Sunday, January 20, 2008

Double Dutch Jazz

Misha Mengelberg Quartet
Friday, January 18, 2008 @ International House, Philadelphia, PA

Misha Mengelberg: piano
Dave Douglas: trumpet
Brad Jones: bass
Han Bennink: drums

The sense of theatrical absurdity that permeates the physical force of Han Bennink at the drum kit (often as he dissembles it) or the fluxus tinged clusters beneath the fists and palms of Misha Mengelberg at the piano coexists with deep jazz roots that seemingly extend to the very source of dixieland swing, tin pan alley and the blues with assertive swipes at bop, modal jazz and fusion along the way. That these Europeans have come to be masters of this musical genre and living treasures of improvised music speaks to the lessons learned from the expatriate years of Eric Dolphy, Don Cherry and Albert Ayler.

Misha Mengelberg made his recording debut in 1964 as a sideman for Eric Dolphy's final album. Three years later he founded the Instant Composer's Pool Orchestra, a large ensemble that continues to tour and expose ears to the outstanding avant jazz scene of Amsterdam. The fact that his current quartet includes Dave Douglas - one of the most consistently engaging American trumpet players, improvisers and label mavens of this age - and still gets top billing speaks to the enduring qualities of his music that my own ears are only starting to comprehend.

As a live concert, the Misha Mengelberg Quartet put on a world class performance in Philadelphia. Four musicians with intense creativity and a responsiveness that makes each one of them an ideal collaborative partner. Brad Jones effortlessly picked up phrases and gestures tossed off by Dave Douglas and wove them into the sonic fabric on bass. And the wealth of ideas and sense of play developed between Mengelberg and Bennink was a pure joy to behold.

The evening's long set began with a solo, unaccompanied Bennink putting more energy into a drum solo than most percussionists a fraction of his age. His relentless search for sonic (or visual) resources from anything and everything at hand nearly stole the focal point all evening long. As Mengelberg casually walked on stage and shifted the dynamic toward a duo the chemistry of the understated and overstated sense of the absurd took hold. As the house and stage lights malfunctioned through much of the first half of the set - often plunging everything into complete darkness before casting both performers and audience under the same harsh glow of the house lights - this quartet pressed on, treating the unplanned light show as a natural part of their uncontainable creativity. Bennink and Mengelberg's response toward reemerging into the light often took the form of flightless birds attempting to fly as they soundlessly waved their hands - a gesture of unrehearsed synchronicity.

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