Before & After: Misha Mengelberg

Misha and MeThis B&A (done for JazzTimes in 2005) stirred some controversy, mostly for Misha’s candid comments on Hank Jones and Dave Holland. But unlike many musicians, Misha has never been afraid to say what he really thinks.



Part of the fun, the joy of sitting down with pianist, composer Misha Mengelberg is to see his facial expressions when he is listening to music. If it’s something he likes, his eyes light up and he gets an impish look on his face, sometimes laughing with delight or singing along. Even still, he is not one who is prone to extravagant praise when discussing music and musicians, and some of his value judgments need decoding; for example, when he likes something, he says it’s “ok.” Something great is “really ok.” And the highest praise is “good stuff” or best of all, “fun.” Even when being provocative, he is totally honest and says what he thinks, which makes him a particularly interesting subject for one of these sessions.

Mengelberg’s story is well known to those who’ve closely followed creative improvised music of the past 40 years. Born into a musical family in Kiev, Ukraine in 1935, Mengelberg studied composition at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, became involved in the Dutch Fluxus movement in the early 1960s, and played on Eric Dolphy’s Last Date (1964). With drummer Han Bennink, Mengelberg was a founder of the Instant Composers Pool, an orchestra and organization that helped spearhead the Dutch avant-garde music scene and continues to this day. Their most recent recording was the much celebrated Aan & Uit (ICP Records) recorded at the Bimhuis in 2003. Mengelberg graciously agreed to meet on a drizzly March afternoon at my hotel just across from the opera house in Amsterdam. After some small talk he removed his two jackets, sipped his coffee and cued me to start the music.

1. Duke Ellington

“Transblucency” (from The Indispensable Duke Ellington, RCA) Shelton Hemphill, Taft Jordan, Car Anderson, Francis Williams, Harold Baker, trumpets; Joe “Ticky Sam” Nanton, Lawrence Brown, Claude Jones, Wilbur DeParis, trombones; Johnny Hodges, Russell Procope, Al Sears, Jimmy Hamilton, Harry Carney, saxophones, clarinets; Duke Ellington, piano, composer; Fred Guy, guitar; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Sonny Greer, drums; Kay Davis, vocal. Recorded in 1946.

Before: [chuckles] Sounds like Ellington a little bit, the calmness of the piano playing. It’s done with necessary precision and calmness. That is old Ellington I think. Sounds good. Those people can do probably anything they would like to do. That lady I have heard in the Concertgebouw. Maybe in 1947 or 48. She sings ok. She’s not going into astonishing voice gymnastics. She does what he does.

Did you ever get to meet him?

Ellington? Oh yes. It was really more or less impersonal. I was introduced to him in the Concertgebouw by a singer named Ann Burton, who was of Dutch off-spring living here in Holland. He was there and shaking hands with everyone. He didn’t say much: “go on and do good work,” or something. I saw in his voice and appearance some cynicism. He was not an outspoken cynic, but he had his moments of doubt veiled in politeness.

If he were here right now, what would you talk about?

I would say to him I have done something which maybe should not be done with any composer’s music, but I wanted to make a replay of a piece you did in the 1940s. It’s called “Happy Go Lucky Local.” The blues I threw out, but I like the long introduction with the train whistle. [sings it] That’s it. That’s the nucleus of the piece, I think. The rest, the blues, is for the people. He wanted the piece to be a success, so he put the blues there. This piece [we just heard] was well played and well done. Good stuff.

After: [enthusiastically] Kay Davis, yes. That name was in my head but I didn’t want to say it because I wasn’t sure.  I saw her at one of his concerts in the late 40s. She sounded excellent. I hear blues in her but it’s hidden. Ellington is certainly the most important of my earlier influences. The 40s were for Ellington, but after about 53 or 54 I didn’t go to his concerts anymore. They became predictable, not enough inspiration. It’s like Cecil Taylor. I liked him when he started but then he just stayed where he was.

2. Tom Talbert

“In A Mist” (from Bix Duke Fats, Sea Breeze Records) Joe Wilder, trumpet; Joe Soldo, flute; Danny Bank, clarinet; Harold Goltzer, basson; Jim Buffington, french horn; Barry Galbraith, guitar; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Osie Johnson, drums. Composer, Bix Beiderbecke; Arragner, Tom Talbert. Recorded in 1956.

