Four in One
Songlines SJ-1535-SACD

Analogous to the stereotypical eccentric scientist experimenting in his lab filled with bubbling beakers and test tubes, composer/pianist Misha Mengelberg has, since the early 1960s, probably more than anyone else created what we think of as modern Dutch jazz.

With his faithful associate, Han Bennink — whose playing is often as deranged and disruptive as it is theatrical — usually loping behind, drum sticks in hand and snare on the floor, Mengelberg has mixed up his distinctive strange brew that seems totally unique in the land of windmills, canals and dikes. With a dash of experimental classical, a splash of American post bop and a lowlands infusion of comedic anarchy, he’s produced a hybrid Frankenstein monster that’s distinctive without scaring the pants off anyone — although Bennink seems to prefer wearing shorts when he plays.

On this session, recorded live to Direct Steam Digital, the pianist and drummer lock hands-across-the-sea with two Americans, versatile trumpeter Dave Douglas, who also produced, and bassist Brad Jones, a regular Douglas associate who has recorded once before with the pianist. The upshot is an imposing document that not only elaborates and illustrates a philosophy of Netherlands composing, but also swings with the sort of effortless potency with which mouthy young lions wish they were blessed.

One of the clues to Mengelberg’s power is that he never takes anything — especially himself — too seriously. You can hear this in different sections of some tunes where his writing — and playing — can transform what sounds like a beginners’ piano exercise, a POMO polka, or a nursery rhyme into pulsating serious sounds. Another is his innate sense of disorderliness, which probably accounts for his 40-year plus partnership with Bennink, who has rarely seen a session he couldn’t disrupt.

Take “Die Berge shuetzen die Heimat” (whew!) for instance, an off-kilter march that begins with a sharp whistle blow — probably from the drummer. As the tune parades along he gradually moves upfront banging random items in and out of tempo, while Mengelberg’s soloing comes across as midway between dance class accompaniment and burlesque. With growls and sprays, Douglas gets down and dirty.

Both Dutch pranksters run free on “Poor Wheel”, named for an early Mengelberg auto, throwing musical roadblocks, including some corny ragtime trifles, around, as the trumpeter works his way through the theme. “We’re Going Out for Italian” — where does he get these titles? — is a tune that stops and starts like a child’s electric train set, and which set off Douglas’ lovely smeared notes with some dissonant Bennink pummeling and a piano interlude that could be a jivey “Digga Digga Do” clone. Freed from the responsibility of leadership, Douglas appears to be having time of his life, as he does in his sidekick role in John Zorn’s Masada.

Dedicated to another fallen comrade, alto saxist Dudu Pukwana, “Kwela P’Kwana”, mixes some Township Jive with what sounds like pure Calypso trumpeting. Douglas bends a few notes during his solo, Jones — the only one of the four to be underutilized here — strums the odd note, while Bennink not only shimmers his cymbals like a first generation bop meister, but knocks out some African rhythms at the same time.

Art Blakey-identified press rolls illuminate the uncomplicated “Blues after Piet”, the longest track, with the pianist surprisingly referencing the funky brew of Blakey’s early cohort Horace Silver. Like his most obvious influence, Thelonious Monk, Mengelberg is past having to prove that he can really play correct jazz. But as these soulful right-handed tinkles mesh perfectly with Bennink’s rim shots and Jones’ four square, woody bass solo the time could be New York September, 1954, not September, 2000. Taking the Kenny Dorham role Douglas soars in a high register, spitting out piercing notes without ever losing control of the mellow melody.

Spewing out a boppish cascade of notes on “Kneebus”, the hornman becomes Ray Copeland to Mengelberg’s Monk, as the pianist slips and slides between the keys, introduces some quasi-stride and pecks out a section. Easing off, the drummer contributes to the finger-snapping tempo, as does Jones’ walking bass.

These tactics illuminate another significant ingredient in the keyboardist’s formula — Monk’s music. Joining the eight Mengelberg originals here are three Monk standards given the appropriate irreverent treatment. Unlike more conventional stylists who shave Monk’s angular prongs to a smooth surface, as if they’re reading a Bach variation, Mengelberg’s two-handed approach often out-Monks Monk. Imagine Cecil Taylor’s unconstrained technique given free rein and you’ll get some idea of the outcome, but the Dutchman can slip in and out of tune and tempo so subtly that not one scintilla of the theme is lost.

No one CD can ever be seen as being definitive, nor can exceptional Dutch jazz be illustrated in a single session of slightly more than 59 minutes. But FOUR IN ONE gets awfully darn close.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Hypochristmutreefuzz 2. Reef 3. Kneebus 4. Die Berge shuetzen die Heimat 5. Four in One 6. Monk’s Mood 7. Criss Cross 8. Blues After Piet 9. Kwela P’Kwana 10. We’re Going Out for Italian 11. Poor Wheel

Personnel: Dave Douglas (trumpet); Misha Mengelberg (piano); Brad Jones (bass); Han Bennink (drums)