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ICP Orchestra
Ann Arbor MI, 28 March 2006

Arriving to perform in Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Concerthouse, the Instant Composer’s Pool Orchestra was crowded onto the stage. The setting in the venue is intimate, which is its charm. The performance space is in what once were three, maybe four rooms of an old house with the walls removed. The stage, complete with a very grand old Steinway piano, can barely contain the orchestra’s ten members, and when the band sets up a mini-retail outlet on the front of the stage with short stacks of recordings by the orchestra and various of its members, it gets even more packed. The audience itself is crammed in. Think about your house with 90 guests and a band. The fans in the front row don’t even have to stretch their legs to rest them on the stage, though if they did they’d risk toppling those piles of CDs.

Misha Mengelberg arrives first on stage. Slumped bear-like behind the Steinway, his fingers meander over the keys until he finds the proper dissonance. He converses with the piano drawing out echoes of the music it has known. He summons forth bits of Bach and Weber, Monk and some Kurt Weill—before he moved to New York. His probings serve as an overture for what’s to come. The band enters with the circus-like theme of “Welkum”. Then trombonist Walter Wierbos steps forward, blowing a horn that looks like it was retrieved from grandpa’s attic. Wierbos snarls, smears, rips, and snorts. His blowing is at once evocative of the esoteric sounds of the contemporary music recital hall and the earthy sounds of the barroom. And no matter what he’s playing, I’m always aware that the notes are created by buzzing lips amplified by tapered brass tubing.

That sense of the elemental processes behind the music is evident throughout the ensemble’s set, and all the more keenly felt when the listeners are thrust into such intimate proximity with the music makers. So when Mary Oliver steps forward for her solo and she punctuates her thought with a long, glissando down her highest string, the sensation is not simply that of an abstract musical device but a striking tactile sensation. Lovely music surely, but music that echoes the siren on the street. When trumpeter Thomas Heberer steps forward, his bell is directly over the heads of the first row and he lets loose a clarion call that evinces a deep love and study of the swing trumpet masters and that sets the air aquiver.

Throughout the night, the music overflowed from the stage. The ensembles are raw and vigorous, yet precise, and each ensemble member had a chance to step out and solo. Also on hand were reedmen Tobias Delius and Michael Moore, cellist Tristan Honsinger, and bassist Ernst Glerum, each a fine character actor, adding to the serio-comic proceedings. For their part, the leaders—Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink—sat back and enjoyed their charges’ endeavors as much as the paying audience. During Ab Baars’ tenor solo, a vigorous, full-throated effort, Bennink sat perched behind his set, hands folded and eyes closed, with a smile on his face.  Band members took turns leading the band through a program that included Mengelberg originals as well as Thelonious Monk’s “Locomotive” and the Laotian song “Soutsanenh” in the first set and “The Mooche” by Ellington and “weer is een dag voorbij”, the chorale that serves as the title track of the ICP’s newest recording.

In the second set, Bennink took charge more, playing with a driving, wide-open swing feel. He allows each whack on his ride cymbal its full ring before striking again. And when he soloed it was a burst of uninhibited hammering, complete with foot planted on the snare drum—a vaudevillian touch that still seemed musically perfect. He acted and played not like a figurehead of the avant-garde, but like a veteran big band drummer used to playing dance halls. In that light, “The Mooche” proved an appropriate concluding number. The players spilled out into the aisles blowing riffs to urge on Baars’ solo. The music itself overflowed, washing away preconceptions about what music of the here and now should sound like.