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Misha Mengelberg : Making Musical Statues

By Mike Zwerin

AMSTERDAM, 24 February 2003—In the lively Welling café near the Concertgebouw auditorium, where his uncle Willem was once principal conductor, Misha Mengelberg's English is coming with difficulty. Talking about himself, he has trouble keeping a straight face.

Mengelberg was 13 soon after World War II when he first went to hear Duke Ellington at the Concertgebouw. He vividly remembers watching the leader arrive on stage alone after the intermission and begin to improvise a piano solo. Ellington was known to cast his orchestra with the musicians themselves in mind, more than the instruments they played. Along with each player having his own unique sound, a certain amount of quirkiness was part of the gig. They were notorious for being late. Without undue haste and with no apparent pre-determined order, the musicians wandered on stage and joined in with their leader one by one until the entire orchestra was playing. It had a profound effect on him.

Mengelberg is described arriving on stage by Kevin Whitehead in his book New Dutch Swing: "Stooped pot-bellied buttless bald on top wearing a moth-eaten sweater and old droopy jeans[He] sets down his drinks on the ledge above the piano keyboard, places his cigarette on a saucer, pulls his sweater over his head and drapes it casually on the strings. Looks at it a moment and then drapes it on a slightly different section of the strings. Sits down and inventories a couple of octaves to hear what the sweater's good for."

Both Mengelberg's father Karel and uncle Willem were conductors who interpreted other people's compositions. "Playing other people's music is not interesting" for Misha. Willem specialized in Brahms, and "my father was always upstairs working on a production of somebody else's operetta. I told him I thought he could do better than that. I hate Franz Lehar."

Born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1935, he emigrated with his Roman Catholic family to Holland at the age of three. "My mother had a bad feeling," he recalls. "She used to say, 'Stalin is talking about better to kill 10,000 Ukranians too many than one too few.'" He wrote his first piano composition at the age of four. A few years after graduating from the Royal Conservatory of music in The Hague, he recorded in Hilversum with Eric Dolphy on the legendary saxophonist's historic "Last Date." The drummer was Han Bennink. Bennink is tall and straight and Mengelberg is short and bent and now, some 40 years later, this dynamic duo continues to make audiences smile playing Laurel and Hardy together.

They gave birth to Dutch improvised musical theater, which has turned into a prime cultural export. Touring the world, they have been described as: "Those zany, wacky Dutchmen."

Bennink, Mengelberg and the saxophonist Willem Breuker founded the Instant Composers Pool (ICP), an improvising collective and record company that calls itself "the world's longest running musician-owned label." (Breuker eventually broke away to form his successful "Kollektief.") ICP's first stage production was "The Life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart," with Mengelberg in the title role.

It is odd to hear a scholar who teaches conservatory-level counterpoint say: "I don't think Bach wrote good fugues. I was not very fond of Bach until I heard Glenn Gould. Gould made it sound like each voice had a very good reason to be there. Without Gould, I feel choked. I get out of breath with Bach. There is no breath in that music."

For a young musician in search of more breath, hearing Monk for the first time was a "devastating experience." No other pianist can evoke the spirit of Thelonious Monk as faithfully as Misha Mengelberg, who says: "Monk made statues with his music." Mengelberg made statues of his own. "I never copy," he says.

Having been educated in the 12-tone music of Berg and Schoenberg, Mengelberg had "no fear of dissonance. I thought 'there is not enough dissonance in jazz. I am going to introduce some more.' Cecil Taylor was also doing that. When I first heard him doing his act, I thought: 'Oh, he's copying me.' I don't object to that."

His keyboard style can be described as being in a ballpark between Taylor, Monk, Gould and John Cage. "Sometimes there is no swing anywhere in my music," Mengleberg says, happy about it: "Even when I do swing, I'm not particularly proud of it. There was a time in the '50s when I wanted to swing. 'Please, God, send me some swing.' But God never did such a thing. So I thought, I'm Dutch, not American, after all. I'm not even going to try anymore. And, you know what? Not trying is the best way to learn how to swing. It's a simple trick."

After appearing in the Parisian suburb of Noisy-le-Sec during the "Banlieues Blues" festival on March 7th, ICP leaves for its fourth tour of North America, from Albuquerque to Halifax.

7 March 2003 Paris (Banlieues Bleues)
17 March Albuquerque (Outpost)
19 March Seattle (Earshot)
21 March Vancouver (Coastal Jazz & Blues)
22 March Edmonton (Yardbird Suite)
24 March New York (Tonic)
25 March New York ( Han & Misha & Dave Douglas : Jazz Standard)
26 March Chicago (Empty Bottle : duos/trios)
27 March Chicago (Hot House)
28 March Toronto (St. George the Martyr)
29 March Ann Arbor (Kerrytown Concert House)
31 March Ottawa/Sweetman
1 April Montreal (Casa del Popolo)
2 April Halifax (Jazz East)
4 April Burlington (Flynn Theater)
10 April Delft / Smør Jazz
11 April Copenhagen / Jazz House
12 April Bergen / Vossa Jazz

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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