Pioneers since 1967 of their own exuberant New Dutch Swing style of orchestral improv, Holland’s Instant Composers Pool Orchestra made a rare visit to London for an extended run of five nights at the Vortex (Tuesday 29 Jan thru Saturday 02 Feb 2013).
I only caught the second and third nights, so I missed the appearance of ICP co-leader and pianist Misha Mengelberg (now 78) on the final night. In Mengelberg’s absence, drummer Han Bennink becomes very much the focus of a group not shy of vivid personalities.
Each evening featured a trio of small-group collaborations between ICP members and local guest musicians, before ending with the orchestral tentet crowded on and around the compact Vortex stage (Mengelberg’s seat at the piano taken, the nights I attended, by Alex McGuire and Steve Beresford respectively).
Each night the Orchestra plotted a wayward course through its own idiosyncratic history of contemporary jazz, its ever-mutable playlist wide-open to sudden whims of infectious fancy: collective caroming from Hoagy Carmichael show tunes, say, to angular riffs on Monkish unorthodoxies or passages of stringently avant improv. The only certainty with this crew is the infectious eclecticism of an inspired and entertaining performance.
It was easy to overlook the fact that the ICP were ostensibly Evan Parker’s guests, their residency comprising the saxophonist’s fourth annual Might I Suggest Festival.
Wednesday night began with a quintet fronted by an understated Michael Moore on alto sax, the comparatively loquacious Thomas Heberer on quarter-tone trumpet, Alex McGuire on piano, and Ernst Glerum and Mark Sanders on bass and drums respectively. This was the most urbane set of the two nights, with successive solos attaining a clarity subsequent encounters were keener to disrupt.
Sanders was the most restless element of the quintet, and he was similarly energising when accompanying trombonist Wolter Wierbos and saxophonist John Butcher in the subsequent set, bustling dynamically amid a thoughtful textural interweave of brass and reed experimentation.
But for me, the highlight of wednesday night was the second set, which had the extemporised vocalisations of Phil Minton very much its focal point. Minton was accompanied by Alex Ward on clarinet; Ab Baars on saxophone, clarinet and shakuhachi; and Roger Turner their ideal drummer/percussionist. Both Ward and Baars played solos of earthy fluency (I wasn’t so taken with Baars’ monotonously rasping shakuhachi), but Minton’s performance – sitting on a crooner’s high stool but voicing no song, rather unfamiliar sequences of all-too-mundane human sounds – moans and sighs, purrs and burps, whinnying and sudden glottal expectorations, all accompanied by empathy-inducing facial expressivity – was astonishing and as often unsettling as intentionally humorous.
All three early sets on Thursday night featured the ICP’s de facto totem, drummer Han Bennink.
The first set cast Bennink in a playful duet with pianist Steve Beresford, whose use of a Stylophone as an electronic preparation was rather fussy and disrupted an otherwise natural empathy. Bennink terminated one exchange when Beresford’s faffing created a lacuna, and disdainfully (if good-naturedly) turned up his nose when Beresford produced a cheap plastic bullroarer.
A spirited exchange between Bennink, pianist Pat Thomas, and John Coxon on electric guitar was a clear highlight for me, not least for the explosive dynamism of Thomas’s performance. Thomas responded to Coxon’s acerbity and Bennink’s quicksilver impishness by detonating full-palm slaps and keyboard runs between bold chords and beautiful melodic abstractions.
Bennink carried that set’s ferocious energy over to his trio with Evan Parker (on tenor saxophone) and bassist John Edwards. While Parker delivered a condensation of his aesthetic at its muscular best, Edwards concentrated on playing mostly pizzicato, at one point thwacking the strings so hard against the fingerboard that one popped unbroken out of its bridge groove, obliging him to bustle even harder with the three remaining.
Though my personal highlights were fairly typical of the best Vortex regulars might come to expect from the local scene and its frequent flow of visitors, over the five nights of their residency the ICP Orchestra made the venue their own.
The ICP’s sets were a markedly more relaxed contrast to the more concentrated ad hoc small groups that preceded them; much more humorous and easygoing, with the warmth and assuredness of long association. Bennink, Walter Wierbos, and the prone-to-scat-and-jocose-conduction cellist Tristan Honsinger may be the standout wildcards, but there were other currents of wit, both dry and not so, rippling incessantly between the ranks, where the hitherto unmentioned Mary Oliver (violin) and Tobias Delius (tenor sax) both had vividly characteristic parts to play.
Fortunately Andrew Newcombe took some excellent photographs, of Misha Mengelberg and the whole orchestra on the last two nights of their residency, for his visual blog, Andy’s Jazz Gig Photo Diary, at jazztourist.wordpress.com.