"It's pretty raw, and very musical," quoth big-band leader Jason Lindner about the ICP Orchestra in a Downbeat "blindfold test," and there's much truth in his comment although it really doesn't begin to describe a group that has both a bagpipe and a crackle box player. One of the most enjoyable and honest documents of this ongoing project of Dutch pianist and composer Misha Mengelberg is the live set recorded at the 1977 Workshop Freie Musik in Berlin. Raw it truly is, sounding at times like a high-school band in the first week of school, at other times like a splinter unit from the Spike Jones band that has either inhaled laughing gas or spotted a loose mouse cavorting about the bandstand -- or both. Inevitably there might be a comment about a lack of rehearsal times for large groups in jazz festivals, but the Instant Composers Pool groups do rehearse, cultivating a certain kind of raucous sound as an aspect of the many levels the group's music works on. Sometimes the group probably doesn't rehearse, either.
An element of parody is such a thick element in Mengelberg's work that when this group takes the stage, inevitably having in its lineup some of the hilarious musical jokers featured here, any kind of written themes that emerge in the performance start to sound like a lampoon on the edge of an accident. The wild improvising styles of players such as drummer Han Bennink or cellist Tristan Honsinger fits perfectly into this procedure; sometimes this kind of playing is combined with the written music, sometimes it comes in as if some kind of weird gumbo had burst through its packaging. Soloists also take advantage of this state-of-attack relationship with the written themes, some great work being done in this performance by both Peter Brötzmann and John Tchicai. While several of the members contribute compositions, it is more about how the group is playing then what it is playing. Two pieces of Mengelberg's from the "Tetterettet" series go beyond this into a realm where the compositions themselves are interesting to ponder.
Festival honcho Jost Gebers recorded the event and basically pressed an unedited set, complete with audience noise, pauses, and bits of strange business between songs. All of this adds to the excitement of the event, whether it is having the album start with Mengelberg doing something that sounds like a record stylus being chewed while still plugged in, or the maniacal thrill of hearing several weirdos in the band start up on something while the audience is still expressing its enthusiasm for what has gone before. Skeptics and cynics stood shoulder and shoulder with the fans of this group, back then and decades later. Complaints include the reasonable criticism that this group doesn't sound like a slick, smooth jazz big band because it couldn't, and that all the nonsense on-stage and comical reference to various genres simply gets in the way of good improvising. The players involved in Mengelberg's madness here really do seem to be inspired by it, leaving behind a record that stands up to repeated listenings, despite whatever rough edges were involved with the original performance.