The Great Mengelberg

RIP Misha Mengelberg.

Can jazz be absurd? We don’t mean like surreal blues lyrics or funny hats or goofy scatting. No. We mean uncomfortably absurd. Existentially absurd. The kind of absurdity artists of all kinds and nationalities turned to during and after two world wars when millions were lost to mechanized killing machines.

In America, jazz is always connected to race. Other countries have more room. In the Netherlands, especially Amsterdam, a kind of absurd jazz grew into a valid movement spearheaded by drummer Han Bennink and pianist Misha Mengelberg.

However, that last sentence is incorrect, a misstating of the situation. Bennink and Mengelberg are agents of change and masters of chaos. Calling them “musicians” is already almost wrong, let alone describing them as a drummer and a pianist.

Like most significant non-American jazz musicians, they did have important contact with American jazz greats: Indeed, Bennink and Mengelberg appear on Eric Dolphy’s swan song Last Date. And, unusually for any modern jazz pianist of any background, Mengelberg really understood Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. Mengelberg may also have been the first to forcefully suggest that Herbie Nichols also belongs in that constellation. Some of the best “conventional” jazz playing I’ve heard from Mengelberg is on two Soul Note dates with Steve Lacy and either Roswell Rudd or George Lewis playing Monk and Nichols. There are also interesting trio sides with Brad Jones or Greg Cohen and Joey Baron offering original music and standards rather in the tradition of Ellington, Monk, and Nichols.

However, what made Mengelberg Mengelberg wasn’t playing with respect for the text or with swinging bass and drums. What made him a force of nature was his fearless and faultless sense of the absurd.

There’s a huge discography that I wish I knew better, although the Mengelberg experience was certainly something best understood in person. The ICP Orchestra is one of the classic ensembles. I just listened to the early LP Groupcomposing with much pleasure, a galaxy of Euro free jazz stars (incl. Derek Bailey, Peter Brotzmann, Evan Parker, Peter Bennink, Paul Rutherford), great piano playing, and Han Bennink occasionally screaming in the background.

The definitive book on the movement is Kevin Whitehead’s New Dutch Swing. If you go to the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, ask around about Mengelberg; you’ll be sure to hear some stories.

I’m going to end this brief note on one of the most significant European jazz, creative music, and conceptual music practitioners with a cat video.

Can a cat video be transcendent? We don’t mean surreal or funny stuff where a feline surprises us with near-human behavior. No. We mean actual great art — specifically piano music — that is created by a cat and worthy of inclusion in the modernist pantheon.

Misha Mengelberg’s cat Pief, Misha Mengelberg’s piano, Misha Mengelberg’s camera work and video. 1967.