ICP ORCHESTRA

Oh, My Dog
ICP 040

MYUMI PROJECT BIG BAND
Rooted: Origins of Now
Southport/Asian Improv S-SSD 0092

Performing with a mid-sized band of improvisers is widespread because it provides freedom both for the composer(s) and the players. Nine plus instruments often provide enough variations to illustrate a writer’s vision; and with fewer than 12 bandmates, musicians can contribute much more than if they’re mere section placeholders.

Small big bands can also be used to express radically different concepts as these skilled CDs demonstrate. Together for almost 30 years, the Dutch ICP Orchestra has featured many different soloists over time, but with laissez faire direction coming from pianist/composer Misha Mengelberg, there’s a consistency there. Tatsu Aoki’s Myumi Project, on the other hand, is mostly a recording ensemble, put together to give flesh to the bassist/composer’s musical portraits of Asian American improvisers in particular and Asians in North America in general.

One of the reasons the ICP has lasted so long is Mengelberg’s anarchistic view of music and refusal to assert himself as leader except by example, a strategy Duke Ellington operated with as well. Then again you wonder if Duke would have had as his closest associates and longest lasting member of the band someone like drummer Han Bennink, who often plays too loudly and seems to relish upsetting regular routines.

OH MY DOG is unique, however because it’s one rare instance where Bennink is forced into a secondary role. That’s because among the many exceptional soloists who now make up the ICP is cellist Tristan Honsinger. A longtime expatriate American who has cycled through the band before, not only is the cellist responsible for the linked compositions that make up the back half of the CD, but between his wild string forays — arco and pizzicato — and vocalizations, he makes the usually conspicuous drummer become just another one of his straightmen — and woman.

Beginning with “Oh my Deer!” and compressing five tracks into a sort of mini-suite, the cellist has the band referencing many countries, styles and musical history. The first tune, for instance starts off with some laughing Classic Jazz trombone smears courtesy of Wolter Wierbos, with the sprightly melody advanced by Honsinger and violinist Mary Oliver sounding as if it’s being played by The New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra. It’s probably versatile Ab Baars who produces the Johnny Dodds-style clarinet lines here, while Bennink reveals his inner Baby Dodds as a two-beat specialist.

A romp between Wierbos and trumpeter Thomas Heberer runs the tune right into the next that features the cellist slicing sounds out of his strings, Satchmo-high brassy notes from the trumpeter and discordant wails from the horn section. Reconstituting the ensemble as a marching band on “Out back/Chickadee”, Honsinger interrupts the musicians’ with a chorus of whistling and growls. This, in turn introduces “Sparking”, that seems unable to make up its mind whether it’s a cha cha or a mazurka. Oliver bends enough notes to send them bouncing all over the place, while Bennink indulges himself in rim shots and the trumpeter appears to presage a bullfight.

All this attains its head in the title tune where the scraped strings play one melody bisected by that pseudo marching band ensemble puffing out “La Marseilles” or perhaps its cousin, “Ghosts”. Following nonsense curses — in Italian? — in Dutch? — someone replicates the sound of a dog barking as Honsinger tells the story of walking through the woods, unsure of what animal he sees. Is it “oh my deer” or “oh my dog”?

That a performance like this fits right into the CD program without an eyebrow being raised shows just what Mengelberg has created with the ICP. Various band members take on different persona during the rest of the CD, with the most impressive exhibitions of polyphonic pandemonium appearing on two group instant compositions: “Travel Agent and the nearly 15½-minute climax,” Happy dreams”.

On the former, it almost appears as if the band is warming up, until Ernst Glerum’s bowed bass and fiddle intimations from Oliver lead the pianist to express himself in full Cecil Taylor keyboard-punishing mode. Vocal cries and slurred whoops from Baars’s tenor can’t disguise the romantic theme, which flirts with modified waltz time. As always, Bennink is banging away as if he’s a little boy trying to get past a locked door, Heberer slurps out some sweet Harry James-like tones and Michael Moore provides a fruity, Earl Bostic style alto solo.

“Happy dreams”, on the other hand, is all plucks, purrs, growls, trills, whines and toots. The strings play staccatissimo, the trombone and saxophones pump out bent notes and switch in and out of movie matinee-style accompaniment, Mengelberg turns to low intensity playing, creating overtones so supine that even the dampers buzz. Duetting with Bennink, who shakes gong and bell tones from his kit, the pianist counters with cascading single notes and a final Chopinesque cadenza.

