Photo: Francesca Patella, 2015.

In 1958, guitarist Jim Hall, in liner notes to a Jimmy Giuffre album, used the term “instant composition” to describe improvising. A few years later, Misha Mengelberg, knowing nothing of this, re-coined the term, and it stuck. A quiet manifesto, those two English words countered notions that improvising was either a lesser order of music-making than composing, or an art without a memory, existing only in the moment, unmindful of form. Misha's formulation posited improvisation as formal composition's equal (if not its superior, being faster).

Yes but: Misha says he was thinking of “instant coffee,” stuff any serious java drinker recognized as a sham substitute. He deflates his lofty idea even as he raises it. In the mid-1960s Mengelberg became involved with the Fluxus art movement, which he found inviting because it stood for nothing, had no ideals to defend. What bound together Fluxus's conceptualists, shock artists, early minimalists, musical comics et cetera was a need for a performance format that could accommodate them all. (Hence that symbol of '60s kookiness, the multimedia Happening.) Eventually he formed a band with that kind of flexibility: the modern ICP Orchestra. 

ICP co-founders Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink have played together since 1961; before long they’d played on Eric Dolphy’s 1964 Last Date and in a successful Dutch quartet, until they brought in the anarchistic young reed player Willem Breuker, whose disruptive presence tore the group apart. That was OK; Han and Misha liked musical confrontations. Mengelberg had studied composition at the Hague conservatory (alongside his friend Louis Andriessen); in his ’60s game piece “Hello Windyboys,” two wind quintets variously engage in call and response, communicate in musical code, interrupt or block each other, or seduce their rivals into cooperating. They did formally what ICP’s musicians now do informally.

Bennink, Breuker and Mengelberg founded the ICP co-op in 1967. In 1974 the saxophonist left to form the Willem Breuker Kollektief, longtime flagship of Dutch improvised music. Mengelberg (and Bennink) founded the raggedy ICP Tentet (including German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, and sometimes cellist Tristan Honsinger). That band matured into something very like the present-day ICP Orchestra in the 1980s, with the addition of younger players, some of whom have been there ever since: trombonist Wolter Wierbos, saxophonists/clarinetists Michael Moore and Ab Baars, and bassist Ernst Glerum. When they were new to the orchestra, Misha rehearsed the players in various performance strategies—such as the uses of his “viruses,” self-contained packets of notated material a player could cue into any composition to infect or disable it. The musicians learned how to deal with fellow players’ quirks of timing or intonation, how to confound their colleagues before their colleagues could confound them, how to bend or subvert the music in performance, and run little subroutines within a piece.

Another, jazzier part of their education was a series of repertory projects, devoted to Mengelberg’s pianistic and compositional heroes Herbie Nichols, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. Those projects served as object lessons in the value of pretty melodies and voicings (Ellington), the construction and subversion of chords (Monk) and how to devise chord progressions that move in unusual ways (Nichols). Pieces by each of those composers still turn up on ICP set lists (along with a few by Hoagy Carmichael), and those lessons still pay off.

In time, the players came to understand that any of the possibilities Misha had raised was available for use at any time, on any piece. Members could also make up new wrinkles on the spot, confident everyone else would pick right up on it. That also proved true with the players who joined ICP later: German trumpeter (and now New Yorker) Thomas Heberer; new music violinist/violist Mary Oliver, and saxophonist/clarinetist Tobias Delius. Cellist Honsinger rejoined in the 90s as well. (All also lead their own ensembles or occasional projects.) 

So the mature ICP is a mixed ensemble: part jazz band, part chamber orchestra. On stage, the space between Misha’s piano and Han’s drums is occupied by a thorny string trio: viola, cello and doublebass. Across from them is a five-piece horn section, three reeds and two brass. As in Ellington’s band, distinctive, individual players can merge beautifully on the written material. 

Indeed, given their individuality, the blending is remarkable. Sleek-sounding Mary Oliver brings the conceptual rigor of new composed music to the strings; Tristan Honsinger is the anarchist, testing limits; Ernst Glerum with his deep woody bass tone anchors the string and rhythm sections. (And he gets a beautiful tone when he bows the strings.) Thomas Heberer has solid bebop chops, and a quarter-tone trumpet to let him get into the cracks in the 12-note scale. The blustery, slippery Wolter Wierbos can imitate any trombone sound he ever heard, without losing his own voice. Ab Baars favors extreme clarinet high notes, and a loud but nakedly vulnerable tenor saxophone sound. On clarinet or alto Michael Moore can be sweetly lyrical or sarcastically sour. Tobias Delius’s big, furry tenor tone harks back to the swing era, but his ear is decidedly modern. 

