Album Review: Pech Onderweg (2018), by Kevin Whitehead, Point Of Departure.

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.


ALBUM REVIEW: Pech Onderweg (2018) by Duck Baker, THE NEW YORK CITY JAZZ RECORD.

There is no doubt that Misha Mengelberg was an excellent, even a great, jazz pianist. He was already close to that when he recorded with Eric Dolphy at the end of the latter’s career and he certainly was there by the mid ‘60s, when he was leading a quartet with alto saxophonist Piet Noordijk and drummer Han Bennink. But Mengelberg, like Bennink, was a musical maverick rarely content as a performer to play ‘just’ jazz and this is reflected on the solo record Pech Onderweg, recorded 40 years ago and recently reissued on vinyl. He mixes in elements of almost every piano style you can name: classical music, boogie-woogie, ragtime, schmaltzy pop music and occasional percussive banging and vocalizing that sounds drunken, if not deranged. The first of the “Pech Onderweg” pieces is a montage during which the pianist evokes many of the elements cited above, in stream-of-consciousness fashion (the title translates along the lines of “troubles coming on the road”). During “Pech Onderweg 2”, Mengelberg introduces passages of boogie-woogie that transmogrify into insistent banging discords repeated long enough to be nearly annoying, then in a flash he’s back playing the insistent boogie figures. This may sound like a merely clever device, but Mengelberg brings it off so well it succeeds in being much more. Listening to “Banana Suite”, which takes up much of Side B, one wonders whether Charles Ives would have sounded like Mengelberg had he been born 60 years later and been Dutch. Yes, Mengelberg is edgier, as was the world he lived in, but, like Ives, found many things he could revere, even as he lampooned a lot of them. We hear something a bit different on “Wie Jeuk Heeft, Als Moet Men” though; this is an early version of a song the ICP Orchestra would perform many times in later years, called, “De Sprong, O Romantiek der Hazen”, but the solo version involves a gentler approach, similar to that employed by Monk on pop songs like “There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie”. This is sentimentality that is wise to the world, evincing a vulnerability that’s the more open for not being naïve and it may be the high point of this rewarding recital.


Concert Review: ICP in Belfast, N. Ireland by Ian Patterson, All About Jazz (2017)

Instant Composers Pool
The MAC
Tempered
Belfast, N. Ireland
November 3, 2017 

It's a significant year for Instant Composers Pool, for 2017 marks the Dutch jazz collective's fiftieth anniversary. Sadly, the year also saw the passing of Misha Mengelberg, pianist, composer and co-founder of the IPC along with Willem Breuker and Han Bennink. That left Bennink as the sole-surviving charter member, an inevitable sort of evolution with any collective of long-standing. The doors revolve and the personalities come and go. Much like life itself. 

ICP's Belfast gig—a Moving On Music production—was one of several in Ireland, attracting a sizeable crowd to the MAC's upstairs theatre. It was the crowning jewel in Moving On Music's annual four-day Tempered festival, a celebration of the adventurous—and fairly unclassifiable—in contemporary music. 

Despite the myriad personnel changes in the ICP over the years there's considerable continuity about this ICP dectet line-up, the bulk of whom have been together for twenty years. Such longevity breeds a very personal vocabulary and an intuitive interplay. The playfulness and the musical tensions evident during this concert were akin to a family dialog—harmonious on the closely orchestrated, full ensemble passages, edgily abrasive on the looser improvisational, micro-ensemble streams. 

You could see the bonds too, simply in the ensemble's physicality. For the opening number, the carnivalesque "Flute," driven by Bennink's sunny martial groove, the musicians fanned around the centrally placed drummer. As the concert went on, however, players exited and re-entered the scene, roaming around the stage as though in the family living room. The theatrical flow, as much as the bursts of antic theatricality—cellist Tristan Honsinger's Monty Python-esque conducting, or Bennink planting his left leg on the snare drum as he worked the kit, were all part of the ICP experience. 

