KEVIN WHITEHEAD, POINT OF DEPARTURE
The day when Amsterdam’s ICP Orchestra would carry on without its founder Misha Mengelberg had been coming for years, as his Alzheimer’s symptoms grew more acute. He had laid the groundwork for the transition himself. Misha always had ways to absent himself from the action; he never wrote himself piano parts: “I can add something to what the others do, or I can leave it out,” he said in 1995. “It's not essential for me to play at all, unless I want to fuck it up, or to make them do something else.” On occasion the band has performed or recorded without various regular members, co-founder Han Bennink included; owing to a scheduling conflict New York-based trumpeter/cornetist Thomas Heberer plays on only four tracks here (and is mostly buried in the mix).
After Mengelberg’s 1997 heart attack, his old student Cor Fuhler ably subbed on a few gigs. Before that, Misha almost always made up the set lists just before showtime, but afterwards that responsibility got passed around more. And as his composing tapered off in the ‘90s, a few players started bringing in their own tunes.
I’ve written before that the modern ICP is a perpetuum mobile. In the ‘80s Misha taught reedists Ab Baars and Michael Moore, trombonist Wolter Wierbos, bassist Ernst Glerum and company various formal ways to subvert or transform musical materials, until those procedures became second nature, and almost all the formal rules dissolved away as the players devised their own wrinkles on the fly. Violist Mary Oliver and tenorist/clarinetist Tobias Delius, coming later, had observed (or subbed) in the band enough to get up without supervision. The more they all knew, the less Misha had to intervene.
On East of the Sun (a studio recording from March 2014) as on sundry recent gigs, the occasional guest pianist is the post-Mengelberg generation’s premier improviser-composer Guus Janssen, who’s worked with at least half the band. In the notes by Erik van den Berg – will someone translate his Bennink biography into English, please? – Han rightly recalls the early encouragement Misha offered Guus, one of the bright bulbs of modern (Dutch) composition to be sure. But for the record, Misha sometimes expressed reservations about Guus’s relentlessly meticulous method, where even the chaotic bits are carefully orchestrated or arrived at; Misha likes his anarchy to be more spontaneous, and is readier to break his own rules.
That said, the Janssen oldie “Rondo” is perfect ICP fodder, one of his more raucous anecdotal panoramas, with passing hints of what sounds like turgid reggae, a Chinese-opera fanfare, and a hand-cranked turntable winding to a halt. (Janssen, Moore and Wierbos recorded it with Maarten Altena’s peak octet on 1988’s Rif. Oddly enough on East of the Sun ICP also play another Dutch classic from Altena’s book, Maurice Horsthuis’s two-beat, instantly catchy “Bleekgezicht.” But then Maarten is an ICP vet himself.)
Janssen plays cheesy console organ on ex-ICPer Sean Bergin’s anthem “Lavoro,” in heavy rotation in Amsterdam since the composer’s passing in 2012. Sean’s chum Tristan Honsinger sings it (in Italian) with his customary gusto, and then Bergin’s melody alternates perfectly/improbably with Kansas City standby “Moten Swing.” Guus is back on piano for one of two rare collective improvisations for the full unit – under Misha, free improvisations were delegated to subgroups. But the pianist keeps a low profile, mindful that he has his own bands, and this isn’t one of them, despite all the familiar faces. Still, Janssen’s too good to waste, and one misses that piano presence. Misha’s ideas are on full display, but nothing compensates for the loss of his disruptive Monkish comping on changes.
Even so the octet/nonet/tentet meets its own high standard, and is as ever variously a swingtime jazz band, lacy chamber ensemble (when three strings or multiple clarinets come to the fore) and rude improvising unit. And as ever the transitions between the written and spontaneous are fluid, and Han is ever-ready to gong an episode off stage before it wears out its welcome. If anything, pieces and solos are more terse than usual; you wish they’d stretch out a little more. Six of 14 performances are under three minutes, including “A Little Max” from the Ellington Mingus Roach Money Jungle, an akilter feature for Bennink’s drums and boxing-ring bell: Han nicely framed and contained.
The new arrangements are mostly by Moore, who knows all the players’ strengths and exploitable weaknesses, and who brought a chamber piece of his own for wafting clarinets and grounding strings. He adorns Brooks Bowman’s title tune with a bumptious spiky intro/outro in Mengelberg style. Ab Baars’s “Browse of Morning” likewise echoes the master, a dark processional that ends with a sustained eruption. But it’s cellist Honsinger who best preserves Misha’s anarchic spirit – an instigator, he’s the most animated pantomime conductor of instant compositions, and author of their weirder recent tunes, such as “Bolly Wolly” with ranty (mostly Italian) vocals by him and Mary Oliver.
As many records as the mature ICP has made in 20-some years since Bospaadje Konijnehol, they still haven’t documented all the tunes Misha wrote for it. They check off a few here: the hummed Gregorian-chant-for-moderns “Psalm,” the marchy repetitive earworm “Oorwurm,” and a kids’ song for clustery clarinets, “Pilaren/Twee Linjen” (pillars, two lines). “Der jofelen pels slip” comes from the soft-hearted Rokus de Veldmuis suite Mengelberg wrote for the hard-hitting Louis Andriessen/Peter van Bergen ensemble Hoketus in the ‘80s. (Most of the players hated it, and they performed it exactly once; Misha rearranged it for ICP.) It’s rendered here in the band’s vintage woodwind-and-string pastels: for all the anarchy Mengelberg is a natural habitual melodist.