Before: [laughs at first statement of theme] Yes. This is fun music. Fun. It reminds me a little bit of early ICP music. The free style of composing. I remember letting the trumpets do some acrobatics, notes that they were not used to playing . It sounds like an early Miles Davis, but it’s not Miles Davis. It could be one of the west coast trumpet players. There is a lot of fun with West Coast music. I think in those times they were impressed by Les Six: Honegger, Milhaud… You could speak of a Stravinsky influence a little bit [and] polytonality. It has a certain amusing value, I think. Not bad at all. Sounded like a professional arrangement. Good stuff.

After: Never heard of him.  From that time there are maybe 5 or 6 trumpet players I’ve listened to; Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis until he started his own music. I think the things he did with Gil Evans were no good. It went from worse to worser. [notices the composer of the song] Bix Beiderbecke had contacts with contemporary music from his time. He was interested in French music, in Debussy and Ravel. Things that I heard in concerts in the 40s, that I heard going to Concertgebouw with my father. I heard a lot of it. My favorites were more audacious. I was an early fan of Schoenberg. When I was 9, I heard my first Schoenberg. Berg and Webern, of course. I didn’t like the people who later referred to them. I was not amused by Karlheinz [Stockhausen] or Pierre Boulez. There were some things with some of the Italians, Berio for instance, where I thought this is not an unmusical guy.  He’s doing his best to create something outside the borders of this serialism, that was at that time the thing to do. What was interesting was [John] Cage. He did really his own thing with David Tudor.

3. Joe Lovano

“Monk‘s Mood” (from I’m All For You, Blue Note). Lovano, tenor sax; Hank Jones, piano; George Mraz, bass; Paul Motian, drums. Thelonious Monk, composer. Recorded in 2003.

Before: Oh no, no. I don’t believe it. Starts whistling along with the theme. No. Ha-ha-ha. No, I’m not interested. You can turn it off. I have some inclinations to make Thelonious a bit ridiculous. For example, in Chicago I’ve been playing Round Midnight in E-flat major. Here, I don’t like the slick chording and the mistakes. The theme is one big mistake. It’s full of the peppermint chords of certain parts of be-bop that I don’t like. It’s vague Debussy, Ravel type of chords. They were part of the vocabulary of a Dutch composer, the teacher of my father Willem Piper. This might be called jazz music maybe, but it goes too much in the direction of just entertainment.

After: I was on the brink of saying it sounds like an uninterested Hank Jones. In the beginning he mixes one of the peppermint chords with another that was well done, but then he kept on going playing chords that evade to become serious proposals for anything. The piece is called “Monk’s Mood” most of the time, but that’s not the name. I thank Steve Lacy for telling me the actual name of the song. It’s called “That’s The Way I Feel Now.” [sings the title] The saxophone sounds not too bad. A capable saxophone player. Here he’s probably impressed by the famous Hank Jones to keep it temperate. The reactionaries may say, “how can you say that Hank Jones is an old fashioned player, he is of all-times, how do you dare say that?” Well, I’m sorry, I just say what I think. If you bring any late Miles Davis I will really start fulminating. [laughter]

4. Dave Douglas

“Gumshoe” (from Mountain Passages( ) Douglas, trumpet, composer; Michael Moore, clarinet; Peggy Lee, cello; Marcus Rojas, tuba; Dylan van der Schyff, drums. Recorded in 2004.

Before: Yeah, well played. The double tempo of the drums is not to my taste. It’s too easy. [at start of trumpet solo] You could blow 6 choruses in that style and still not finish. Is that a cello? [at entrance of the tuba] Hmm, what happens there? [begins to sing along] I’m not really content. It doesn’t move me. He repeats the theme here so it‘s good that it‘s ending. I don’t like the composition. It’s lukewarm post-Romantic, not real Romanticism. The trumpet is not so bad. But here he is playing very uninteresting music.

