05/07/05

Misha Mengelberg at The Stone

It doesn’t get a lot more “downtown” than The Stone, John Zorn’s new venue in the East Village. Located several long blocks from the nearest subway, the space is a small, bare-bones amalgam of brick, wood, plaster and black curtains, but the comfortable seats are set at an angle, creating an illusion of roominess. The lighting is pleasant, the sound is warm, and the performance area (no stage or riser) is just large enough for musicians to get comfortable. There is no bar, so The Stone makes even Tonic seem downright commercial.

The booking policy is simple: A different guest curator takes the helm every month. The second guest curator (reedist Ned Rothenberg opened the place) is pianist Misha Mengelberg, appearing until May 15. For his series, the Ukrainian-born Dutchman has tapped the talents of Mat Maneri, Ikue Mori, Dave Douglas, Henry Grimes, Ben Perowsky, Mark Feldman and more. But on May 5 Mengelberg huddled with trombonist George Lewis and bassist Brad Jones, playing an early set of free improvisation (which we missed) and a later, more “structured” set involving the calling of tunes and sometimes the reading of charts.

Mengelberg caught everyone off guard—perhaps even himself—with the opening hiccups of Monk’s “Criss Cross.” Lewis joined but quickly stumbled, exclaiming, “I forgot it!” But through sheer will and ear-power, he nailed down the twisted melody by the second time through. Formally, too, “Criss Cross” is a hall of mirrors, but the trio bore down accurately; Lewis soloed with breathtaking agility and force and then picked up his plunger to “comp” for Mengelberg.

The remaining pieces were Mengelberg’s, including several from the 1994 album Who’s Bridge? (Avant) and one from the more recent Four In One (Songlines). Having played on both these albums, Brad Jones was a rhythmic pillar (and a brilliant soloist) on the bossa-ish “A Bit Nervous,” the boppish “Rollo 3” and the sultry, vaguely old-school “Rollo 2.” Lewis was in full legato glory on the short rubato dreamscape “Reef.”

Known mainly for his far-reaching theories of “instant composition,” Mengelberg is also quite the melody writer. But even in this relatively “inside” context his eccentricities led the way forward. Like Monk, he is in no way a conventional pianist. Lewis and Jones were the more fluid chops-wise, but Mengelberg’s conceptual dynamism held each piece together, and the harmony he played under Lewis’s busiest passages was gripping. When the set was over, he simply declared, “That was it for tonight.”

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