BY KEVIN WHITEHEAD, NJA JAZZ BULLETIN
Misha Mengelberg: dear reader, when your eyes fell on the name, did you think: Ah, lieve Misha? Or was it, oh no, not more about that clown. Or, what is with that guy, anyway? Few figures in improvised music inspire such disparate reactions and embody so many paradoxes: composer with a gift for instantly catchy melodies, who on sitting at the piano to improvise may consciously try not to be conscious where he’s headed; orchestra leader who, having spent years molding a band in his image, now barely intervenes in its activities; musical anarchist who teaches strict Palestrinian counterpoint at the conservatory; artist beloved by arts-funding panelists and skeptically regarded by arts-funding organizations; derided symbol of ’60s kookiness, at certain conservatories, whose approval gives street cred to musos of the conservatory generation. Trying to explain him is easy as nailing a shucked oyster to a wet bar of soap resting on a rabbit.
Now that his ICP Orchestra frequently tours North America, Mengelberg has come to represent “Dutch jazz” on my side of the ocean, as Willem Breuker did for so long. But being known abroad is not the same as being a household name in Enkhuizen or understood in Tilburg Zuid-Oost. So anyone hoping to explain this representative Dutchman to the Dutch faced a tough challenge.
Luckily, exactly the right candidate was at hand. Documentarian Jellie Dekker has a knack for filming the unfilmable—like Mauricio Kagel’s piano-pileup “Aus Deutschland” at the 1997 Holland Festival—and knew an enormous amount about Mengelberg up front. She heads a family with Dick Lucas, Misha’s record producer, editor and business advisor. I’ve worked with Dick on various projects, and so naturally enough know (and like) his wife, but please balance the goodwill I extend to the filmmaker against the jealousy I feel as a rival chronicler, over how splendidly her 80-minute portrait for NPS turned out. She got some stories and details I’d never heard, and I pestered Misha and company with questions for years.
One reason Afijn works is that Dekker has time to tell her story—the easy pace and wandering trajectory fit a subject who’s in no hurry, doesn’t give up secrets easily, and rewards persistence. The film is studded with archival footage I’d never seen—the Mengelberg trio at Persepolis circa 1964; the hippie-opera Reconstructie at the Carré; the original ICP trio with Breuker and Han Bennink (seen too briefly); musical skits with Wim T. Schippers—not to mention ICP in all three incarnations of the Bimhuis. Live clips of Ellington and Monk highlight their kinship with the master. The cutting throughout betrays a sensitivity to musical form and content to shame Ken Burns. (The DVD edition is loaded with sweet extras: performances by ICP, Misha and Han, and Misha and Dave Douglas, plus Mengelberg’s classic footage of a remarkably good pianist devoid of musical intentions: his cat, strolling the keys.)
Articulate Han is interviewed, of course, and loyal friend Louis Andriessen, along with ICP’s Ab Baars and Toby Delius and Misha’s put-upon manager Susanna von Canon, and a fascinating source from way off the music scene, high-school chum and Chinese translator Rik Schipper. (So that’s why Mengelberg admires the Tao.) Interesting how interviewees from Douglas to Tomoko Mukaiyama mimic Misha’s speech cadences when quoting him. The leisurely musicality of his talk, in English as in Dutch, is one key to his charm.
Dekker and crew follow him to the Sweelinck Conservatory for his weekly counterpoint class and a student blow-out session, to a café for a coffee, and to the new Bim for a 70th-birthday revival of his concerto for carpenter and orchestra, Met welbeleefde groet van de kameel. (Compare the long, long, full version, a DVD extra, to Afijn’s swift condensation, to appreciate Dekker’s deft editing.) She also wisely uses some of the video Wolter Wierbos has been shooting from the middle of the orchestra for years.
Now let me quibble, to show I’m objective (or perhaps reassert my own expertise). I wish his wife Amy had told the story of how they met. I wish we saw the maestro in his kitchen, confidently clanging away at the stove. And I wish Dekker had taken her life in her hands to ride with Misha in his car, fantastic performance art, but maybe that’s asking too much. One more excellent quality Afijn possesses: no boring critics droning on. They never know when to leave off.