BY KEVIN WHITEHEAD, NJA JAZZBULLETIN
Autumn of the Patriarch
Fifteen or 20 years ago, when his ICP Orchestra was at a creative peak, Misha Mengelberg never wrote in piano parts. That freed him to play as much or little as he chose. He’d lurch in with unexpected solos, slip a tune into a free improvisation, or filigree a trio episode he wasn’t slated for. Monk’s oblique strategies inspired his willfully disruptive comping behind solos. On stage, Misha’s addled professor routine intensified the calculated chaos the players reveled in. Mengelberg had trained them to deal with all manner of contingencies while improvising. Stretching and subverting forms was serious fun, part of what makes the band a marvel. They’ll swing, and free improvise with aplomb; they’ll play a whistleable melody and then let tune and harmonies melt like Dali’s clock.
Now that Mengelberg’s in his 70s, a few onlookers have suggested the tentet might consider playing without him, given his recent puzzling behavior. Such as? Appearing absent-minded on stage, comping weirdly, intruding with unscheduled solos or tunes, and sabotaging the forms—forcing the musicians to adapt in an instant.
The Instant Composers Pool’s guiding light is having his King Lear epiphany: it’s hard to retain the perks of power after ceding the responsibilities. In the ’80s, Mengelberg taught trombonist Wolter Wierbos, reedists Michael Moore and Ab Baars, bassist Ernst Glerum and company specific ways to creatively amplify or undermine the band’s material. In time they began warping the fabric spontaneously: ICP became a perpetuum mobile. Then Misha stopped composing for the band, and gradually Moore, Baars, Tristan Honsinger and others started bringing in tunes, or new arrangements of Ellington, Monk and vintage Mengelberg. Misha also stopped drawing up the roadmap set lists given to the players just before show time. (Backstage ritual: hurried shuffling through sheaves of parts and lead sheets.) Nowadays the other musicians plot the order of the tunes, improvised subgroups and conducted improvisations. ICP co-chair Han Bennink often wields the pen.
Anti-authoritarian that he is, Misha might risk becoming a sideman in his own band, if he didn’t insist on playing whenever he hears a need, set lists aside. There was a moment, on a May Sunday afternoon in the Grote Kerk in Veere, when he entered midway through a chamber improvisation by three strings and Moore’s alto. The soft Schubert chords he feathered in were sublime, took the music to a rarefied level.
Not that he doesn’t poke sticks in spokes. In May, ex-Amsterdam New York singer Fay Victor guested on three ICP gigs, singing Herbie Nichols (her lyrics), Mengelberg and Monk. Victor has a rich Carmen McRae timbre, a bopper’s exacting ear and timing, and a free improviser’s fearlessness. But she really showed her mettle just holding her course on an out-of-tempo “’Round Midnight” as Misha dropped obstacle chords behind, and Glerum’s rubato melody fragments ran on ahead. A lesser singer might’ve been lost in six bars. No wonder they loved her.
Mengelberg’s own fitness exam was ICP’s four June nights in the Wabe, a cozy octagonal club in old East Berlin. (The publicity reminded you this band’s hard to pigeonhole: The avant-garde heroes! Playing Ellington and Hoagy Carmichael!) They drew a responsive crowd nightly; some folks who’d come once out of curiosity kept coming back, as the band plumbed its book. Sunday many of the city’s musicians paid fealty; the band played “Alexanders Marschbefehl” for dedicatee Alex Schlippenbach. On one evening’s early set Misha sounded barely present, but came roaring back after a break. By Tuesday’s finale, a sort of Mengelberg retrospective, his pithy keyboard wit was fully reconstituted. He’d shrugged off a mutinous moment, opening night, when an impatient musician axed an off-script piano solo, breaking in to announce it was the maestro’s 75th birthday.
Ah, but the band sounded magnificent. The meld of five idiosyncratic horns can be breathtaking, not least when they ease out of an improvisation by slowly converging on the first note of the next tune. (Thomas Heberer’s quarter-tone trumpet’s handy for that.) As a late arrival to the saxophones, Toby Delius doesn’t even have formal parts; he alights by ear. The three strings are less cohesive on the heads, but jell when they improvise; string trios plus one are staples of the impromptu subgroups. Violist Mary Oliver’s sleek new-music chops are offset by Honsinger’s Mengelbergian anarchism on cello. Tristan’s conducted improvisations are spontaneous music theater: funny pantomime blossoms into music. Glerum somehow anchors the strings and Mengelberg/Bennink rhythm section simultaneously.
Occasionally, some Dutch jazz educator will disparage ICP: I’ve played my students this music, and they don’t want to play like that. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, your students did want to learn how. How many semesters might that take?