Misha Mengelberg

Dutch pianist Mengelberg imported some choice American jazz (Ellington, Monk, Herbie Nichols) into the burgeoning Amsterdam improv scene, where he became a central figure for many years. In my view, he is the one guy who really picked up where Thelonious left off at the keyboard, and he has his own considerable originality, too. Misha has played with all sorts of local iconoclasts over the years, along with whichever American luminaries were in the neighborhood, including Eric Dolphy (on his Last Date album). Misha initiated the ICP Orchestra as a long-running concern of spontaneous playing, while his smaller band situations range from tune-oriented to completely free. Most of his records are tough to track down in the US (and probably elsewhere) but I’ve found a few later ones.

Who's Bridge
Feb. 1994 / Avant

Misha’s straight jazz roots come out to play in this accessible piano trio record. Supported by bassist Brad Jones and drummer Joey Baron, Mengelberg douses eleven originals with fresh playing, and the orthodox format sells the leader’s unorthodox character.

The tunes are all good, and it’s hard to beat the opening trilogy - “Rollo II”, a happy swinger; “A Bit Nervous”, a cautious tango; and “Rumbone”, an irresistible backward blues. All three are stuffed with inviting piano work and occasional controlled chaos. The Jones/Baron groove in “Rumbone” reaches points where Misha must either accept or decline a downtown train ride, and he hops aboard. “Gare Guillemans”, “Crocodile Tear”, and “Rollo III” are each very Duke-ish songs with alluring solos. Later on, “Elevator III” plays an abstract crescendo game, while the title track and “Almost, Almost” reveal Misha’s bluesy side. Misha’s touch enables him to swing his right hand with sensitivity, or to bring out the left-hand accompaniment as a sudden shift of focus. He never sounds like he’s on automatic, and there’s a lot of good humor in his work as well, especially in the quick flares of dissonance.

The Monk influence is naked as can be on “Romantic Jump of Hares” and “Peer’s Counting Song”, the former a ghost of “Ruby My Dear” and the latter having the stately cast of “Crepuscule with Nellie”. The clusters, startling accents, and broken melodies all come from a thorough digestion of Monk, whom Mengelberg clearly adores. Misha has a wider piano vocabulary yet he’s not afraid of hesitant pauses as he thinks of what to play next, just like Monk. This is a highly entertaining album without a single dud track.

ICP Orchestra - Jubilee Varia
Nov. 1997 / Hatology

The Instant Composers Pool takes the stage in subgroups, starting with a subdued duet by Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink. Then come the strings (bassist Ernst Glerum and cellists Ernst Reijseger and Tristan Honsinger) for a droning, dissonant trio soundscape. Finally, the horns join in for Misha’s “A Bit Nervous”. Reedist Michael Moore is the most fluid of the lot, especially on alto sax, while the clarinet and tenor of Ab Baars are more dangerous. Walter Wierbos plays trombone, and Thomas Heberer handles trumpet. It’s in this third track that the full group starts to display various ICP characteristics: danceable rhythms that threaten to shatter; mischievous support behind the solos; continuous conversation and/or gamesmanship, as in smart-arse mimicry or spontaneous background “infections” or pointillist dynamics. In other words, anyone can change from Gallant to Goofus at will, and shifting alliances upset any balance that dares to exist.

Not that ICP is all about freedom. They use a lexicon of cues that can signal a sudden change of direction or particular support line for a given composition. They get to be individuals yet there’s enough esoteric structure (and catchy Mengelberg themes) to hold the music back from utter chaos. The second half of the CD puts it all into perspective, starting with the “Jealous? Me?” march, which has a baroque theme and then turns into a free cello rhapsody over sine wave trumpet drones. “Next Subject” is a suite of scenarios introduced by a hymnic horn theme, funky bass feints, and staccato cello signals that cue an explosive swing. Wierbos steps out for a bopping, blatting, whistling trombone solo, while everyone else conjures mad accompaniment on the fly. Then the piece breaks down and re-assembles itself under a new soloist, etcetera. Lotsa fun.

The closing “Rollo I” is a cross between tango and deranged circus music. (Misha’s melodies are sometimes so well crafted that they sound like they have always existed - the illusion of familiarity.) After some class clowning by the group, the piece settles into a slick Bennink groove and Heberer’s trumpet solo, a lot of which is one note piercing over and over, but at least it’s the right note! It bears mentioning how well behaved Bennink is on this album; he seems to know that he might upset the scaffolding if he overdoes the drum assault. Mengelberg, who we haven’t heard much from since the introductory duet, comes out for a solo in the second half of “Rollo I”, and then Moore calms the piece down (almost) for the aborted final melody. Yee-ha.