Meanwhile, drummer Bennink amplifies and gooses soloists’ rhythms, and sets optimal tempos for limber swing. He’s loud but always listening, and has excellent instincts for pulling the plug when a particular episode or gambit has run its course. And Misha colors and subtly influences the action from the keyboard. As pianist he took from Monk the idea that effective comping may be more obstinate than sympathetic—and that sometimes, silence is the best option. 

To keep things fresh, Mengelberg would write out and distribute set lists moments before the players hit the stage. Those lists typically include several compositions separated by spontaneous improvised sub-groups, allowing the players the option of improvising their way out of and into the written themes. There might also be an “instant composition”—the players taking their cues from one of their fellows, who conducts their improvising using informal pantomime gestures. 

The band’s big enough to shout but compact enough to hold the road on sharp turns. In performance, its tone and frames of reference keep shifting. The action is fluid, as in a dream: surreal music for real. An ICP set contains new and old tunes, jazz business and maybe a little funny business, full-force raveups and improvised breakdowns. 

Nowadays, all the players take turns writing those set lists—Bennink most frequently. And the players bring their own pieces, and new arrangements of older Mengelberg tunes. The music’s full of surprises, unexpected turns, limber grace and strange eruptions. Nothing else and no one else sounds quite like them, and no two gigs are ever alike. 

Kevin Whitehead


Misha Mengelberg (1935-2017) was a co-founder of the Instant Composers Pool with Han Bennink and Willem Breuker in 1967. He performed in duo with Han Bennink for more than 40 years and led the ICP Orchestra for more than 30. His other credits include performing and recording with Eric Dolphy, John Tchicai, Derek Bailey, Steve Lacy, Peter Brötzmann, Dave Douglas, and many others. For more information, see the European Free Improvisation pages or All Music Guide.

Han Bennink (drums) is a co-founder of the ICP, long-time associate of Misha Mengelberg, and one of the most in-demand drummers in Europe. He has performed and recorded with jazz musicians such as Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins, as well as European improvisers such as Peter Brotzman, Derek Bailey, and Willem Breuker. He trained as a graphic artist and has exhibited work in several media, including sculptures from found objects that can include broken drum heads and drumsticks; he also designs many of his own LP and CD sleeves. www.hanbennink.com

In addition to playing solo concerts and his own trio, Ab Baars (clarinet, tenorsax) is a regular guest with the EX, Cor Fuhler, Michael Moore, and Michiel Scheen. Since 1990, his main focus has been on the Ab Baars Trio, which led to tours with Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd; a collaboration with the Nieuw Ensemble, shakuhachi player Iwamoto and conductor Butch Morris at the festival Improvisations. Baars has also worked with Francois Houle, John Carter, Roger Turner, Sunny Murray, George Lewis, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, and Gerry Hemingway among others. www.stichtingwig.com

Tobias Delius (clarinet, tenorsax) began playing the tenor saxophone in the Ruhrgebiet, Germany. It was in Mexico City and especially in Amsterdam that he developed his very personal style. He now lives in Berlin. Next to leading his highly acclaimed 4tet with Han Bennink, Joe Williamson & Tristan Honsinger, which has been going for more than 20 years and 4 CDs on the ICP label, his improvisations can be heard in a very wide variety of contexts with musicians from all over the globe. www.doek.org

Ernst Glerum studied classical double-bass at the Conservatory of Amsterdam. During his studies he joined contemporary music ensembles (ASKO ensemble) as well as improvised music groups (Curtis Clark, Hans Dulfer, JC Tans, Theo Loevendie). He frequently performed with such artists as Steve Lacy, Lee Konitz, Uri Caine, Teddy Edwards, Benny Maupin, Jimmy Knepper, Jamaladeen Tacuma, John Zorn, Bud Shank, Art Hodes, Don Byron and many others. Besides ICP and theAmsterdam String Trio he performs in the Guus Janssen Trio, Michiel Scheen Quartet, Trio Continuo, Trio Bennink-Borstlap-Glerum and Available Jelly. He doubles on piano in Glerum Omnibus with Clemens van der Feen and Owen Hart. www.ernstglerum.nl