On the Frank Zappa-esque tango "Soft as Butter" riffing strings courtesy of Hosinger's cello, Ernst Glerum's bowed bass and Mary Oliver's violin ploughed a steady course as trombonist Wolter Wierbos, trumpeter Thomas Heberer, Michael Moore and Ab Baars—the duo switching between saxophones and clarinets—oscillated between woozy alegria and introspective abstraction. 

For all the ICP's associations with the European jazz avant-garde much of its music was strongly infused with North American tradition. The sumptuous horns and brushes-driven swing of "Gare Guillemin" evoked the heyday of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. More overt tribute to Ellington came with his 1946 train song "Happy Go Lucky Local," this soaring Mengelberg arrangement capturing the industrial dissonances and mechanical rhythms of the original—screaming whistle, churning pistons et al—with collective panache. A soulful reading of Herbie Nichols' "Change of Season," featuring a mesmerizing high-wire improvisation from Oliver, and Hoagy Carmichael's "Baltimore Oriole," with Wierbos' gruffly bluesy trombone central, both paid tribute to jazz' North American roots. 

Three Mengelberg vignettes, "Mealworm," "Garden Fence" and "Smelling Salts" were sewn together like a mini-suite, rhythm section sitting out as horns carved an impressionistic path—agitated buzzing, staccato bursts, overlapping glissandi and muted growls. Abrupt shifts in tempi characterized "Yabam Yaboom," an idiosyncratic number evocative of Sun Ra, with one foot in Dixieland revelry and the other in free-jazz cacophony; an animated Bennink—alternating between brushes, mallets and shakers—was at the epicentre of an extended ensemble passage that glided from seemingly loose, though never less than intense abstraction, to passionate swing. 

The ICP left the stage to warm applause, re-emerging shortly afterwards, with Bennink leading a moving, hummed rendition of what sounded like "Abide With Me"—dedicated to Misha Mengelberg. A second encore shattered the spell, the ICP, sans Bennink, cranking up the decibels on the hard-riffing "Beady Eyes," with pianist Guus Janssen, hitherto a subtle accompanist, unleashing torrents of notes. Bennink duly entered wielding a floor brush, which he spun and clattered rhythmically, knocking a chair to the floor with percussive zeal before taking up his drum stool once again.


Concert Review: ICP in London, by John Fordham, The Guardian (2017).

Instant Composer's Pool
@The Vortex

he mostly uncategorisable but approximately jazz-angled Dutch collective ICP (it stands for Instant Composers Pool) celebrate their 50th anniversary this year and the 75th birthday of their wonderful drummer Han Bennink. Less auspiciously, this year also saw the death of their presiding guru, the pianist and composer Misha Mengelberg. Yet the group still genre-hop with the insouciant agility of youth, as a 10-piece ICP proved with a vivacious set at Dalston’s Vortex Jazz Club.

Opening in typical style, they began on a lurching clamour of indignant-sounding reeds and brass squirts roughly resolving in stagily spooky Frankenstein chords. In came Mary Oliver’s violin drone and Bennink’s gathering drums, which shuffled into a folksy swing groove occasionally sniped at by trombone blasts. An agile free-jazz overture by trombonist Wolter Wierbos was accompanied by contrastingly impassive formality from Guus Janssen on piano, while jazzy walking-bass from Ernst Glerum strolled alongside slithery strings lines from Oliver and cellist Tristan Honsinger, and zestfully brittle violin improv ducked and weaved through sidling sax hooks.

A jaunty clarinet theme became a simmering tango jolted by Bennink’s hustling accents, and a dedication to German piano legend Alex von Schlippenbach fused a strutting march, a Bennink break of clattering hipness, as well as dissonant but ecstatically swelling long-tone harmonies from the reeds and Thomas Heberer’s trumpet, and eventually a coolly Ellingtonian orchestral glide.

ICP have always made their own rules, and hearing them followed, broken and reinvented in real time remains one of contemporary music’s enduring delights.