Do not take Han Bennink lightly. While his exuberance is refreshing and entertaining, above all he is a passionate and committed musician with an international resume spanning five decades. The son of a concert percussionist, Dutchman Bennink has been around the drums since birth. Bennink recounts, "I was a lonely child and went with my father all the time to the studio when I was a pupil. I would sit next to him and soon as the studio was free, I was jumping behind the drum kit and playing the drums." Along with birdwatching, these two hobbies occupied the young Bennink who felt isolated due to a stuttering problem.
Bennink, along with young musicians throughout Europe in the late '50s, was attracted by the energetic jazz pouring out of the States. He and others would play in a convincing style impressing American musicians playing in Europe. "We were imitating and everything was going very well," says Bennink. "They would give you compliments and say it sounds completely American. Well, that it was."
The early '60s saw the birth of Bennink's international career. The young drummer would play dates around Holland and Belgium and backup visiting musicians like Johnny Griffin, Kenny Drew, Rene Thomas and most famously, Eric Dolphy in 1964 (memorialized on the Last Date recording). Like many others, he would become entranced with the "New Thing" and strive to create personal music rather than imitate like he had in the beginning. "We heard Albert Ayler, and Sunny Murray was renting my drumkit at the time. I met Don [Cherry] for the first time, who I worked with for years and years and we made a couple of CDs. I saw Gary Peacock, that quartet. Gary Peacock later did a studio session with Misha Mengelberg and Piet Noordijk and I that later became an album. Misha was very busy in Fluxus-like prepared pianos. He met John Cage. So we have our own sort. We come from Europe with our cultural background and if you have to say something, you have to report from there like all the other players do from overseas."
Bennink feels that he is somewhat continuing a tradition extant in Europe for hundreds of years, much like black drummers like Milford Graves or Andrew Cyrille draw inspiration from African roots. "In Europe, there are two very important schools of drumming and they relate to the army. That's the Swiss Army and the Scottish army. It's the Black Watch in Scotland and the Basel Drum School, the long deep drums and they play incredible rhythms with flute players," Bennink explains. "It was all related to the army because they are all incredibly good since 1500 orARTIST FEATURE 1600. I think it goes much farther back. I think all marching is going even back to New Orleans. And that's three or four hundred years later."
Bennink quickly established himself as a compelling drummer and was heavily involved with the nascent European free improvisation scene cropping up in Holland, Germany and England. "It was at that time, 1968-69, was such a small world it was unbelievable," says Bennink, "Willem Breuker recommended me to Peter Br'tzmann and we soon after did Machine Gun with two drummers, with Sven-'ke [Johansson] and me'Machine Gun was also with Derek Bailey so I recorded my first duo for ICP with Derek. Evan [Parker] set up a fantastic session in London, the result of which was Topography of the Lungs. So it was like a snowball effect. It worked like a small club but very intensive, very very busy."
Though he has played with more musicians from more countries than can be recounted here, his longest association has been with fellow Dutchman pianist Misha Mengelberg. "I worked with Misha Mengelberg for 42 years, that's longer than Duke Ellington and Harry Carney did'," recounts Bennink. Their relationship, throughout the years and various combinations never becomes stale. "Misha always has an answer. Something unexpected."
Bennink is an improviser but maybe in a purer sense than others who ascribe that term to themselves. He cannot read music and loathes playing compositions more than once. "When I have to listen to a group, and the group is fitting and really grooving, the first time I play with this group, that composition is for me always the best. The second time is already, "I did that the first time", maybe I fill it in there and the third time maybe I don't do that. I don't like that at all. I'm an improviser, that's all." This idea provides an interesting insight into Bennink's longest group association, the ICP (Instant Composers Pool) Orchestra, co-founded with Mengelberg. "It comes all from Misha. Also the name, ICP, comes from Misha. When it comes to composing, I become allergic'I can't read any notes. When it would be written down, after a concert or after a solo concert, what I played'I can consider myself a composer, an instant composer. And I don't think there is any need to play that again...I like to play fresh'.I just go for one Rembrandt, one Bill Evans, that's far more than enough for me."