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Misha Mengelberg: Two Days In Chicago

When I saw Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg perform “Chicago Solo,” the 27-minute track that opens disc two of the sprawling, superb Two Days in Chicago, back in Oct. 1998, it struck me as a lovely piece of nonchalant extemporizing. Perhaps it was the goofy silver lame baseball cap perched precariously on the pianist’s balding pate or his disheveled appearance, but I was somehow distracted from picking up on the subtle but irrefutable logic and compositional flow that I now hear propelling the piece. Occasionally long strands of beautifully fragile melody morph into new ones, free association style, but Mengelberg is just as likely to pull the rug out from under himself, abruptly shifting course (and feel) while trying to hold it together. This penchant for throwing musical wrenches into all of his activities tests the mettle of his fellow improvisers as well as his own, and the wide array of situations producer John Corbett tossed him into with a raft of Chicagoans and some of his countrymen during these sessions-one in the studio, one live at Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge-was a page out of his own book. He was game.

Joined by saxophonist Ken Vandermark and drummer Hamid Drake, Mengelberg takes some sideways swings at his hero Thelonious Monk’s “Eronel” and “Off Minor”; while a meeting with reedist and fellow Dutchman Ab Baars and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm finds him engaging in highly intuitive, detail-rich free improvisation. Surrounded by Drake, bassist Kent Kessler and tenor giant Anderson he both rides and derails a hard-swinging groove with dense energy clusters and tricky rhythmic counterpoint, while in a pairing with the Dutch rhythm section of drummer Martin van Duynhoven and bassist Willem de Joode he dishes out thrillingly and pungently vibrant harmonies. Mengelberg doesn’t just roll with the far-flung punches, he counters with his own quietly productive jabs, embodying the ravenous, anything-goes spirit of the best jazz.

Originally Published