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CD Feature/ ICP Orchestra: "Live At The Bimhuis"

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41 years after the release of ICP001, the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra, brainchild of free improv masters Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink, is still going strong. Founded in 1967, this band of merry improvisers has evolved through many incarnations, configurations, and discombobulations, and through it all, they have always managed to keep their eyes on the prize: using improvised and pre-composed ideas and forms to uncover never-before-heard moments of musical excitement, in concert and on record. The release earlier this autumn of ICP046, “Live At The BIMHUIS,” is the latest chapter in their unfolding story, and it is an exciting and occasionally confounding one.

The CD opens with Thelonious Monk’s “Jacky-ing,” in a muscular arrangement by the resident mastermind and pianist of the group, Misha Mengelberg. This first tune spells out what the Instant Composer’s Pool orchestra is all about: exciting improvisations and arrangements that occasionally reach out of your speakers and grab you by the neck. After playing the melody (the first half beautifully understated, the second half featuring insistent, slippery harmonizations in the orchestra), the overblowing tenor sax leaps into the foreground unleashing multiple rhythmic blasts, eventually spiraling up into his highest register over furious percussion and a stretched-out version of the second theme. This eventually dissolves into chatter amongst the players, each of whom are using short fragments of the original melody. The violin (Mary Oliver) is left exposed as she drops down into a moment of silence. The respite is quickly denied by Han Bennink who wants to start a conversation with several slaps at his drums and a shout. This sends us back to a quiet restatement of the main theme in the horns which eventually builds into the final out chorus. The second tune, “Met,” is a beautiful outing for the string instruments. The viola (Oliver), cello (Tristan Honsinger), and double bass (Ernst Glerum) rhapsodize, harmonize, and scream at each other, as well as getting into some lovely, quiet tangles. “

Op Naar De Mooche” features the brass, horns and percussion in a dizzying masterpiece of improvised polyphony. The ICP orchestra does this kind of thing so well: each musician finds his little place for a newly-spun thread within a dense, high-velocity texture. Not an easy task; a lesser group might simply come across as messy and overbearing. The piece ends quietly and with seeming reluctance (probably a studio edit, actually), with gorgeously shifting colors and harmonies skittering through the ensemble. “Jaloers? Ik?” (Jealous? Me?) begins with a lazy melody in the clarinets and strings, yielding to impatient piano chords from Misha to quicken the pace. After a short gestural transition, the ensemble settles into a Stravinsky-ish dance-like section. This piece is the more fascinating for its thinner texture; with fewer notes and more space, the players can take turns interjecting elaborations or changes in the texture. “Reef” is a charming little postcard for piano and trumpet which moves right into “Misha, Pass The Monkey,” an experiment with slow-moving descending figures in the clarinets. Beautiful interjections from the piano and drums make this very stirring stuff, and my favorite track on the album. The second half of the tune finds the ensemble moving into higher gear with unison figures in the clarinets leading to an up-tempo section which spontaneously combusts, leaving the cello hanging out alone. The group ends the set with “Change Of Season,” a beautiful, darkly atmospheric tune featuring violin and trumpet.

In a piece from the April 2007 issue of Downbeat magazine, several members of the ICP mentioned ideas such as “counterpoint” and “juxtaposition” as their favorite improvisational devices, while “swing,” “groove,” and “tension and beauty” were mentioned as musical-philosophies-in-a-nutshell. Approaches such as “imitation” and “copying the heroes” were mentioned by several players as their least favorite improvisational devices. Each of the players understands how their own part is contributing to the evolution of the unfolding musical narrative, whether it be static or forward-moving, dense or sparse, gestural or in strict rhythm. This is free improvisation at the highest level. This new record from the Instant Composer’s Pool is numbered 46. If we can keep up with them, the ICP Orchestra is well on it’s way to a landmark half-century of top-quality improvised music.

By Chad Langford

Homepage:  Instant Composers Pool Orchestra

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