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Misha Mengelberg: More than Instant Composition


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Misha Mengelberg is one of the truly rare voices in improvised music, for he has added so much to the conceptualization of what makes jazz and improvisation tick...
If one takes a swath of the most influential and valuable jazz composers and bandleaders of the last 50 years, one gets one (or both) of two things: a handful of pianists and more questions and inconsistencies than clear lineage. However, just as Steve Lacy found in both Monk's music and free jazz "a door to the other side , so the riddles and puzzles of composition in an idiom that has increasingly seen organization yield to freedom are a similar nest of doors and passageways. The music of Dutch pianist-composer and Instant Composers Pool (ICP) ringleader Misha Mengelberg fits just such a confounding idiom, but as in the work of forbears like Monk, Mengelberg's music and persona strike a similar balance.

Born June 5th, 1935 in Kiev, Mengelberg immigrated to Holland at a very young age and started playing the piano upon moving to Amsterdam: "My father had a little piano in his room and for the next 12 years that became the thing that was most important to me. Mengelberg was self-taught until a few years later, when he had lessons and began to learn classical music - yet, in the fashion of a true improviser he found it an incomplete approach. "I was disappointed with that immediately. I wanted to play my own music and, at age five, I did not want to play Bach's Magdelena, but Misha's little pieces and I did. Mengelberg's music career was both aided and interrupted by the onslaught of the Second World War, which encroached on Holland by 1940 and made commuting to piano lessons (or paying for them) impossible: "There was no electricity for the tram and that way of getting around Amsterdam was no longer there, so we stopped the lessons. With German soldiers about the streets and no real infrastructure to speak of, Mengelberg was given the somewhat auspicious opportunity to stay inside and play music of his own invention for hours on end. Spending much of his childhood under the shadow of German occupation, it was nevertheless around Mengelberg's birthday that D-Day took place and the tide of the war shifted ("I always hoped that when the fifth of June was near that something okay would happen ). Amsterdam was liberated in May of 1945, "a month early, and it was not long before Mengelberg became more familiar with jazz: "Moose the Mooche was one of the earliest jazz records he heard, and American radio brought bebop and modern jazz to Europe during the '40s.

Even more prophetic for Mengelberg, albeit a few years later, was hearing the Blue Note recordings of Thelonious Monk in 1946 or '47, "Humph and "'Round Midnight in particular. Among the first records that Mengelberg owned were the ten-inch LPs of Monk's music with Lucky Thompson, in fact. "I liked Monk from the beginning and it interfered with trying to master the boogie-woogie piano style. Boogie-woogie was the first thing I wanted to do and I wanted to know how to play the blues. I learned later that they were not quite the same thing. Apart from a brief sidetrack into architecture, Mengelberg concentrated on writing music in the '50s and, though he was not yet playing in ensembles, he was listening to a considerable amount of music: blues, Ellington, Monk and this was crucial to his ideas about becoming a musician - especially seeing Ellington in an Amsterdam concert performance. "Nobody started alone a concept that was meant to be for a group, but Ellington did and as he played the rest of the group came in [they all knew the piece] and I thought 'this is the type of music that has to do with my ideas about jazz, and I would like to be a part of this.'

Mengelberg's father found Misha a jazz teacher [Kees van Baaren], who instructed the young pianist in stride piano and also modern jazz techniques including the idea that harmonically the bass was not necessarily the starting point, but that to invert the chords was equally important - much like Monk and other bebop pianists were doing. By the mid '50s, Mengelberg was also interested in Herbie Nichols, a rather obscure pianist-composer on equal footing with Monk, though of a considerably different and perhaps stylistically earlier ilk, in which percussive components were even more explicit than in other bebop pianists. "The way he was doing things you would think Monk would be doing them, but with one big difference—the way Monk was doing it, he was making musical statues, with Nichols I had the feeling he was interested in movement. These are two aspects of what I would like to do. Like Nichols, Mengelberg found a percussive sparring partner extremely important and Han Bennink filled and expanded that role almost immediately, collaborating consistently with Misha since 1964.


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