As much time as he spent at the keys, duking it out in duo with Han Bennink in the 1970s – that decade before the ICP Orchestra blossomed into his real instrument – Misha Mengelberg could seem indifferent to the piano. The one he had at home for many years was broken-down looking, if functional. At the same time, he was among the most delightful of pianists: didn’t just dig Duke, Monk and Nichols as composers. Misha’s later trio records, like the essential Who’s Bridge (Avant), show how much he loved to play in time and on forms, and also to scribble over same. His composer’s piano chops (and instantly analytic ear) gave him all the resources he needed on the bandstand, to steer the orchestra or keep it at bay.
Mengelberg never treated piano as a temple, Köln Concert–style. For him, the instrument was more scratchpad, daybook, chalkboard to scrape, and graffiti wall – never more than on his first of four all-solo albums, Pech Onderweg, recorded at the old old Bimhuis in 1978. (The follow-ups: FMP’s 1988 Impromptus, ICP’s 1994 Mix, and Solo on Buzz, 1999.) Originally issued by his antagonist and occasional ally Willem Breuker’s BVHaast, Pech Onderweg is again out on vinyl from ICP, reproducing the original sleeve, graced by Amy Mengelberg’s fanciful drawing of her husband taking the plunge at a sympathetically round-shouldered keyboard. The remastered sound is brighter on top and has more oomph down below.
The program looks forward and back. “Pech Onderweg 2” kicks off with a fast boogie shuffle in the left hand, reaching back to 1950s student days when Misha and chum Louis Andriessen were enamored of the great Chicago boogie pianists. But Mengelberg appears to screw up the pattern going into the first chord change, and (as he often did), turns that mistake into an opportunity to change direction, in this case toward ruminating over the drone of a faintly reiterated A-flat, which leads him into one of his favorite tacks, heard elsewhere on the album: an episode of fast tight nervous on-the-beat chords, perhaps mutating one or two notes at a time. Such sequences are akin to series of Eadweard Muybridge stop-motion photographs: harmonic movement frame by frame. That escapade leads him back to the original boogie shuffle at a slightly more manageable gait, with traditional and untraditional knockabout patterns on top. After a spell he repeats the early interruptus – broken-off bass, the quietly insistent A-flat – and what had sounded spontaneous a minute ago now reveals a compositional function. That reboot eventually leads him into a bout of Mengelbergian melodizing, incorporating one of his arrival-of-the-lesser-royals marches, a couple of prepared-sounding notes, music-hall and concert-hall touches, and a surprisingly gentle ending, befitting the Sweelinck Conservatory’s professor of counterpoint. Misha was a collagist, fond of such capacious forms; he likened his grab-bag piece for Orkest de Volharding from the year before, the delightful Dressoir, to the sundry contents of an old dresser.
“Wie jeuk heeft, als moet men zich krabben” (one of his ungrammatical titles, translated on the sleeve as “When itching who, if people scratches”) begins with what sounds like the intro to some forgotten Monk ballad. But it soon reveals itself to be a workshopping of what eventually became Misha’s bread-and-butter song, the one he’d sing in animated Dutch at the end of a night, “De Sprong, O romantiek der hazen” aka “Romantic Jump of Hares.” It is rather more broken-stride Monkly in this early incarnation; the timing isn’t quite there, and he keeps the tune’s prettiness at an ironic distance. He shied away from his sentimental music, until the mature ICP showed him how good it (and this tune in particular) could sound.
Mengelberg had little patience for the hifalutin, ever mindful of how great uncle Willem, Dutch classical music’s tastemaker, had demonstrated his refinement by continuing to conduct the Concertgebouw orchestra during the Nazi occupation. So a (deliberately misspelled) “Raspodie Soliée Bref” that starts with tender harmony and swirling romanticism can be counted on to swiftly go too far, swooning over itself as clouds race past the moon, and bass passages get profundo. In hindsight all that wrist-wringing is a long striptease; excess is gradually pared back to lay bare a dopey descending diatonic one-finger melody with a galumphing cadence, a trifle which proves to be one of the composer’s insidious earworms, stuck in the head for days.
Deflationary gestures likewise infect the five-part “Banana Suite.” Under the clonking in part 1, theatrical coughing and deliberately bad singing (hey, it was a BVHaast record – Willem liked his slapstick), verbal and pianistic yammering. Part 2 sounds like a parody of hard-edged repetitive Dutch contemporary music, laced with traces of Abdullah Ibrahim’s rolling pianism (and then it moves off, into something sweeter). Part 3, a short slow blues gets abused. Part 4, bad-boy low-end pummeling is tempered with some bright octave-clamor on top.
In the suite, and elsewhere, there are generous amounts of dense, seemingly directionless keyboard churning, as if – having encountered pech onderweg, trouble en route – Misha were scanning the piano sound for chance material he might develop. It does work out that way, sometimes, but it’s also about being uncouth for its own sake, a rude gesture toward good taste. Once such churn kicks off the opener “Pech Onderweg 1,” but hidden in the first 40 seconds are glancing references to Mengelberg’s tune “Kwela P’kwana,” the very melody he abruptly quotes to end “Banana Suite”/the LP – an album-spanning callback that suggests the crackpot pianist had known his mind all along.