By John Fordham
In his last years the Dutch pianist, composer and improviser Misha Mengelberg, who has died aged 81, would sometimes whistle and sing in conversation with visiting friends when advancing Alzheimer’s disease made words particularly elusive. But conversing this way was perhaps not as big an inconvenience for Mengelberg as it might have been for some, since much of the music he had initiated and participated in for more than 50 years resembled a spontaneous conversation in which narrative was capricious, logic unreliable and diversionary humour frequent.
Mengelberg was one of the most creative jazz pianists to emerge in the first phase of Europe’s breakaway from American jazz styles in the 1960s, good enough to record with the pioneering American reeds player Eric Dolphy in 1964 and to perform at the Newport jazz festival two years later. Mengelberg had been intrigued in his youth by the jazz methods of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monkand Herbie Nichols, and had transcribed jazz solos while studying the classics. However, he was soon exposing those materials to creative pressures from non-jazz radicals including John Cage and the interdisciplinary experiments being pursued in the US and Europe by futurists, dadaists, and the 1950s Fluxus artists - as well as the Taoism of Lao Tzu.
The description of the movement by Fluxus pioneer George Maciunas as “a fusion of Spike Jones, gags, games, vaudeville, Cage and Duchamp” makes a pretty good description of Mengelberg himself. He would shift unceremoniously between traditional swing and flinty improv or graceful virtuosity and slapstick, inject weird wordless vocal variations into meticulously composed instrumentals, and tease audiences with the expectation of resolutions that never came. He had a reputation for forgetting appointments, sometimes arriving late for gigs, taking to a stage through the wrong door carrying a cup of coffee – and recording musical dialogues with his wife’s parrot, Eeko. Despite appearances, Mengelberg maintained that the bird hated him, since it would regularly mimic his best ideas better than he could play them himself.
He was also a co-founder (with fellow-composers including Louis Andriessen, Peter Schat and Reinbert de Leeuw) of the Amsterdam research and development centre STEIM (Studio for Electro Instrumental Music), a facility that later expanded to include studios, workshops and a concert hall. He was instrumental in the founding of Amsterdam’s celebrated Bimhuis jazz club in 1973 and a dedicated campaigner for the improvement of opportunities and rewards for musicians, helping in the latter role to encourage unprecedented levels of state funding for original jazz and improvisation in his homeland.But if Mengelberg could seem to be a flippant individual who took neither himself nor anyone else seriously, it was a smokescreen that concealed an influential lifetime of work as both an artist and an enabler. He was an initiator of the Instant Composers’ Pool (ICP), a collective comprising many of the Netherlands’ most inventive jazz avant gardists, which evolved a diverting chemistry of Ellingtonian swing, uninhibited free jazz and performance art.
Alongside Mengelberg’s active life as a piano improviser from the 60s to the 2000s, he was also a prolific composer and arranger: of solo piano pieces and ensemble music, a cantata, music dedicated to inspirations as different as Richard Wagner and Bill Evans, and repertory ventures for the ICP Orchestra in the 80s exploring the legacies of Ellington, Monk and Nichols.
He was born Misja Mengelberg to a musical family in Kiev, in what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. His German mother, Rahel (nee Draber) was a harpist and his father, Karel, a film composer and orchestral conductor, while his great-uncle Willem Mengelberg was a celebrated conductor with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam.
In 1938, with Russian suspicion of German citizens growing, the family moved from Kiev to Amsterdam, where Misha learned classical piano but on leaving school began studies for an architectural career, switching in 1958 to music theory and composition at the Royal Conservatory.
But neither temperament, or the spirit of the times, were steering Mengelberg toward a straight-ahead jazz life. In 1964 he had participated in a Flux festival “happening” of Nieuwste Muziek en Anti-muziek (Latest music and non-music), and three years later he was setting up the radical ICP. During this period, he often appeared in entertaining duos with Bennink that mixed original themes, jazz and improv virtuosity and knockabout comedy, and the pair briefly formed a trio with the saxophonist Willem Breuker that exhibited a kind of acrimoniously pungent inventiveness.Mengelberg quickly developed into a jazz pianist capable of accompanying the world’s best, working as a sideman in clubs and studios, recording Last Date with Dolphy in 1964 and forming a quartet featuring the brilliant drummer Han Bennink (an encounter that became a lifetime collaboration) that performed at the 1966 Newport jazz festival.
In the 70s and 80s Mengelberg combined work at STEIM with leadership of a sometimes chaotically improvisational ICP Tentet, which also featured the German saxophone firebrand Peter Brotzmann and the Danish-American altoist John Tchicai. In the 90s, Mengelberg worked with the former Thelonious Monk saxophonist Steve Lacy, and with the saxophonist/composer Anthony Braxton on the latter’s Charlie Parker Project in 1993. He recorded a series of fine solo albums in the 90s (Impromptus, Mix and Solo) in which elegantly simple melodies or Monk-like phrasing often glimmered amid complex contemporary-classical structures and dissonances, and occasionally worked in duos with the freethinking Dutch saxophonist Yuri Honing.
He made a superb postbop recording in 2000, Four in One, in a quartet including Bennink and the American trumpeter Dave Douglas, memorably revisiting Hypochristmutreefuzz, his own inimitable angle on bebop, from the Eric Dolphy Last Date session.
As Alzheimer’s disease took hold of Mengelberg in the 2000s, his public performances became rare, though the old spark could still spring out of the most ostensibly hesitant approaches to the piano. Mengelberg’s final public performance was at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam in June 2014 – the last of three Oyster Sessions, in which the club furnished white wine and one of the old contrarian’s favourite seafood treats while he played and chatted with old and new friends from the ICP.
Mengelberg is survived by Amy, his wife of more than five decades, his daughter, Andrea, and his brother, Kaspar.