The Instant Composers Pool, or ICP Orchestra, is a Dutch collective that, after emerging in the ‘70s with a number of albums over a ten-year period only to then more or less disappear, has re-emerged over the past five years with a number of recordings for its own ICP label. Schizophrenic at the best of times, the ensemble’s early history was characterized by a deep rift between originating members pianist Misha Mengelberg, who wanted to explore the concept of “instant composing,” and reed player Willem Breuker, who was more disposed to extended and structured composition, with third founding member, drummer Han Bennink, taking no sides and contributing to sessions led by either Mengelberg or Breuker. The reformed unit, with compositions primarily by Mengelberg and Breuker nowhere to be found, clearly shows who ultimately won the battle.
Aan & Uit , while chockablock with the “instant composing” that Mengelberg so strongly believes in, also has its share of structured form. A cornucopia of styles that encompasses everything from new music to free music to flat-out swing, the ICP Orchestra maintains a strong reverence for tradition, but within a context of complete irreverence. If this seems paradoxical, it is. The Dutch have always placed a strong emphasis on the absurd, with a skewed sense of humour that, at most, lies just beneath the surface.
Yet it is clear that the ensemble understands music history; there are moments of rich beauty, where the horns and strings are creating a lush backdrop, only to be jaggedly disturbed by Mengelberg’s hammer-fisted free playing or, on occasion, his nonsensical babbling, growling and whistling. But if Mengelberg sometimes appears to be at odds with the rest of the ensemble, his roots in Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols are also never far from the surface, and they demonstrate how encyclopaedic his knowledge and approach are.
John Abercrombie recently talked about how free playing needs a point of reference, and while such points are somewhat obscure within the ICP Orchestra’s universe, they are present; even at their freest there is a developmental logic that demonstrates improvisers of the highest order. Still, unlike Abercrombie’s lyrical concept of freedom, the ICP Orchestra is considerably more difficult. While not for everyone, fans of art house music with a penchant for the droll will find much to like about Aan & Uit. Mengelberg and company have created a work that manages to combine a clear sense of history with a forward-looking eye, an album whose underlying feeling seems to be one of bemusement and amusement.
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Personnel: Misha Mengelberg (piano, vocals), Mary Oliver (violin, viola), Tristan Honsinger (cello), Ernst Glerum (bass), Ab Baars (tenor sax, clarinet), Tobias Delius (tenor sax, clarinet), Michael Moore (alto sax, clarinet), Thomas Heberer (trumpet), Wolter Wierbos (trombone), Han Bennink (drums)