Monday, 11 May 2009

ICP Orchestra in Edinburgh...

For those who haven't encountered the ICP Orchestra, how would I best describe their music? Their acronym derives from the description Instant Composers Pool, and to my mind this only goes so far and was probably more pertinent when they started out in Amsterdam in the late '60s. The wholly improvised elements of each concert are fairly few and brief, and what they offer now is a more eclectic amalgam of incongruous juxtapositions. A mischievous undercurrent runs through everything they do, not to mention a potent whiff of absurdity. They'll play off beat jazz from Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols in the style of a '20s Swing band before departing into total abstraction and then returning with some traditional Dutch marching band music. A segue into a short section of Viennese 12 tone music, rudely disturbed by Han Bennink jumping up from his drum set to let out a loud Indian war whoop, could well be their next departure. They're not to everybody's taste - subversive, anarchic, funny, and cerebral, or just puerile and predictable? These are the questions I always wrestle with whenever I hear them, but last week's gig finally seemed to offer answers to me!

They came to Edinburgh with their strongest and most stable line-up for years. Wolter Wierbos and Thomas Heberer provided the brass, Ab Baars, Michael Moore and Tobias Delius the reeds, Mary Oliver, Tristan Honsinger and Ernst Glerum the strings, Han Bennink the percussion and Misha Mengelberg (of course) held it all loosely together on piano. The gig started with just Wierbos and the reeds, playing a post serialist improvisation with clarinets before Mengelberg entered and ran through a series of duets. Oliver and Honsinger entered to take the music further into improv/serialism territory, and 15 minutes had passed without a bar of anything recognisable as jazz. Were they playing with the audience, deliberately giving them a hard time for their own amusement?

With the solemnities out of the way and their long hair musicianly credentials firmly demonstrated, the fun began. A string of Mengelberg originals and several warhorses from Monk and Nichols (including '12 Bars' and 'Round Midnight') followed. Bennink left and entered the stage at will, wandering freely around the room and indulging in some of his Dada-ist stunts. Baars and Delius got generous solo space, and Thomas Heberer shone as a truly outstanding talent on the trumpet with no imitators or discernible influences. He has the same oblique approach to building a solo as Micheal Moore, and both men took their moments well and played some incredibly inventive solos.

'Loons' was Louise's verdict, and it'd be hard to disagree with that assessment. The concert hall equivalent of Lars von Trier's 'The Idiots', to play this kind of madcap poker-faced needs a certain amount of detachment. The humour may be hard to get beyond at first, but it should also be evident that these comic devices are not intended to mask any musical shortcomings. Knowing in general terms what the ICP Orchestra are all about gave me useful prior knowledge, but by paying close attention to the detail of the soloists and dynamics of the group work I found something of substance that was extremely rewarding in its self. Mengelberg disappointingly didn't take too much of the spotlight, and it'd have been good to hear him stretch out over a few pieces with Glerum and Bennink. On another occasion he probably would, but the tonal and timbral variety which the strings, brass and reeds offer the pianist from a programmatic perspective allow for an almost bewildering series of possibilities in each show, and the high turnover of ideas is evidence of just how little coasting there is.

This band is packed with large musical personalities and their unique and instantly recognisable voices were both playing to to the crowd's expectations and often exceeding them. Yes, some of the humour is knockabout, and listen to them too often and you could even find it goes stale. I won't go over the top and make parallels with Ellington, who also boasted a stable band of talented individuals who played very singular music, but it would be enough to say that the ICP Orchestra offer something genuinely unique. No matter how far the music breaks down, the group's great strength of a distinctively retro modernism always re-asserts its self, the ICP brand sound fully intact.

Predictable unpredictability or unpredictable predictability? Each can choose depending on whether they're a glass half empty/full type. As with all good things, moderation is essential. I rarely play their recordings and only catch members of the band playing live periodically, but this helps to keep it all fresh. If I see them again in 5 years time that will be enough for me. I know that it'll almost certainly be wonderful evening, and one so unique that only they are capable of providing it. Yes, I lost my skepticism...

Fred Grand

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