Tuesday, April 12, 8 pm
Instant Composers Pool (ICP) Orchestra
Seattle Art Museum, Plestcheeff Auditorium
1300 First Avenue (DOWNTOWN)
Tickets available at www.brownpapertickets.com and 1-800-838-3006.
Admission: $20 general, $18 Earshot members and senior citizens, $10 student.
ICP Orchestra: (top row) Tobias Delius, Han Bennink, Thomas Heberer, Tristan Honsinger, Michael Moore, Ab Baars
(bottom row) Wolter Wierbos, Mary Oliver, Misha Mengelberg, Ernst Glerum. Photo by Francesca Patella.
By Peter Monaghan
Even with an occasional tendency to act the goat on the bandstand, the members of the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra (ICP Orchestra) can easily persuade devotees of cutting-edge improvised music that they are the real deal. Not only just a bit zany but also artistically and technically brilliant, the ICP Orchestra has been among the globe’s most startling and ear-stretching jazz ensembles – also one of the most amusing and diverting – for decades.
This month, April 12 at the Seattle Art Museum’s Plestcheef Auditorium, the ICP Orchestra makes a return visit to these shores, with a lineup of ten stellar musicians. Their Seattle date, the last before returning home to Holland, marks a fortnight of touring the States – Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, Rochester, Austin, Houston, Des Moines, Chicago – in support of ICP Orchestra, the latest of their many albums.
Still at the helm of the group is one of the true originals, pianist Misha Mengelberg, now in his seventies. He and drummer Han Bennink formed the group in Amsterdam in 1967 in the full throes of the free-jazz movement. The ICP Orchestra was then, and remains now, a refuge for playing in the spirit of those times. The group’s performances and recordings contain near-chaos within recognizable musical forms, from swing rave-ups to twisted tangos. The instant composition that drives the band is spontaneity and idiosyncrasy. “I welcome all kinds of personal things, which depend on the resoluteness of the musicians,” Mengelberg says. He means to surround himself with singular jazz musicians, and he has plenty of those in the current lineup – beginning with the tireless Bennink.
When the group formed, Mengelberg and Bennink were still in the glow of their memorable collaboration with Eric Dolphy in 1964, just before his death. That would kick-start their foundational role in what jazz writer Kevin Whitehead calls New Dutch Swing, the title of his history of modern Dutch jazz.
That hybrid set itself apart from American models, with such components as a European chamber-music sensibility and, notably, a heap of pizzazz of a variety quite strange and alien to American jazz fans – more Dada than Spike Jones, more cerebral than wacky.
Zaniness is an inevitable element of any performance that includes the irrepressible, hyper-percussive Bennink. No drum kit remains a conventional contraption in his hands; instead, its components serve as foils for Bennink’s amalgam of the whole history of jazz drumming, from the showiest early schtick to the most dazzling-quick demolitions of expectations of rhythm and pacing. At times feather soft, he also delights in furious hammer-fisted pounding in which his trademark boots lend, well, a hand, not only in rapid-fire bass-drum play but also on snare and toms.
Bennink provides often-breathtaking propulsion. Long one of the most in-demand drummers in Europe, he has performed and recorded with jazz musicians Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins. Both he and Mengelberg have also teamed up often with the most vaunted Europe-based jazzmen, such as John Tchicai and Steve Lacy, and improvisers Peter Brötzmann and Derek Bailey.
As idiosyncratic as Bennink is as a performer, the group’s edginess probably derives most from the subtle machinations of Mengelberg. As Sam Prestianni put it in the San Francisco Weekly: “The pianist’s strong, stark dissonance, especially in the lower register, offers a superb foil to the drummer’s often nutty, octopi rhythms.”
Mengelberg is a master of oblique, unpredictable, and often playful composing for this creative orchestra. Wry humor is one element of his generally eccentric musical personality, which manifests itself in surprising tempos and phrasing.
