Two Days in Chicago

Misha Mengelberg

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Two Days in Chicago Review

by Thom Jurek

If Thelonious Monk had been born 20 years later in Europe, he may indeed have been Misha Mengelberg. No other player/composer/improviser with the exception of Steve Lacy has been able to so completely enter into the harmonic mindset of Monk (and for that matter, the technical genius of his counterpart Herbie Nichols). And as much as that would be enough for so many on the scene today, it is a compliment the iconoclastic Mr. Mengelberg would shun because it is only a part of what he does. This glorious double CD represents literally the two days Mengelberg spent in Chicago in 1998. One CD is a studio session, the other a live date. Mengelberg wasted no time in exploiting the many talents of his collaborators, who include saxophonists Fred Anderson, Ken Vandermark and Ab Baars, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, bassists Kent Kessler and Wilbert de Joode, and drummers Hamid Drake and Martin van Duyunhoven. The first CD is a wildly mixed bag. First there is the Mengelberg reading of Monk's "Eronel." With Vandermark and Drake as his sidemen, without a bassist, Mengelberg has already changed the model. With the hollow spot in the rhythm section apparent, he just lets it stand, an element that needs not be filled because of Vandermark's fine, swinging, soulful solo. Mengelberg himself is dancing around with Drake, trading fours and comping just persuasively enough to give Vandermark the nod for another chorus or two. When he takes his own solo you can see why there isn't a bassist: There's no room, with Drake claiming all the space around the piano and Mengelberg alternating lines from Nichols, Tatum, and Monk while slipping his own extended 12ths (!) into a melodic interval framework that is just breathtaking. The same is true of the other Monk contribution here: "Off Minor." Here, it's all Mengelberg and his spooky, shaded, diminished sevenths that hold the tune while Vandermark blows under the authority of his piano. The various quartets and trios that make up the remainder of disc one are truly beautiful examples of what Mengelberg does as an improviser: He sheds all preconceived notion of what music is supposed to be when made on the spot and spontaneously composes with his groups. There are shards of meaning in each phrase as these groups eke out a syntax and structural conception for each piece. Disc two, the live set, is perhaps even more remarkable. It begins with the nearly 30-minute "Chicago Solo." Mengelberg gives his audience a full-on look into his method, madness, and mind as a musician. He creates no less than ten themes and their variations, and moves them through strange configurations of Puccini and Beethoven before Tristano and Teddy Wilson appear as ghosts to carry them off. This flows seamlessly into a gorgeous reading of "'Round Midnight," which flows seamlessly into a duo, another solo, and finally a nearly seven-minute version of "Body and Soul with a sextet that is notable not only for the sensitivity of Mengelberg's adaption, but the empathy he coaxes from his musicians and the depth of emotion conveyed -- even as Baars arm-wrestles with his saxophone and his own stormy relationship to such a beautiful standard. This is easily one of Mengelberg's finest recorded moments and shows him in all of his roles, shining with rough-hewn elegance and finely crafted edges.

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