Pianist Misha Mengelberg Dies at 81

Dutch avant-garde jazz leader co-founded Instant Composers Pool

Misja Mengelberg (1968)

Misha Mengelberg circa 1968 (photo from Dutch National Archive)

Misha Mengelberg, an avant-garde pianist and composer who was one of the founders of the Dutch jazz and experimental music orchestra Instant Composers Pool, and who recorded with Fred Anderson, Derek Bailey, Eric Dolphy, Dave Douglas, Steve Lacy, Evan Parker, Roswell Rudd, Ken Vandermark and many others, died March 3 at age 81 due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. The news was confirmed by Susanna von Canon, manager of the ICP Orchestra.

Born in 1935 in Kiev, Ukraine, Mengelberg spent his formative years in Holland after his family left the former U.S.S.R. to escape political unrest. Although he started playing the piano at a young age, Mengelberg first pursued a degree in architecture before changing to music theory and composition at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague. Given that his father, Karel, and great uncle Willem Mengelberg were both well-known orchestra conductors, the switch was unsurprising.

After university, Mengelberg became interested in the music of John Cage as well as blurring the lines between composition and improvisation. He worked as a sideman in the early ’60s, most notably with Eric Dolphy, and his piano work can be heard on Dolphy’s final album, Last Date. In 1966, he led a quartet at the Newport Jazz Festival—his Monk-meets-mischief style already taking shape.

The next year, along with drummer Han Bennink (with whom he had been collaborating since 1961), Mengelberg formed Instant Composers Pool—both as an orchestra and recording label—and became loosely associated with Europe’s Fluxus art consortium of the ’60s and ’70s. During that same time period he also co-founded STEIM (Studio for Electro Instrumental Music), an organization to support the creation and use of unique electronic instruments.

As per its name, ICP was created to advance spontaneously created music, with a fluid roster of musicians that has included saxophonist Willem Breuker, saxophonist John Tchicai, trombonist George Lewis, violinist Mary Oliver and reed player Michael Moore (not to be confused with the bassist of the same name). ICP is still active, with recent performances featuring guest musicians including guitarist Mary Halvorson and trombonist Ray Anderson.

Throughout the decades, Mengelberg performed and recorded regularly within and outside of ICP. A 1971 recording called Instant Composers Pool, with saxophonists Brueker and Tchicai and guitarist Derek Bailey, is considered by many to be the pinnacle of Dutch free-jazz. Three Points and a Mountain (1979) teamed the pianist with saxophonist Peter Brötzmann in an album filled with spontaneity and humor. 1982’s Regeneration, a recording of Monk and Herbie Nichols compositions, shines a spotlight on the trombone of Roswell Rudd and soprano sax of Steve Lacy. The subsequent Change of Season, focused solely on Nichols’ works, follows a similar formula, this time for Lacy and trombonist George Lewis.

Mengelberg continued to perform and record in the 1990s and 2000s—in a collaborative format with saxophonists Fred Anderson and Ken Vandermark on 1999’s Two Days in Chicago, and with trumpeter Dave Douglas on 2001’s Four in One; and alone on the John Zorn-produced Senne Sing Song (2005). All exemplify Mengelberg’s unique ability to slalom between gentle lyricism and a nattering, absurdist take on jazz soloing and accompaniment—delivered with wit and a wink.