That may bring to mind the zaniness of the Willem Breuker Kollektief; saxophonist Willem Breuker was there at the ICP Orchestra’s founding and spent plenty of time in the band before branching out to form his own ensemble. But, more than the Kollektief, the ICP Orchestra forges humor from musical play, with fewer stage antics – Bennink’s aside.
Raised in Kiev, Mengelberg came to the West with his musical, activist parents when they fled political heat. Mengelberg junior became enamored in Amsterdam of the earliest American jazz-related forms, and in time, he mastered most of their successors, as Bennink has, too.
Thanks to the pianist’s singular mind and self-education, the ICP Orchestra’s selections are eclectic, drawing not just from Mengelberg’s vast compositional pool but also from free jazz, European dancehall, parade, classical music, and the bag of jazz standards – for example, “Tea for Two” and “My Funny Valentine” and similar curious manifestations of Americanism. Expect Monkism, too, because Mengelberg has been a key figure in preserving and constantly refreshing the legacy of Thelonious Monk. Similarly, he has helped revive interest in the less-vaunted, long-departed pianist and composer Herbie Nichols.
Bringing all this to life with Mengelberg and Bennink is a lineup of top-flight, maverick contributors: Wolter Wierbos, trombone (Gerry Hemingway Quintet, Peter van Bergen’s LOOS, Theo Leovendie Quintet, J.C. Tans Orchestra); Ernst Glerum, bass (Amsterdam String Trio, Guus Jansen, J.C. Tans Orchestra, Curtis Clark); Ab Baars, clarinet and saxophone (Guus Jansen, Maarten Altena, Loek Dikker, Orkest de Volharding); and Thomas Heberer, trumpet (Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, European Jazz Ensemble, Pata Orchestra). They all enjoy high reputations in their own right. Wierbos, for example, has for many years been one of his instrument’s most advanced and idiosyncratic innovators.
Added to the ICP Orchestra a few years ago, replacing cellist Ernst Reijseger, American violist Mary Oliver brings to three the number of stellar American expats in the band. There is longtime Amsterdam resident Michael Moore, a multi-hornman (Available Jelly, Gerry Hemingway Quintet, Clusone Trio, Maarten Altena Ensemble) who has impressed audiences here in Seattle in recent years with the Monitor Trio and the Clusone Trio, and longtime Vermonter-in-Amsterdam cellist Tristan Honsinger, whose collaborations include a vaunted one with Cecil Taylor, and others with Derek Bailey and Irene Schweitzer. Honsinger has also led his own string quartet with Glerum, as well as the ensemble This, That, and The Other.
Tenor saxophonist Tobias Delius fills the last stand. He joined the band in 2006 as a stand-in for an ill Honsinger, playing the cellist’s charts, transcribed for saxophone. That exercise went so well that he remained with the band upon Honsinger’s return. A member of Michael Moore’s Available Jelly and Honsinger’s This, That, and The Other, among many other projects, Delius also leads his own quartet with Honsinger, Joe Williamson (bass), and Bennink.
Mengelberg loosely directs the whole swirling show – with startling musical gestures at the keyboard rather than ostensive conducting. He told New Dutch Swing author Whitehead that he likes “to put sticks into the spokes of all wheels.” Similarly, the band’s members are at liberty to inject a “virus” – a written snippet that will disrupt a tune, forcing the ensemble to renew its instant composition.
Bill Shoemaker writes of the results in Jazz Times: “Compelling open improvisations and pungent thematic materials function like spark-shooting flints throughout the program.”
The approach produces results that many jazz big bands should note, Lloyd Sachs suggests in the Chicago Sun-Times. Making reference to a moment in the ICP Orchestra’s rendition of “Caravan,” he writes, “With one exhilarating stroke – a unison horn climax that was as brief as it was sudden – the rendition left you thinking how thoroughly this band could kick the rears of countless mainstream repertory orchestras with its expressiveness and power.”
These ten world-class improvisers are at the Seattle Art Museum on Tuesday, April 12.
Admission: $20 general, $18 Earshot members and senior citizens, $10 student. Tickets available at www.brownpapertickets.com and 1-800-838-3006.