After: With Dave I have a certain respect with what he does and I get along with him and we do things together from time to time. He dares to do things that are relatively new to him. He has a taste for funny things that I also like. Things that are on the brink of being gruesome circus music or something. Some of the criticism that he gets from contemporary musicians, who call him the boy wonder and claim that he doesn’t take seriously everything he is doing, that I don’t mind. That’s his choice. I try to give the impression that I‘m never serious, but I can take what he does more or less serious. [notices the clarinetist] Michael? Good! Him I trust. Not always, he’s sometime doing vague things. So, it was Dave. He is an ok trumpet player. He likes to play my pieces and is not afraid that some of them have no future at all anymore. But they seem to be good vehicles to do certain things. Then he goes and does that work impeccably.

5. Grachan Moncur III

“Monk In Wonderland” (from Exploration, Capri Records) Tim Hagens, trumpet; John Clark, french horn; Dave Woodley, trombone; Gary Bartz, alto saxophone; Billy Harper, tenor saxophone; Gary Smulyan, baritone saxophone; Ray Drummond, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums; Moncur, trombone, composer. Recorded in 2004.

Before: Ha-ha. Yeah, fun music. Ok. Very good, nice. There is a loose way of setting some rules for this music, but not too much.

Can it be fun and serious music at the same time?

Oh yes. Real serious music is always fun. Stravinsky? Fun! “Le Sacre du Printemps?” Fun all the way. The solos sound more or less alright. It has a kind of honest, fun sound.

After: I think I know this name. That’s not bad. I would like to meet him maybe next month [in New York]. Maybe he should come and play a few tunes with me, or non-tunes, or whatever he likes to play. Yeah, Grachan Moncur. I liked his playing at the time but then he disappeared. Sometimes people stopped playing. No bad stuff, kind of ok, I think.

For you, kind of ok is pretty good.

It’s very good. [laughter] Seven plus! There are very few people who get eights. Thelonious sometime, not always.

6. Art Ensemble of Chicago

“Theme de Celine” (from Les Stances a Sophie, Soul Jazz). Joseph Jarman, Roscoe MItchell, saxophones; Lester Bowie, trumpet; Malachi Favors, bass; Don Moye, drums. Recorded in 1970.

Before: Wild bass player. Wild exposition of theme. Nice duck sounds. Yeah, a good flavor. I like that. Yeah, more fun. This is very good trumpet player. He can play the trumpet, really. He’s not interested in making 19th century trumpet sounds. [during Roscoe Mitchell’s solo) Wow, hello! [much laughter] That’s good. Yeah! Wild bass again. Ok stuff. There’s looseness and freedom of speech. It says what it wants to say. Reality is viewed, what you see daily in the city when you’re out of your house, I think.  I would not know who it is. Albert Ayler set the rules with his way of improvising. This is not Albert Ayler, but these are people who listened very well to him and drew their own conclusions.  So it’s great fun. Hurray!

After: They sound familiar somehow. They do well. This is very much ok music. Next to Ellington it’s the best I’ve heard up till now. Very well equilibriated. Good people. Excellent.

7. Gonzalo Rubalcaba

“Los Büyes” (from Paseo, Blue Note). Rubalcaba, piano, keyboards; Luis Felipe Lamoglia, alto saxophone; Joe Armando Gola, electric bass; Ignacio Berroa, drums. Recorded 2004.

Before: Yeah, why not? African, I would say. Kwela, South African. Maybe it’s not that but influenced by it. [hears piano chord] Hey! It reminds me of Chris MacGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, or his smaller groups. The pianist does not do much but it seems essential. They know about so-called free music. It’s not the first time they are playing this type of stuff.

After: Cuban. That’s interesting. Never heard of him. He’s an ok player. I hear that he seems to be important. The saxophonist reminds me a little of Dudu Pukwana, an old friend. He’s tenacious and wants to get a grip on the situation, and he does. When I see him in NY I’ll tell him he made a very nice record.

8. Yosuke Yamashita

“The Quintet” (from Pacific Crossing, Verve). Yamashita, piano, composer; Cecil McBee, bass; Pharoan ak Laff, drums; Meisho Tosha, fue (flute); Kiyohiko Semba, tzuzumi & percussion. Recorded in 2003.

