The first time I heard the Instant Composers Pool Orkest live was life changing. Walking into a packed venue in Amsterdam, I saw Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink finishing up an absurdist conversation at a table in the middle of the stage, while some band members played and others looked on or shouted words. Misha and Han got up after a while, returning to their instrument chairs when the band went into a Monk tune, then into an improv that morphed into a Dixieland tune. I was transfixed—a thrilling and raucous display of honoring nothing and everything at the same time. The audience was going crazy too! It was one of the most exciting things I’d experienced in the music up to that time. The concert planted a seed that changed how I wanted to make music. It was the first time hearing Misha Mengelberg live, but getting to know Misha started with Herbie Nichols, one of his most profound sources of inspiration.
While working on music for my second release as a leader, the lyrics to a Herbie Nichols composition named “House Party Starting” came to me. I fell deeply in love with the tune and sought out the music to record it, which led to contacting the maestro. I remember we had a quirky and great conversation that left a lasting impression. I recorded “House Party Starting” for my 2001 album, Darker Than Blue (where the tune is retitled “Tonight”), and sent Misha a copy. When I followed up, Misha remarked that the record “reminded him of nothing.”
Hmmm. Perplexing feedback, yet I sensed that coming from him it was a compliment. A year later I ran into Misha at a concert by pianist Andy Milne. Misha was there with journalist Kevin Whitehead and we all hung out. I believe our friendship began that night.
Around this time I was obsessed with Thelonious Monk and hoping to record a full project of his music someday. Kevin suggested Misha for such a project, so Misha and I met again to talk about that before I moved back to New York from the Netherlands in 2003. Misha told me he felt confident I could pull this off and to consider him on board, making me happiest person in the world.
We did keep in touch while I worked on developing Monk’s and later Nichols’ music and writing lyrics. I also learned about Misha’s music outside of the ICP—his own writing, his trio recordings, his duo with Han Bennink, the seminal Last Date with Eric Dolphy and more. Misha was an astonishing, exciting, challenging pianist and improvisor with a great sense of swing—a maverick personality with a massive intellect that walked to the beat of his own tune, always honest yet never with malice. As a bandleader he was brilliant at creating situations where your real self came out. We never discussed feminism, but Misha led by the example he set. I saw Misha show only the deepest respect for his wife and daughter, and he always spoke to me as a learning equal, musician and friend. He never even used a word like “sweetheart” in addressing me. We’d talk on the phone over the years, having wonderful conversations on history, music, silliness, Monk, Herbie Nichols and whatever else came to mind, and he became a mentor I turned to and trusted. Those were great associative conversations, almost like a chess game—a game Misha was so fond of playing.
And playing with Misha was exhilarating! Between 2005 and 2012, I got to perform with Misha in different configurations, including with the ICP, and I usually left the bandstand somewhat stunned and amazed. If Misha thought you could hang, you were invited to the table but never coddled. I feel I was given the gift of being able to fight in good hands. Or as longtime ICP reedist Michael Moore said after Misha died, he had a great way of helping you tremendously without intending to help you at all.
Misha was diagnosed with dementia a few years before he left us, and the last time I saw him was in February of 2016, at the nursing home he had moved to, with his wife, Amy, by his side. It was a tough but beautiful visit because his spirit was still there, as was the music: We could sing together. The last time we performed together onstage was in 2012, as a duo. I remember we started out with the melody of Herbie Nichol’s “The Gig” and, as we left the stage at the end of our set, I sang and Misha whistled “The Gig” again together. Seems fitting. I do miss him so.