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Misha Mengelberg, Influential Dutch Pianist-Composer Behind the ICP Orchestra, Dies at 81

Misha Mengelberg
Peter Gannushkin

Misha Mengelberg, a Dutch pianist and composer who embodied an irreverent yet fully fluent relationship to the jazz tradition, both in his influential solo career and as a founder of the Instant Composers Pool (ICP), died on Friday in Amsterdam. He was 81.

His death was confirmed by Susanna Von Canon, the manager of the ICP Orchestra.

Over the course of a career spanning nearly six decades, Mengelberg pursued a wily and unpredictable agenda at the piano, with a strong identity and an even stronger aversion to stasis. His percussive attack, along with a certain slanted grace in his phrasing, earned him lifelong comparisons to Thelonious Monk, whose music he wasn’t shy about reinterpreting. But Mengelberg also maintained a genuine fondness for swing-era pianism, and was just as willing to swerve into freeform abstraction.

Together with free-thinking peers like drummer Han Bennink and saxophonist Willem Breuker, his founding partners in the ICP, he defined a playfully discursive mode for the European jazz avant-garde, madcap in its effect but always governed by invisible rigors.

Credit Roberto Masotti
Misha Mengelberg at home in Amsterdam, May 1978

Mengelberg named the Instant Composers Pool in the spirit of both an artistic manifesto and a self-deprecating joke: the phrase “instant composition” reflected his convictions about the essence of improvisation, but he often said he meant to evoke the image of cheap instant coffee.

The group began partly for the most practical of reasons. “It started as a political organization,” he said in a 1996 interview with Dan Warburton. “An organization that was not only into music but also into conditions. We wanted government subsidies. We said, ‘If they can subsidize the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the opera, and the ballet, they can also subsidize some improvised music.’”

After Breuker left to form the Willem Breuker Kollektief, Mengelberg and Bennink formed the ICP Tentet, which included fearsome improvisers like the German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. The Tentet then morphed into the ICP Orchestra, which has been one of the most persistent and widely admired ensembles in the history of European jazz.

With the ICP Orchestra — which he jointly led with Bennink for some 40 years, before retiring from performance — Mengelberg pinballed between circuslike fanfares, raucous cacophonies and unabashedly swinging tunes. Here is his composition “Brozziman,” a distinctly Ellingtonian entry in the band’s early playbook, from the 1979 album, Live Soncino.

Misha Mengelberg was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1935. He came from a musical family of distinction: his father, Karel Mengelberg, was a composer and conductor. Karel’s uncle, Willem Mengelberg, had also been a conductor, working first at the Concertgebouw and later alongside Arturo Toscanini at the New York Philharmonic.

Mengelberg’s family moved to the Netherlands when he was a child, and he grew up studying the piano — a bit halfheartedly, as he later recalled. He briefly studied architecture before enrolling at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, where his focus was less on the piano than on music theory and composition.

He became involved in Fluxus, the radical avant-garde movement of the 1960s, and carried its anarchic energies into his own work. But Mengelberg was also a fine jazz pianist, and he found work along those lines. His first recording session, in 1964, was with Eric Dolphy, the alto saxophonist, bass clarinetist and flutist, on what would eventually be released as Last Date. (Dolphy died within a month of recording that album, though its title stretches the truth a bit.)

In Bennink, who also played on Last Date, Mengelberg had a coconspirator with a temperament more ebulliently extroverted than his own. Theirs was a jazz partnership of rare duration and simpatico: in performance they would come across almost like a comedy duo, with Mengelberg as the gnomic straight man and Bennink as the wildcard jester. Whatever their antics at any given moment, the music was always handled with a sly dignity.

Mengelberg and Bennink worked memorably together outside the ICP umbrella, notably on Four in One, an album released under Mengelberg’s name in 2001, with Dave Douglas on trumpet and Brad Jones on bass. Among the highlights of that album is a zippy new version of “Hypochristmutreefuzz,” the boppish Mengelberg tune that first surfaced on that Dolphy session. 

Mengelberg is survived by his wife of 52 years, Amy; a daughter, Andrea; and a brother, Kaspar.

(NPR’s Tom Huizenga contributed to this report.)