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Improvising is a difficult art to master, if indeed it’s possible to “master” this form at all. My preference would be either trio – of which there were several over my history of performance – or duet. The latter being in many ways the most perfect. The first discourse in this series pertaining to duets focuses on the partnership of piano and percussion. Both of which could be considered percussion instruments. A chordophone, idiophone and membranophone.

Han & Misha at Utrecht

1967: My first visit to Amsterdam is toward the end of the Provos’ counter-culture actions which began on May 25th, 1965 and officially disbanded on May 13th, 1967, one day after my 28th birthday.

The movement was founded by one anti-smoking activist and two anarchists, who would in those two short years change the face of the Dutch, and to some extent international political and social ideology, forever. Their “membership” was a mixed bag, intent on provoking the establishment with non-violent methodology. Happenings were an effective obstruction, utilising elaborate incongruous theatrics to aggravate the police department. Misinformation campaigns about marijuana were also a great success.

One Saturday night, me, my partner and our daughter Karla peering over my shoulder in anticipation of the upcoming spectacle, happily riding in her ”Made in Sweden” tubular framed backpack, joined the street activity that began at midnight in Spui square, where the devotees, including beatniks and hipsters attracted to the cause, gathered around Het Lieverdje (The Little Darling), the small statue that represented the youth of Amsterdam – a prankster with a heart of gold. An illegal candlelit parade (for what, is forgotten) wound its way through the cordoned-off streets. The Provos, dressed in various symbolic costumes, handed out cardboard cutouts of guns with which to “intimidate” the riot-police squads who are protected by shields, helmets and sci-fi body armour; while others carried crude posters of Princess Beatrix, who had the previous year married Claus von Amsberg, a German aristocrat who in World War II had served in the Hitler Youth and the Wehrmacht.

Revolution and evolution are in the air. The unique musical forms that will identify the Dutch have not yet surfaced, the New Acoustic Swing Duo of Willem Breuker and Han Bennink, the first issue on the newly formed Instant Composers Pool record label, will set its identity in motion that upcoming winter. Later, when they are more established – five years on – I will hear Han again in another duo, this time with Misha Mengelberg, two masters of tomfoolery performing on the large stage of Paradiso, an old church located on the fringes of Leidseplein – one of the city’s trendy night-time gathering places – that has been transformed into a music venue.

Outside the building is dark and foreboding, the dirty red brick facade, the tall centrepiece with a clock tower flanked by gothic windows. Inside the stench of piety lingers. The high interior ceiling and the surrounding balcony, suitable for the abandoned god, make the acoustics echoey.

Misha - Utrecht 1

1973: Hans Dulfer, a part-time tenor saxophonist and full-time car salesman specialising in General Motors and Opel automobiles, with his wife in the box office and his father-in-law on the door, ran the one-night-a-week sessions. The jazz journalist Rudy Koopmans, who took-off, visiting some place in Africa, had generously loaned us his apartment, and Hans had arrived at the door in a snazzy red Opel Kadett Coupé – whose classic promotional slogan had been “Nur Fliegen ist schöner” (“Only flying is more exciting”) – to transport us to the concert. On the way he handed over a chunk of hashish the size of a matchbox: just to get us in the mood for the antics we were about to witness.

Misha – dressed in formal attire, sitting away from the piano, a slow-burning fag drooping from the corner of his mouth – seems to be playing an unknown version of a traditional Dutch children’s song, and Han, klumpen clad feet, shirtless beneath his bib overalls, flailed his gradually disintegrating drum kit into submission, holding the youthful audience’s attention by occasionally tossing dry ice into their boisterousness.

Misha had been in the picture from the very beginning. An illustrious fellow, considered by many of us as the godfather (or is that grandfather?) of Dutch avant garde music. Born in Kiev in Ukraine, the son of the conductor Karel Mengelberg, who was himself the nephew of the conductor Willem Mengelberg. What more could confirm his status? How about a love for the music of Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Herbie Nichols and even someone as far removed from improvisation as John Cage, a cornucopia of reckoning filling his intellectual need. His first appearance on record, with Han, back in June 1964, is ironically on Eric Dolphy’s “Last Date”, his absurdist humour showing in the title of his solitary composition “Hypochristmutreefuzz”.

We had met each other for the first time in 1967 at Cafe Culturel, a coffee house hidden away in a side street with an unpronounceable name, an intimate interior, tables with chairs placed exactly nonchalant, dimmed lights, and two floors above are the headquarters of the Y.M.C.A., where posters of Satchmo and Ornette line the stairwell walls. The concerts’ subject matter is as diverse as traditional blues and Fluxus poetry, making me suspicious, wondering what a Christian dosshouse would be doing with such a disguise. Astonishingly these activities are publicised in the tourist brochures, directing us that first Sunday afternoon to attend a sermon preached by the Javanese-born trumpeter Nedley Elstak [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSXi_j7cq08&list=PLWtuTmeM7fDiuwS9DEw-MI7v9I0tazJx2]. Jazz being his religion!

Misha Mengelberg is not just an unusual fellow, but more inclined to be totally original, so when I embark upon my yearly visit to Holland as a member of the saxophone group, The Six Winds, I always make a point of spending at least some social time in his company. On this occasion we managed to be together even more than usual, and the delight of driving with him and Aimee to a gig at SJU-huis [Stichting Jazz in Utrecht] simply enlarged the experience to one more level.

“I don’t remember this multi-storey car park being here. I was sure this was it.” Perhaps we’re lost. One more time around the traffic island. Let’s ask. “Ah! There it is.” Three doors, so let’s try the one with the poster of the Misha Mengelberg Quartet [Michael Moore – alto saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet, Ernst Reiseger – acoustic and electric cello, Han Bennink – percussion].

