Musical Chairs

The ICP Orchestra Shuffle Musical Genres and Play Their Seats

The cellist rises in the middle of a song and starts heckling his own ensemble. The pianist plays a solo entirely with one finger. The drummer wanders into the audience, playing on chairs, and then meanders toward the bar, where he plays the glasses in patrons' hands. On a really rambunctious night, he tries to saw the stage in half (keeping impeccable time in the process, of course). Welcome to the world of the ICP (Instant Composers' Pool, not Insane Clown Posse) Orchestra, the Amsterdam-based nonet whose lineup includes some of the most distinguished players in European jazz. This mini-orchestra, which started as a trio, renders audiences slack-jawed with antics like these while creating some of the most inspired, eclectic, and listenable music in the free-jazz canon--and they've been doing it for an amazing 34 years.

"We never planned on staying together for this long," observes Misha Mengelberg, the Kiev-born pianist and cofounder of the orchestra, speaking by telephone from his home in Amsterdam. "At the time, we thought, Let's give it three months and we'll see how it's going."

Despite the fact that he has managed to generate numerous compositions for orchestra since the group's conception, Mengelberg holds no special reverence for the grand concert-music tradition. He was greatly influenced by the Fluxus movement of the Sixties, which sought (among other things) to introduce elements of everyday life into artistic production. Mengelberg finds inspiration in "weak music," what he describes as "folk tunes, children's songs, circus music--the sort of music that seeps into the cracks of everyday life without ever attaining any kind of elevated artistic or commercial status." (Mengelberg once went so far as to record an album of duets with his wife's parrot.) "I don't even think the music necessarily has to swing," he comments.

But ICP cofounder/drummer/multi-instrumentalist Han Bennink has a reputation for swinging hard. Easily the most sought-after jazz drummer in Europe, Bennink began his recording career on legendary reed master Eric Dolphy's Last Date sessions in 1964 (as did Mengelberg). Since then he's maintained a thoroughly overstuffed datebook, performing and recording with pretty much every adventurous player in Europe, along with Americans ranging from Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins to Cecil Taylor and Eugene Chadbourne, whose signature instrument is a plain old garden-variety rake fitted with guitar strings.

Bennink himself is no stranger to unusual instruments. This son of a concert percussionist made a chair his first instrument, which probably explains his enduring fondness for playing it during live performances. Like a one-man Einstürzende Neubauten, Bennink makes a pre-gig ritual of scouting around for potentially soniferous bric-a-brac to add to his percussion arsenal. (He also makes sculptures that incorporate found objects.) And, like Mengelberg, Bennink insists that music must possess a manifest sense of humor.

It is in their approach to that humor that the two ICP pillars differ. Mengelberg scores some sections, invents game structures for musicians, and sometimes conducts improvised passages. For Bennink, spontaneity is essential, to the extent that he refuses to show up for rehearsals. Fortunately, this doesn't seem to have affected his playing.

The "newer" members of the orchestra, most of whom have been around for 15 years or so, are hardly slouches either. Cellist Tristan Honsinger--whose résumé includes dates with Cecil Taylor and guitar iconoclast/former ICP member Derek Bailey--maintains a busy solo career and leads a string quartet. Reedmen Ab Baars and Michael Moore play in numerous extra-ICP configurations, as do Walter Wierbos (trombone) and Thomas Herberer (trombone). Mary Oliver (violin/viola), a renowned improviser and interpreter of contemporary composed music, has appeared as featured soloist on works by John Cage, George Lewis, and Iannis Xenakis.

The results of cramming nine diverse virtuosos onto one stage tend to be highly unpredictable. And it's not just because of the abundant theatrics. The orchestra members have so many different musical approaches embedded in their imaginations that styles tend to bleed into each other in an unexpected but perfectly logical fashion. A vaguely Eastern European-sounding tango, for example, slowly gets Monkish in the brasses, while the rhythm section introduces elements of a New Orleans funeral march. Ballet slips into bebop and bebop slides into bolero and somehow it all makes perfect sense.

To a great extent, it's a lack of reverence, combined with ICP's unusually listener-friendly approach to free jazz, that accounts for the group's continued survival. The days when a Dutch improviser could count on a steady stream of grant money are long past. According to Mengelberg: "The government funding started drying up in the mid-Eighties. It had a great deal to do with the rising vision of a unified Europe. For whatever reason, the government decided that improvised music was not sufficiently dignified to be included in this grand scheme. That's why we all travel so much around Europe now. That's why we're coming to America."

 
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