Misha Mengelberg, Bold and Spirited Jazz Pianist, Dies at 81
By PETER KEEPNEWSMARCH 14, 2017
Misha Mengelberg performing in 1980 in Amsterdam. Frans Schellekens/Redferns
Misha Mengelberg, a Dutch pianist and composer who approached the jazz tradition with an adventurous spirit and an antic sense of humor, died on March 3 in Amsterdam. He was 81.
His death was announced by the Instant Composers Pool, the Dutch experimental jazz collective that he helped found in 1967. No cause was given, but Mr. Mengelberg was known to have dementia and had not performed in public for several years.
American jazz fans know Mr. Mengelberg best as the pianist on the saxophonist, flutist and bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy’s album “Last Date,” recorded in concert shortly before Dolphy’s death in 1964. He was much better known in Europe, and especially in the Netherlands, where he was one of the leading figures in a thriving avant-garde jazz scene.
Mr. Mengelberg’s dissonant harmonies and unorthodox phrasing were reminiscent of Thelonious Monk, an acknowledged influence. But he also drew inspiration from many other sources, including the composer John Cage and the interdisciplinary art movement known as Fluxus.
His concerts often had the look and feel of performance art, especially when he performed with the drummer Han Bennink, a longtime colleague. In a 2000 duo concert, for example, Mr. Bennink bounced drumsticks off the floor and broke one over his knee while Mr. Mengelberg maintained a straight face as he played soft and hesitant variations on the standard “I’ve Told Every Little Star.”
Reviewing the performance, Ben Ratliff of The New York Times described them as “a wild shock-comedy team as much as anything else.”
In an online tribute last week, the pianist Ethan Iverson wrote: “What made Mengelberg Mengelberg wasn’t playing with respect for the text or with swinging bass and drums. What made him a force of nature was his fearless and faultless sense of the absurd.”
Misja Mengelberg (he later changed the spelling of his first name) was born into a musical family on June 5, 1935, in Kiev, in what is now Ukraine. His father, Karel, was a conductor; his mother, the former Rahel Draber, was a harpist; a great-uncle was a conductor who had worked with Arturo Toscanini.
He began taking piano lessons shortly after the family moved to the Netherlands in the late 1930s. After briefly studying architecture, he attended the Royal Conservatory in The Hague from 1958 to 1964, gradually shifting his focus from classical music to jazz.
In 1963 Mr. Mengelberg formed a quartet, whose members included Mr. Bennink. The next year he, Mr. Bennink and the bassist Jacques Schols accompanied Dolphy at the concert in the Dutch city of Hilversum that would be released as “Last Date.” (The repertoire included an original Mengelberg composition, “Hypochristmutreefuzz.”) In 1966 his quartet performed at the Newport Jazz Festival. The next year he, Mr. Bennink and the saxophonist Willem Breuker formed the Instant Composers Pool.
Mr. Breuker left the organization in 1973 to form his own orchestra, the Willem Breuker Kollektief. (He died in 2010.) The ICP Orchestra, an ensemble with shifting personnel under the direction of Mr. Mengelberg and Mr. Bennink, toured Europe regularly and won praise for its unusual blend of anarchic improvisation and straight-ahead swing.
Mr. Mengelberg’s survivors include his wife of 52 years, the former Amy Chattelin; a daughter, Andrea; and a brother, Kaspar.