Free jazz they used to call it. Well, that’s true. A movable feast of modern times, with apparitions of history looming. Misha, scraping, squeaking the metal capped feet of the piano chair in perfect co-ordination with the B-flat clarinet. Han’s mouth organ sound or a sweaty shirt muffling a cymbal. A scrape, a slash, or just a moment of silence. A new sound (not effect) moves on into shadowgraph butterflies from the spotlight, through Han’s hands, onto the wall. Simple like minded for pleasure. A superior collective art, practiced for these past three decades, to include the blues, a little Monk, or even an occasional tango. Eccentricity as a joyful noise, possibly a genius at work swinging in his off kilter way as he worked his way out of his own brilliant corners. Some old mad professor charming his audience, enraptured by his owness.

Only in Holland you say. No, in fact, only this small group of performers keeping alive the illusion of Dutch avant-gardeness, amidst the more general conservative attitude of European art. All this a spectacle for sure, but more…

Over the years there have been many encounters with these two: Han once visiting us on Hornby Island, numerous exchanges of correspondence – postcards, CDs, artbooks; hanging out with Misha at Cafe Alto, playing duets with him at a forgotten “private” club somewhere in downtown Amsterdam, sitting in with a bunch of us on cello and piano at the Cabana Room in Toronto’s Spadina Hotel, and once at the Calgary Jazz Festival me and Jim Munro duetting [sopranino saxophone & violin] as the cocktail band – off in the corner – at an official Instant Conposers Pool [ICP] reception. “Still playing that weird music” – sez Misha.

And what of their recorded music?Misha - Utrect 2

These are not new thoughts, I’ve pondered them for years, the way we hear, see, feel about everything, especially pleasure. Once, on tour, we were housed at a university professor’s house, a sanity in the strangeness of the event. The music teacher who had assembled his class in the afternoon, before our evening performance, for us to enlighten, entertain, had informed the students that even though the music we played was different to what they had been exposed to we were all skilled professionals who could sit in the horn section of the Count Basie Orchestra. He was, he had assured us, really into jazz and had graduated from an American college with a degree in musicology. Proving something. I thought about this often, this sitting in the saxophone section among Lester Young, Earl Warren and Herschel Evans tooting away on my sopranino saxophone, Jimmy Rushing belting out “Do you wanna jump children”, being capable of such a feat. He also insisted on letting us know how hip he was by inviting us to a jam session later at a bar where only a week previous the legendary saxophonist Moe Koffman had sat in. Apparently, much to his surprise, more students had turned out for our gig than Moe’s.

The professor who was our host, after the concert was over, and we had returned to his house, put on one of those marvellous Lester Young recordings, the Kansas City Six perhaps, and we’d settled in to enjoy the music, a glass of wine, and much later a night of conversation. The question was “did he enjoy our concert that evening, our music mixed with poetry, dada imagery projected onto a large screen, us clothed in white paper painters suits with painted faces interrupting the visuals – a multi-media event”. His reply was not unexpected, that he travelled about the planet attending avant garde events, his preference being to experience improvised music in-the-flesh, be with the musicians as they created never before heard music. Intimate.

Captured. The music on recordings are a different experience, to be enjoyed in solitude, these sounds of the past, of Charlie Parker, Fat’s Navarro, Clifford Brown, Coleman Hawkins… that wonderful history captured on vinyl. But what of a music that is still alive, making the recording of it a souvenir, a memento to be dug out at a later date, perhaps autographed by the players, or in the case of this duet the artwork often from the imagination of Han Bennink. Another of his talents.

Two very different encounters

Although I have heard this duet in performance and as a segment of the ICP Orchestra, there are few recordings of them in my CD collection, preferring my exposure to their talents live, enjoying the spectacle, the highfalutin nonsense much like the interaction in movies of Cheech and Chong or Laurel and Hardy, filled with the humour of the moment.

As this is not intended as a review, just a brief encounter, I leave this in your hands with the following samples:

Visual Experience:



A Recording:

This recording (CP 031 MiHa) of Misha Mengelberg, piano; Han Bennink, drums & percussion is from Leeuwarden on January 4, 1992. The other half is from Amsterdam on January 31, 1997.

This CD was released as part of the ICP 30th Anniversary celebrations and came in a paper pocket fixed to the inside front cover of the Anniversary booklet. This 64 page book with pressed card cover was released as part of the 30th anniversary package – that included a series of concerts and CD releases – celebrating the ICP. Produced on art paper, the book includes an essay by Kevin Whitehead, an ICP discography by Kees Stevens (including images of all the releases), reproductions of press cuttings, and photos across the years. It also contained, in a paper pocket fixed to the inside front cover, ICP 031: MiHa.

Han Bennink has made numerous recordings in duet with pianists apart from Misha Mengelberg. They include Irène Schweizer, Paul Plimley, Steve Beresford, Cecil Taylor, Guus Janssen…

End Notes:

Photographs by the author – Spui-huis, Utrecht (1987)

The title of my very first recording with long-time friend pianist Stuart Broomer, “Conversation Pieces” [http://rantanddawdle.ca/2013/09/29/conversation-pieces-toronto-1976/] confirms my liking for duets. There were numerous performances in this format, two more that are posted on Rant & Dawdle being “High Times” with another long- time friend violinist David Prentice [http://rantanddawdle.ca/2012/10/06/high-times/] and my last released recording with guitarist Tony Wilson [http://rantanddawdle.ca/2013/05/02/learning-new-tricks/].

There are several which I will eventually post: with bassist David Lee, the pillar of our long-standing trio; percussionist John Mars an integral part of my earliest performances; guitarist Lloyd Garber; and sound-singer Paul Dutton. There may be more that do not immediately come to mind or that there are no recordings of.

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