Needless to say, ICP Orchestra’s restless operations are not for the average listener, but that might be the very attraction for those who like minor absurdity and jazz that disallows any possibility of going through the motions. Best to hear it as freedom that employs structure, rather than the other way around.

Two Days in Chicago
Oct. 1998 / Hatology

One day in the studio, one day in the Velvet Lounge. Chicago has enough avant-garde history to be an ideal vacation spot for Mengelberg, and if he wants to slip momentarily into the blues, that’s not unwelcome either. Plus, there’s a river running right through the city. What else could he want?

The studio trip involves local stalwarts (saxophonists Ken Vandermark and Fred Anderson, bassist Kent Kessler, drummer Hamid Drake) and visiting Dutchmen (reedist Ab Baars, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, bassist Wilbert de Joode, drummer Martin van Duynhoven), all deployed in various configurations. There are two Monk tunes done with Vandermark and Drake, a blues with the Dutch rhythm team, and some bizarre chamber music from piano, sax, and cello. Two lenthier improvs pit Mengelberg alongside Anderson, Kessler, and Drake, with whom the pianist jives quite well. “Chicago Quartet I” barrels along on Drake’s agile drums and Anderson’s dark sax riffs; the second half goes into a spacy conversation and an energetic denouement. “Chicago Quartet 2” starts with a cool bass and drum groove, on top of which Misha and Fred pile abstraction. Everyone gets a “solo” in this spontaneous piece, and it thus assumes a logical form.

Two other quartet pieces, all Dutch, end disc one: Misha, cello, bass, drums. These are more focused on playful minutia than the Chicago team jams, what with the percussive bass slaps and splintered sounds of “Quartet 3” and the creepy gestures of “Quartet 4”. Very good, explorative improv that occasionally taunts the eardrums.

The second CD is a live performance. Mengelberg begins with a half-hour solo of free association and dot connecting. It’s a private rumination to which the audience happens to be privy, and as if to reward their patience afterward, Misha offers a compact refurbishment of “’Round Midnight”. If only five people in the world could have the honor of continuing to play this Monk classic, Misha should be one of them. Ab Baars comes out for the precarious “Chicago Duo” and then lends hushed clarinet to “Rollo II”, a piece that sounds joyous even in a restrained rendition like this. In the finale “Body and Soul”, Baars issues some of the sickest-sounding, pitch-deficient tenor sax you’ll ever hear. Even though most of the notes are softly played, the tones can be plain torturous, and as a concurrent show of perversity, he’ll drop in a sweet line now and then, just to illustrate how “straight” he could play IF he wanted. I used to be repulsed by what Baars does to this tune, but then I started to hear it as an honest expression of something - the pain and struggle of jazz history since Hawkins, perhaps? Or is that too much for the mischievous Baars to undertake? Mengelberg’s thoughts are more guarded, and he sticks with the song respectfully enough to frame Ab’s exorcism.

Overall, these two discs are a challenging set, and since most of it is freely improvised, one has to expect misses with the hits. Most of it is worthwhile and demonstrates the leader’s adaptability.

Senne Sing Song
April. 2005 / Tzadik

A trio album of originals with bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Ben Perowsky. The tunes are sometimes subject to too much playfulness, as Cohen and Perowsky are quick to follow Misha on his brief goose chases, but usually the humor is part of the tune, like “HypoXmasTreeFuzz” or the swaying “Brozziman”. Portions of “Reef and Kneebus” have a somber tone, while “Poor Wheel” sounds like Monk tackling an obscure standard. Deconstruction is the name of the game in “Kwela P’Kwana” (highlife) and “Blues for Piet” (standard 12-bar), and one has to smile at the comical noir of “We Are Going Out for Italian”. Most of Mengelberg’s solos make sense if you follow them closely, yet he seems to be intentionally obscure at times, as if living up to a reputation, and the eagerness of the drummer to reinforce the pranks confirms this view, I think. I found the record puzzling on first listens, but over time several of the pieces started to reveal themselves. It’s one of those times where you find a melody bouncing around your brain unexpectedly, and you go back to the album by chance and realize just where it came from. Which indicates substance beneath the ballyhoo.

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