If OH, MY DOG is disorderly, then ROOTED is just the opposite, depending as it does on one man’s — Tatsu Aoki’s — compositional conception. Japanese-born, but a resident of Chicago for nearly half his life, Aoki has established longtime playing situations with such Association for the Advancement of Creative Music as drummer Famadou Don Moye, tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson and baritone saxophonist Mwata Bowden, the last of whom is featured on this disc.

More catholic than ICP projects, this and other Asianimprov projects mix Oriental and Afro-American roots sounds with new ones created when these cultures melt into one another in North America.

Throughout, Aoki uses, and with three others plays, traditional taiko drums, using its ritualistic sound as a continuum. As early as “Part One: Now”, though the sound is interrupted by floating trumpet lines from the late Ameen Muhammad, best known for his association with Ernest Dawkins’ bands, and rhythmic swing from saxophonists Taku Akiyama and Toru Hironaka. Bowden’s Aboriginal digeridoo soon adds a sound distinct from all others, eventually adding to the undercurrent as drums turn to jazz time and the sax and trumpet combine for boppish swing.

Elsewhere, as on “Part Three: 1.5 Generation”, a generic Asian pantatonic scale played by taku or rei bells, gives way to unvarying bass work from Hiroshi Eguchi that reconstitutes the tune as a funky foot tapper. Muhammad gracefully bends notes, Bowden honks out some gritty asides and drummer Mia Park lays on the rock-like rhythm. As the saxman and hornman continue to trade slurred, irregular tones, the unvarying taiko-led percussion beat begins to resemble that of Native American music, and violinist Jonathan Chen adds some electric manipulation.

By the same logic, while Chen’s violin intro on “Part Two; Origin” is based on traditional Chinese music, the result sounds almost Eastern European. The following, highly rhythmic bass solo has the delicacy of a kayagum, but the strength of Oscar Pettiford’s lines. Saxophone expositions chase each other though the piece over a walking bass line, followed by another digeridoo interlude. Wadaiko or Japanese percussion allusions arise from the massed drummers as one bassist — Aoki likely — produces bottleneck guitar like pulses. Finally the whole thing ends on an elongated digeridoo tone.

By the time “Part Four: ... of Now, As Well” arrives, you’re so used to the musical disconnect, that when Yoko Noge, who is a Chicago-based blues vocalist, sings the traditional “Jongara Buchi” in Japanese backed by additional violin, cello and taiko accompaniment, it doesn’t sound strange at all. Soon the irregular beat turns to steady jazz time and the horn section begins passing a riff around. Muhammad has a fine, brassy solo as the consolidated percussion put you in mind of primitive washboard bands at times and sophisticated mega-kit rockers at others. Before the tune ended with accelerated percussion rhythm, a disco whistle has been blown, a baritone line has snaked through the proceedings and there’s been a slap-bass break and suggestions of arco filigree.

Small big bands, big ideas: Aoki and Mengelberg easily show what can be done with the right musical ideas — and right sidepeople — on these CDs.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Dog: 1. Write down exactly 2. A close encounter with Charles's Country Band 3. Precise dimensions and weight 4. A la Russe 5. Travel agent 6. Ham on air 7. Hand and checked luggage 8. Oh my Deer! 9. Wild turkey 10. Out back/Chickadee 11. Sparkling 12. Oh my dog! 13. Happy dreams

Personnel: Dog: Thomas Heberer (trumpet); Wolter Wierbos (trombone); Ab Baars (clarinet, tenor saxophone); Michael Moore (clarinet, alto saxophone); Mary Oliver (violin and viola); Tristan Honsinger (cello); Misha Mengelberg (piano); Ernst Glerum (bass); Han Bennink (drums)

Track Listing: Rooted: 1. Part One: Now 2. Part Two: Origin+ 3. Part Three: 1.5 Generation 4. Part Four: ... of Now, As Well* 5. Origin: Chamber Version+

Personnel: Rooted: Ameen Muhammad (trumpet, percussion); Taku Akiyama (alto saxophone); Toru Hironaka (tenor saxophone); Mwata Bowden (baritone saxophone, digeridoo); Jonathan Chen (violin, electronics); Tomoko Hayashida (cello*); Satoru Iga (bass*); Hiroshi Eguchi (bass); Tatsu Aoki (bass+, taiko); Ryan Toguri, Hide Yoshihashi and Jason Matsumoto (taiko drums); Mia Park (drums); Yoko Noge (vocal)