DVD Focus:

Misha Mengelberg (ICP 044/Data Images 03)

Contrary, brilliant, lazy, disruptive, complacent are all adjective applied to , pianist/bandleader/composer Misha Mengelberg who has defined the Dutch style of improvisation or so-called instant composing since its late 1960s birth. Afijn is a masterful portrait of the man, edited and directed by Jellie Dekker. Interspaced with views on the cunning and mischievous pianist from musicians ranging from long-time partner, drummer Han Bennink (who says he started playing solo because “Misha never showed up for the first set”) to trumpeter Dave Douglas, plus friends, students and associates, as well as interviews with the subject himself done over many years A piano autodidact, who then studied and later taught at the conservatory, because of his unique playing style and early involvement in anti-establishment theatre productions, Mengelberg was controversial enough so that there is filmed footage of him almost from the beginning of his career. Afijn includes archival shots of the sardonic pianist, ever-present cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, in small groups with Bennink and others plus various incarnation of the ICP Orchestra, which the pianist, drummer and reedist Willem Breuker founded.

Someone who first composed music at the age of four, Mengelberg (b. 1935) was so impressed by a 1948 concert by Duke Ellington’s orchestra that he embraced jazz wholeheartedly, eventually developing a particular empathy for Thelonious Monk’s music. Afijn captures some shots of Mengelberg alone at the piano evocatively playing some Monk compositions, albeit at his own tempos and modes. Bohemian by nature, it appears that Monk’s eccentricity and Ellington’s laissez-faire attitude influenced Mengelberg – his oldest friend points out that the pianist maintains his freedom by waking up when others go to bed. Besides showing the ICP performing sophisticatedly subversive jazz classics, the film also highlights Mengelberg’s unique compositions, including the legendary program during which the ICP improvises alongside the pianist as he shapes a wooden camel out of cheap wooden by sawing apart and rearranging the pieces. Later, band members testify how Mengelberg goes out his way to subtlety disrupt many performances, but also praise him for meticulously crafting a set list before every show, highlighting each musician’s strongest qualities.

DVD extras include more ICP concerts; Mengelberg’s infamous duet with his parrot who vocalizes as he plays boogie-woogie piano; plus instructive duos with Bennink and Douglas. During “Gare Guillemin” a straight-on shot shows the pianist absorbing the trumpeter’s solo for a full two minutes before ever playing a note. No better illustration of Mengelberg’s cerebral orneriness has ever been captured on film.

—Ken Waxman