Baars Henneman Mengelberg
Baars Henneman Mengelberg
Sliptong: slippery sole music
Misha Mengelberg is a stay at home guy, so dining with company—at his own table, or just before a gig—is apt to be a social occasion. Warmed up, he’ll tell good stories after the plates have been cleared.
Ab Baars and Ig Henneman invited Misha out to dine one late autumn Monday in 2008—at the Bimhuis, which was closed that evening. The plan they proposed: We’ll have a nice dinner brought in from the restaurant downstairs, and then we’ll improvise a while, make a record. We’ll come get you in a car, and then bring you home later.
Misha rarely discusses, let alone touts, upcoming projects. But dining with a friend the week before, he mentioned he was looking forward to this one.
Mengelberg tends to run a little behind other people’s schedules, so his dinner companions were surprised to find him waiting outside his house when they pulled up. They drove his favorite route across town.
Dinner in the dressing room: The entree was sliptong, a Dutch delicacy—sole so small they may slip through fishers’ nets (In Dutch tong also means tongue, or a language, for extra linguistic interest.) The fish were very good, with mashed potatoes and white wine. Sound engineer Micha de Kanter made a fourth at the table.
Over dinner, did they discuss Ab’s many years broadening his horizons in Mengelberg’s ICP Orchestra? What Ig learned from Misha as a composer leading a band of improvisers? That the Baars/Henneman duo had been performing almost a decade, and how Japanese tours had stimulated and informed Ab’s exploration of the shakuhachi? No. They talked about the best way to make coffee. Misha has strong opinions on the subject.
Then they went into the auditorium to play. After awhile Misha asked to listen back to some of the music. They resumed playing, and not so long afterwards, Mengelberg said, now we have enough.
Ig Henneman: “It was a very special meeting, I dare say for all three of us; the music was very focused. The whole evening was about celebrating the music, a precious encounter between kindred spirits. We recorded one hour and then selected 43 minutes. We hardly edited. This is really how we played it.”
That dinner set the mood and focused their attention. The quiet atmosphere that pervades much of this improvising might also owe something to the setting: an empty room they normally play in before an audience. (The dinner party were the only folks there; photographer Francesca Patella slipped in for a group portrait when they were done.)
Ab and Ig are a simpatico duo but have also invited koto player Michiyo Yagi to join them in the trio Floating Worlds; they know how to move over to make room at the table. But Misha may lean back to size up the nature of the party before he arrived. On the opening “Leng” (that’s a hake or freshwater cod, “ling” in English), Misha lets them begin—intermittent martellato chords from viola, quavering tenor with grainy fluctuations in volume and pitch—and then enters very quietly, to resolve an upturned viola chord with a single note. Only gradually does the pianist then slip an independent line and a few chords under tenor.
Mengelberg is often tagged as a disruptor and anarchist—as when his playful crinkling puts a definitive end to “Leng.” Less acknowledged is his genius for imposing tonality and functional harmony on open improvising. An ear sharpened by long experience in European and African American musics lets him hear the possibilities for harmonic conflict and resolution in whatever euphonious or clashing tones his partners serve up. Listen for example to his grand accompaniment to Ab’s tenor outpouring, a third of the way through “Fishwalk.”
On the way over to the Bim they’d all talked of aging and its costs, and one may be tempted to view Mengelberg at 73 as having entered an autumnal phase. But it would be unwise to generalize from this encounter. On a two-piano gig with bopper Peter Beets a fortnight later, Misha was every inch the provocateur, and it’s not like he won’t play that role here, on “Sliptong” and “Misha started whistling.” Still, the delicate precision of his touch and his pedaling at times, the careful ways his lines blossom and prune themselves back, make it plain something special is going on, beyond his general inclination not to overplay. He may sound oddly like Ran Blake, another virtuoso of the single note, quiet chord, and fragmentary line.
As “Leng”’s opening suggests, Henneman is well equipped to join Mengelberg on his harmonic excursions; there is a remarkable moment a little over four minutes into “Fishwalk” where Misha is pummeling midrange chords, and right before your ears rapidly strummed viola seamlessly replaces piano—takes over that harmonic role Misha wanders away from. This is all the more remarkable because heretofore Henneman has been largely occupied with forceful snap pizzicato in the background, the sound of an axe coming from the edge of town.
Ig and Ab are so well attuned, it can take a moment to figure out who or what is playing the long tones that kick off “Zee-engel” (Angel Shark), a piece where the duo’s discreet shimmering, an Aurora Borealis, backstops moonlit piano. But Ig’s fast scratchy short-stroke bowing behind Misha at the top of “Sliptong” in effect makes her his drummer—which is not to overlook the rightness of her pitches.
Some Dutch improvisers believe any statement you make should be strong and assertive, but Henneman’s quiet parts set against the louder playing may add a sense of dimensionality or layering to the music: a spatial quality. In such moments, the improvising composer becomes an instant orchestrator. You can hear this effect plainly on “Oystercatchers.” Note also how she goes her own way and then reconnects on “Is That Solly?” where, in her high soaring line beginning mid-piece, Misha thought he recognized one of his own long-forgotten tunes.
Is there a saxophonist besides Ab Baars who can sound so emphatic and nakedly vulnerable at the same time? His tenor makes a most effective foil here, insuring these proceedings can’t be mistaken for polite chamber music. His clarinet is effectively framed on “Oystercatchers” (birds, poet Michael Hamburger once wrote, with “a high, thin cry / More ghost than bodied voice”—though the piece was actually named for a Christopher Middleton poem). On shakuhachi, Baars honors the bamboo flute’s venerable traditions and still manages to be his own man. But then its shrieks and rushing hollow tones are right up his alley.
The trio honor both meanings of the English verb to concentrate: to focus intently, and to condense something into smaller, stronger form. These intense pieces may be short, just as the entire program clocks in at well under an hour, like a Mengelberg set. “Oystercatchers” was the last piece played as well as the last one here; Misha signals its end with a quietly definitive gesture, the thump of a pedal released to silence the piano’s soundboard.
That’s another of Misha’s overlooked qualities: his excellent instincts for knowing when to quit, when to push back from the table, before the law of diminishing returns kicks in. This is an extraordinary recital. Must have been something they ate.
- Kevin Whitehead