Before: Heh-heh. It’s not my favorite flute player but he has breath, which is something I have respect for. It doesn’t sound like a Boehm flutist. Sounds like Japan or something. Is it shakuhachi? Sounds very good. I like it. It has something fluid and organized, and unorganized. Could be an old ritual, even. I met people that did things like this but I have no names for you. Sometimes I like things but I don’t want to hear it further. It’s not my day for Japanese sounds.

After: Yes, I know him. I’ve played Go with him. He’s an ok player, not a bad player. The whole atmosphere of the record is interesting.

9. Dave Holland Big Band

“Bring It On” (from Overtime, Dare2/Sunnyside). Antonio Hart, Mark Gross, Chris Potter, Gary Smulyan, saxophones; Robin Eubanks, Jonathan Arons, Josh Roseman, trombones; Taylor Haskins, Alex Sipiagin, Duane Eubanks, trumpets, flugelhorns; Steve Nelson, vibes; Billy Kilson, drums; Dave Holland, bass, composer. Recorded in 2002.

Before: Contemporary big band writing. Not one of my favorite subjects. It comes too much from a tradition with very good example from the 30s. The howling alto is present here. I know the howling alto from 150,000 spots on television. We dropped that in the 90s. There’s still that when the hero is maybe going to buy a certain item in the shop. It’s not exceptional in any way. You could say there are people who can make their trade nowadays writing this type of music. I know I’m insulting a lot of good willing jazz fanatics now, but I’m not interested in them. Let them be mad at me. Zero. I’ve heard enough.

After: Oh, Dave. I know Dave. I’ve played with that guy and he’s not a bad bass player. He should be forbidden to do anything himself. He should act on the impulses of other people. He’s a sideman. That’s what he’s good at. He is the bass player who should be given a task in life, not one who should invent his own stories.

He leads one of the most successful groups in jazz.

But what does the most successful group in jazz mean? Those are the groups I never listen to.  It’s not very commercial but it has a tendency to commerce that is undeniable, I think. And it’s not fun at all. It’s anti-fun.

10. Eric Dolphy

“Feathers” (from Out There, OJC) Dolphy, alto saxophone; Ron Carter, bass; George Duvivier, bass; Roy Haynes, drums. Hale Smith, composer. Recorded in 1960, reissued 2001.

Before: Contemporary sentimentalism. I have no real big objections to being sentimental, but it has a tendency  to cover up real sentiment. [solo starts] Oh, it’s Eric Dolphy. Thank you. I was not an absolute admirer of him. I loved to play with him, in that week we did play. He is having different lines of approach to material that I though was interesting. We played Monk for instance, and I met him with my extended Monkish chords. I knew what Monk had done with the piece but I thought when you go into those chords there are immediately a new set of chords that come with them, substitutes and alterations of the normal chords. And Eric had a very fast way to get a grip on those type of chords. He did that in a perfect way, on alto as well as with bass clarinet.

How do you feel about the record you made together?

It’s not bad at all. Certainly I was, in a way, reluctant at the time. We were not prepared for the most interesting living bass clarinetist and altoist, but we thought let’s do what we can. He was not yet a real composer, I think. That’s not so bad. He wanted to have formal lesson in Paris where his girlfriend lived, from Nadia Boulanger. He would have been one of her last pupils. He would have been accepted graciously by her. She was a very fine and good woman, and she would have heard his talents immediately. He’s one of the very few that I think died too soon. It was ridiculous.


5 comments on “Before & After: Misha Mengelberg

  1. Ian Carey says:

    Loving these. “I hear that he seems to be important”–LOL.

  2. Jazz.Ru says:

    Oh boy, it’s not just Mengelberg, it’s Mengelberg’s Mengelberg. I will never forget his (and Han Bennink’s) press conference in Moscow. Misha soon got bored with silly questions and suddenly gave out a bark. A real dog’s bark. The audience stiffened for a second, and Han said in the sudden silence: “Oh. My. GOD.”

  3. Barking Misha? Fun all the way!

  4. That Dave Holland Big Band record was on Sunnyside/Dare2; not Palmetto. Those are some comments.

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