FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004


Steve Lake



Words lumber clumsily after music (as I'II prove, promptly, don't worry). Jazz criticism, a dull brute of a genre, never very bright, shakes its head in perplexity when improvisation as witty as the Dutch variety skips up the road and zips past. The Dutch variety, that's already misleading. I have a handful of musicians in mind, not enough to constitute a "scene" and really I mean Mengelberg and Bennink. (Breuker too, if you like, though l'm less sure that l'd term his slapstick antics "witty". Is a pie in the face witty? Sounds like a zen riddle.) Mostly I mean Mengelberg, Misha. Mengelberg who once outraged jazz criticism's sense of propriety by putting his duet improvisations with Eeko, a red-talled grey parrot, on the reverse side of Eric Dolphy's last date. Yet Dolphy, whose love of birdsong is a matter of official record, would probably have been glad to make it a trio session had he not been dead at the time. Not much of Mengelberg's prickly sense of humour inclines to simple gags. There's a well-honed sense of irony at work, almost all the time, often aimed at himself and the "limitations" of his own piano technique. This, too, is confusing for critics. Where do you place a musician, an influential musician, who'll tell you "Let's not create any misunderstandings: I am a rotten piano player"?

I've seen Mengelberg at work (or play, as he'd insist) often enough in the last decade-and-a-half to distrust these alleged limitations. I suspect his limitations are about as limiting as Monk's were. That is to say, not limiting at all. I'm more inclined to believe that he sees something absurd in conventional notions of virtuosity, the idea of "licks" rehearsed until they blind you. I think this would never have interested him much, not even in the arduous years of conservatory study.

If, as Mengelberg has asserted, improvisation is by nature an "autobiographical" idiom what could we learn of his past from the music on "Impromptus"? Monk's already been mentioned, but he can still be perceived as an influence. (Steve Lacy, long ago: " If technique is not wasting any notes, then Monk's got more technique than anybody." Substitute Mengelberg for Monk and the quote still makes sense.) Monk's music, too, always sounded like a delighted commentary upon itself. But where the great Thelonious's frame of reference was derived entirely from jazz, Mengelberg has drawn on the widest sources available to him. Anything and everything, from Webern to Dutch barrel organ music.

That's an intriguing ad hoc draft for a manifesto or call-to-arms, yet even in its demands for an absence of style it implies one, and we still recognise Mengelberg's piano when we hear it (in a similar way, Kurt Schwitters was never too convincing as an anti-artist - he never could escape his own good taste).

Beyond that, if a musician has studied - as Mengelberg has - with John Cage and absorbed the non-lessons of Indeterminacy and gone on to work with David Tudor and the Fluxus group in Amsterdam and the Hague, one could argue that in the determination to be "different" he is, in fact, being loyal to his roots, as it were. There's actually a (not-unwelcome) sense of repetition in the capriciousness. A note he wrote for FMP's 10th anniversary book almost acknowledged this. Remember?: "Festivities of this kind are perhaps a little dangerous - one thinks, probably, something must have happened in these 10 years - it's not impossible, but what's definitely clear is that we're a little nearer the grave."

If it could be proved that the history of free improvisation (or instant composing, no difference) was just so much treading of water- I don't believe it - then few have trod it more divertingly than Misha Mengelberg.

"Impromptus" is a funny, charming, maddening, thoughfful record, brimming with ideas, trails to follow or not. Misha Mengelberg at the piano. Business as usual.

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