the pitch of the snare – much like a tabla player uses the elbow.

The leader was pianist Frank van Bommel. A Jazz Times reviewer likened him to the early Cecil Taylor. The majority of the set list were Bommel’s compositions, interspersed with a few by Mal Waldron and a tune by Eric Dolphy. The Dolphy, Waldron connection gave a broader context to the music, it was free ranging and engaging at every turn. The Eurofree style is embedded in the memory of those familiar with the earlier ECM catalogue; hearing this music live is a great experience. Throughout there were long freetonal intro’s – often followed by swinging head arrangements, then mesmerising solos amping up the intensity and every segment balancing the last.image

The rich open textures were augmented by the combination of instruments, the earthy bass-clarinet, tenor saxophone, upright bass, drums and piano –  both horn players doubling on standard clarinet. My partner, who has not been exposed to free music before was engaged from start to finish. This was not an intellectual exercise in high brow music, it was approachable, joyous and engaging. The announcements were in Dutch so I can’t name the tunes, but who cares. The band spoke the universal language of good improvised music. They were: Frank von Bommel, Tobias Delius, Joris Roelofs, Paul Berner & Han Bennink.

imageThe Bimhuis (or Bim as it is affectionately known) is an amazing venue, acoustically perfect; with seating sloping towards the stage and clear sight lines. It seats about 150 people and has an excellent restaurant attached. From the restaurant you can see the busy harbour, from the auditorium you can see intercity trains passing below. The Bim has its own online radio station and is set up for high quality recording. If you’re ever near Amsterdam, you’d be crazy not to treat yourself to a to meal and music there.

After three days in Amsterdam we hit the road (again by train) – the idea of hiring a car less appealing by the day. Trains felt the better option, better than facing the terror of driving into an unknown city at night and especially when tired. There is an ebb and flow to travel and if you get the pace right the rhythms of the journey guide you. European trains are marvellous and not overly expensive. You get used to them quickly – the only terror there, negotiating the time sensitive train changes when the signs are in a language you don’t comprehend.image

Berlin is hard to imagine if you haven’t been there, it’s a city reinvented. The Berlin of Isherwood or even Le Carre just doesn’t exist anymore. It was bombed to oblivion by the Allies and out of the rubble grew a modern city. While there are isolated pockets of old Berlin they are few and far between – some notable exceptions, the museums or converted palaces east of the Brandenberg Gate. In the middle, near the domed Reichstag building stands an area of linden woodland. Even that was bombed. While many bombed cities were rebuilt to mirror their old selves, Berlin was not. I suspect that this was a concious decision but perhaps a decision forced on the planners by the realities of the Cold War. Today it is the home of spectacular modern architecture and even the central railway station the Berlin Hauptbahnhof is a marvel of engineering and aesthetics. The above picture is of a glass encased street installation, all that remained of a prestigious hotel, a single wall set in glass.image

Our must-see list was large, but topping it was a trip to the Neues Museum, where the famous painted Nefertiti bust is housed. The fact that most of Schliemann’s Troy finds are displayed clinched the deal. This museum houses a peerless collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman archaeological finds. With the Greek statues you could clearly see the stylistic changes as the heroic period progresses through the classical period. The statues are stunningly beautiful and reflect ideals. During the Roman era the forms changed subtly (even though the Romans and Greeks of that period imitated the earlier forms). For the first time we see the gentle human faces of slaves or an emperors imperiousness (or nastiness). Marcus Aurelius looks wise and friendly, Caracalla a monster. If you read history these are familiar faces and being among these life sized statues is like meeting them.

The best images I saw were those of the emperor Hadrian, an unwilling emperor who loved architecture, beside him was his beautifully realised young lover Antinous (in above pic). There was also a deeply moving funery carving of a two freed slaves – husband and wife. They are depicted lovingly holding hands. About the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, wife of Akhenaten, there is not much I could add – volumes have already been written. This is perfection from 1360 BC.

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john Fenton – posted from Gdansk Poland

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