 Thomas Heberer (cornet, trumpet) joined ICP in 1993. Born in Germany in 1965, he studied at the Cologne University of Music. Thomas has performed on 6 continents and can be heard on approximately 100 recordings. He was awarded the SWR Jazz Award and the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik. His leader credits include recordings for the CIMP, Clean Feed, JazzHausMusik, NoBusiness, and Red Toucan labels. Thomas has been a resident of New York City since 2008, where he lives with his wife Robin. Recent collaborations include recordings and concert tours with among others: Peter Brötzmann, his own band Clarino, Ken Filiano, HNH, Achim Kaufmann, Butch Morris, Pascal Niggenkemper, The Nu Band and Aki Takase. Past highlights include writing music for choreographer Pina Bausch and the Tanztheater Wuppertal, his critically acclaimed duet with bassist Dieter Manderscheid, and his membership in Alexander von Schlippenbach's Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra. www.thomasheberer.com

Born in New England, the cellist Tristan Honsinger studied at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. By the '70s, the Trans-American had moved to Amsterdam. Since a memorable set of concerts in Berlin in 1988, released on the much sought-after FMP box set, Honsinger has been a fairly regular member of Cecil Taylor's groups, including the now-disbanded European Quartet with Harri Sjöström and Paul Lovens, including an unusual combination that performed at the Total Music Meeting in November 1999: the Cecil Taylor Ensemble with Franky Douglas, Tristan Honsinger and Andrew Cyrille.

The music of Guus Janssen (piano, organ) is difficult to categorize. It can be a composed improvisation (Brake for pianosolo) or an improvised composition (parts from his Violin Concerto or his opera Noach). Music is like life itself, sometimes it asks for fast decisions and sometimes it needs to be thought over a lot. As a pianist and harpsichordist he performed in various groupings with musicians from John Zorn to Gidon Kremer. Since the early 1980’s he has led his own ensembles, ranging from pianotrios to 11 piece band and opera orchestra. Janssen’s achievements in the field of jazz and improvised music have been widely acclaimed. His compositions have been widely played by, amongst others, the Asko Schönberg Ensemble, the Ebony Band and the Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest. He received several prizes a.o. the Johan Wagenaar Prijs 2012 for his whole oeuvre. Janssen teaches composition at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague. http://www.guusjanssen.com/

Michael Moore (clarinet, altosax) was born in Arcata, California, where he played in clubs and attended school before moving to Boston to study at the New England Conservatory of Music. There he worked with Joseph Allard, Jaki Byard, Joe Maneri, Gunther Schuller, George Russell and others. After spending two years in NYC he moved to Amsterdam, where he has lived since 1984. He currently works with Available Jelly, Jewels & Binoculars, Franky Douglas, Achim Kaufmann, Dave Douglas, Fred Hersch, Benoit Delbecq, Eric Boeren, Paul Berner and others. His own projects include the White Widow Quartet, the Monitor Trio w/ Cor Fuhler and Tristan Honsinger and the Michael Moore Quintet. www.ramboyrecordings.com

Mary Oliver (violin, viola) is a performer whose virtuosity spans the worlds of scored and improvised music. Oliver (b. La Jolla, California) completed her studies at the University of California, San Diego where she received her Ph.D for her research in the theory and practice of improvised music. Her doctoral thesis, “Constellations in Play,” identified a new kind of creative discipline, which Oliver has pursued with colleagues locally and around the world. As a soloist, Oliver has performed in numerous international festivals and premiered works by, among others John Cage, Chaya Czernowin, Brian Ferneyhough, Lou Harrison, Joëlle Léandre, George E. Lewis, Liza Lim, Misha Mengelberg and Iannis Xenakis. She has worked alongside improvising musicians and dancers such as Mark Dresser, Katie Duck, Joëlle Léandre, Myra Melford, Alexander von Schlippenbach and Michael Schumacher. She is on the faculty at the Hogeschool voor het Kunst Utrecht teaching at the school for Kunst, Media and Technologie and on the faculty at the Dutch Improv Academy.

Wolter Wierbos (trombone) can be heard on more than 100 CD’s and LP’s. Like many Dutch brass players Wierbos started out in a ‘fanfare’ (brass band), switching from trumpet to trombone when he was 17. Since 1979 he has performed with with Henry Threadgill, The Ex, The Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra (led by Alexander von Schlippenbach), the European Big Band (led by Cecil Taylor), Sonic Youth, the John Carter Project, Mingus Big Band (Epitaph, directed by Gunther Schuller) and many others. He is currently active with Gerry Hemingway Quintet, Franky Douglas’ Sunchild, Bik Bent Braam, Albrecht Maurer Trio Works, Nocando, Carl Ludwig Hübsch’s Longrun Development of the Universe, Frank Gratkowski Quartet, Available Jelly and Sean Bergin’s MOB. www.wolterwierbos.nl


Peter Stubley over at the European Free Improvisation Pages has been maintaining an excellent ICP Records discography for many years, you can find it here