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.

Of course, it wasn't entirely the architecture of a musical statement that Mengelberg found valuable, for the personality of an artist factors in just as much, if not more. "I made a difference between the friendly and the unfriendly piano players. Monk was a very unfriendly pianist; he made fun of people and was not interested in making a nice appearance anywhere. The same went for Nichols; he was interested in form and how to get things going, but he was [also] difficult to get along with. Bebop saxophonists like Charlie Parker, whose music was similarly kinetic to that of Nichols, were nevertheless (as with Bud Powell) a 'sideline' for Mengelberg, because harmonically it did not operate the same way as Monk or Nichols. In Mengelberg's view, in fact, most saxophonists other than Lucky Thompson (and later, Dolphy and Lacy) did not understand Monk—Coltrane, Rollins, Rouse and Griffin all seemed an insufficient match for Monk's harmonies and rhythms, as well as his personality.

Mengelberg and Bennink were, in 1964, part of the backing group for Eric Dolphy's final studio recording, issued as Last Date (Fontana). In addition to music by Dolphy and Monk, Mengelberg contributed the composition "Hypochristmutreefuzz to the proceedings, a notoriously difficult piece with extraordinarily long intervals. "I knew he would not have enough breath to play the theme through [without circular breathing] and I thought it was funny, but for somebody who was going to die the next week maybe it wasn't right to make fun like that.

Mengelberg and Bennink were the instigators of a relatively subversive but rarely discussed small group active in Holland from 1964 to 1967. With altoist Piet Noordijk and bassist Rob Langreis, the Misha Mengelberg Kwartet toured Europe and, interestingly, played the Newport Jazz Festival in 1966 (the concert was later released by the Dutch label Artone). In 1967, Mengelberg, Bennink and reedman Willem Breuker formed the Instant Composers Pool, a loose collective of free improvisers rooted in the idea that improvisation is "instant composition , utilizing one's existing compositional knowledge to inform improvisation as well as improvisation directing the formation of composition, all in direct physical response to internal and external stimuli. Trombonist Willem van Manen, bassist Maarten Altena and altoist Peter Bennink were early collaborators, though the loose organization began to include a significant slice of the prevailing European avant-garde (including at various points Peter Brötzmann, John Tchicai and Derek Bailey). Though Breuker and his camp officially split from the ICP in the early '70s, forming the Willem Breuker Kollektief and BVHaast Records, the ICP continued as an orchestra and various aggregations, as well as the record label that in 1967 heralded the organization. The orchestra, though touring only occasionally, remains one of the most active big bands of the last 30 years, performing Mengelberg's often highly theatrical situations as well as pieces by Herbie Nichols and members of the group, which today includes reedmen Ab Baars and Tobias Delius, trombonist Wolter Wierbos, trumpeter Thomas Heberer, cellist Tristan Honsinger, bassist Ernest Glerum and violinist Mary Oliver in addition to Mengelberg and Bennink.

The orchestra primarily plays directed group improvisations, for Mengelberg's philosophy is that "a piece may work as a starting point for an improvisation, or a point to go at the end of an improvisation, not something that one should think about while improvising. It developed from a point that I started to give up composition 11 years ago... I do something similar to what Derek Bailey did for his concerts, which was to write three or four names on a piece of paper and that would provide 20 or 30 minutes of improvisation. Of course, the difference between the two is that Mengelberg chooses players who know and understand the aesthetic and processes by which instant composition takes place, rather than creating completely foreign situations. Mengelberg is currently active as a professor of music in Amsterdam, in which he teaches the fundamental points of improvised music, even more basic than instant composition - noise and counterpoint. As Mengelberg puts it, "you might think the first two years that this is idiotic, that I am teaching a discipline that developed out of the music up until the Renaissance...but there is so much realism in their ways of music making, that there are some things still worth taking into consideration. After all, if one listens to the duets of Mengelberg and Bennink, it is not just a note-for-note counterpoint, but a game of sparring, trading volleys of improvisation back and forth, each determining the direction that the other may go, whether one's choice is to extend or subvert the other's action. This is a grander theme than "playing (to use Bailey's term), as it adds a level of calculation to what might otherwise be an impulse. Noise, on the other hand, is the use of non-musical sounds in the production of music and has a history going back to the Italian Futurists of the early 20th Century. It is a tactic that is routinely employed by members of the ICP, adding a level of contrast and color as well as giving direction to the improvisation and—you guessed it—counterpoint.

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, a semantic understanding of the music, yet has also cut to the core of the personality that the music has and requires. Mengelberg often uses the word "amusing to describe what music and art can do - that is, a statement of value placed on personality. Improvisation is pointless if it isn't fun and given to joy and understanding, a knowing nod to the contrasts that make art happen. Theatrics and ironic impossibilities are not present as part of an act, but for action - the action of life.

Recommended Listening:

· Eric Dolphy - Last Date (Fontana, 1964)

· ICP Orchestra - Groupcomposing (ICP, 1970)

· Misha Mengelberg/Steve Lacy/George Lewis/Arjen Gorter/Han Bennink - Change of Season: The Music Of Herbie Nichols (Soul Note, 1984)

· Misha Mengelberg - Who's Bridge (Avant, 1994)

· Misha Mengelberg - Two Days in Chicago (hatHut, 1998)

· Misha Mengelberg - Four in One (Songlines, 2000)

Photo Credit
Peter Gannushkin

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