REVIEW: ICP Orchestra at the Vortex

Han Bennink at the heart of the ICP Orchestra's residency at the Vortex
Drawing By Geoff Winston. © 2017. All Rights Reserved


ICP Orchestra
Vortex, 28 and 29 March 2017; review and drawings by Geoff Winston


'Never mind the bollocks, listen to our wonderful European friends, the ICP Orchestra!' Such was the Vortex MC's introduction on the evening of the Brexit trigger, the second night of their residency at the Vortex.

The ICP (Instant Composers Pool) Orchestra is one of the great institutions of European jazz, improvisation and anarcho-swing. An institution, maybe, by way of longevity and their continuing commitment to creativity, musical complexity and the challenges of bridging a variety of genres - but institutional they most definitely are not!

The ICP's concert tour, celebrating 50 years since the orchestra's inception, delivered two blisteringly joyful nights of their unique brand of music at the Vortex, one of their favourite venues and host, in 2013, of co-founder Misha Mengelberg's final appearance outside the Netherlands. Sadly, after a prolonged spell of dementia which has been well documented, Mengelberg passed away earlier in the month, yet his presence was very much in evidence. As spokesperson for the band, bassist Ernst Glerum, said as they celebrated his outstanding, inventive compositions and arrangements in their eclectic and demanding repertoire, 'His scores are still here on our music stands!'

Emerging from the counter-culture and art school environments of the 60s, embracing the restless, anarchic spirit of the Dada movement of the early 20th century, the ICP has a history of over 50 recordings released on their eponymous record label taking in solo explorations, and a host of duos, small group and full-on, large group blasts.

Their current 10-piece incarnation has been as stable and solid as a rock for some time. Han Bennink, a more-than-sturdy, 74 years-young, master percussionist keeps burning bright the flame that he, Mengelberg and Willem Breuker ignited back in the mid-60s. Four of the longest-serving ICP members, cellist Tristan Honsinger (his first ICP recording was in 1977), trombonist Wolter Wierbos and saxophonists Michael Moore and Ab Baars (recording for ICP since the early 80s) made their highly individual impressions on proceedings alongside bassist Ernst Glerum, saxophonist Toby Delius, trumpeter Thomas Heberer, and violinist Mary Oliver, each associated with the IPC since the 90s, and old friend, pianist/composer Guus Janssen taking over from where Mengelberg left off.

In their own, inimitable way they kicked off on both nights with a gleefully, cacophonous fanfare. As Wierbos has said, their roots are partly in the 'Fanfare' brass bands of his home country and over the two nights they covered everything from latin, swing, syncopated ragtime, loony tunes and trad to custom-cut arrangements of Ellington, Dolphy and Herbie Nichols plus some vocalese which might have had its roots in Kurt Schwitters Ursonate.

The ICP's performances are all about chemistry and versatility. Mengelberg's sensitive take on Ellington's Solitude, subtly re-engineering the jazz standard, and his Hypochristmutreefuzz, immortalised on Last Date, the historic recording he and Bennink made at Hilversum with Eric Dolphy, were complemented by Wierbos's demonstrative, virtuoso improvisations and Honsinger’s off-the-wall mimes which opened up the surreally humorous side of the ICP. They swung from a march dedicated to Alex von Shlippenbach to a three clarinet, eardrum-splitting, alarm signal and Honsinger's recitation of text in Charles Ives' Slow March, commemorating the burial of a beloved dog. The brass and woodwind section work was breathtakingly tight, whipping up an infectious, rocking train rhythm complete with horizon-evoking horns and both nights were peppered with glorious solos across the board - Delius and Moore powering away on saxes, Bennink scraping the Vortex's steel column, and Oliver getting in to expressively fluent improvisation mode – to mention just a few.

Fittingly, they closed the second night on an emotional note with the whole group humming Mengelberg's a cappella Psalm which he and Bennink would often end on after successful performances. Wonderful!

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