Clip: Han Bennink interview
Holland's radical big band ICP Orchestra celebrate 40 years -- but
don't call them funny
Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate
Thursday, April 5, 2007
If you want to trigger a rant from the affable and gregarious Han
Bennink, ask him about the comic aspect of the music he plays with the
"I'm not a comic," the veteran Dutch drummer said emphatically in a
phone call from Washington, D.C., last week. "I hate when people say
that. I hate that they call it 'madcap,' because it's never meant like
that. It's never meant to be funny. We sometimes do things that people
think, 'That is very funny' or 'That is weird.' For example, I love to
play on the floor -- when I sit on the floor in front of my drum kit,
is that funny? I don't think that's funny; I just change the
acoustics. I like to go also into the audience sometimes, in order to
change the acoustic environment you're playing in."
"There are so many possibilities in life," he added. "People, they go
to a concert, sit in a hall and let the music come over them, but
there many other possible ways to do it."
For four decades, exploring possibilities has been the modus operandi
of the ICP (Instant Composers Pool) Orchestra, which will perform at
Yoshi's in Oakland on Monday, April 9, as part of the radical big
band's 40th anniversary tour.
Founded in Amsterdam in 1967 by Bennink, pianist Misha Mengelberg and
saxophonist Willem Breuker, the orchestra combines elements of jazz
and improvisation, connecting the music of Duke Ellington, Thelonious
Monk, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, as well as
the classical and avant-garde sounds and ideas of Charles Ives and
John Cage. Bennink, 64, and the Kiev-born Mengelberg, 71, have
remained the anchors of the orchestra, whose previously fluctuating
personnel has settled into a relatively stable lineup for the past
five or so years. (Breuker broke off in 1974 and established his
maverick and often unabashedly clownish Willem Breuker Kollektief.)
Bennink is widely respected, even revered, for the percussion prowess
that has allowed him to play with everyone from mainstreamers like
saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin to such
"outside" giants as pianist Cecil Taylor, saxophonist Peter Brotzmann
and guitarist Derek Bailey. His name is permanently inscribed in the
roll call of great European avant-garde drummers, along with Tony
Oxley, Paul Lytton, Eddie Prevost and Paul Lovens.
But in conversation, Bennink repeatedly downplayed his own
musicianship and deferred to the talents of Mengelberg, his senior
partner in ICP. For instance, of the orchestra's arrangements and
extrapolations of compositions by Monk, Ellington, Ives and the
underappreciated pianist Herbie Nichols, Bennink said: "Misha's a
composer and he made arrangements for the ICP, so this question is
actually more for Misha. I'm not a composer. I'm a simple
drummer-improviser. I think I'm too stupid for another instrument.
Even now I'm not able to read a note as big as a cow, as we say in
Mengelberg, Bennink said, came up with the orchestra's name: "He
invented the title 'Instant Composer.' That's what we are -- we
compose while we are improvising." From the outset, the moniker
"Instant Composers Pool" was multipurpose. It was the name of the
record label for an LP Bennink recorded with Breuker, New Acoustic
Swing Duo; the next album, numbered ICP 002, with Bennink, Mengelberg
and saxophonist John Tchicai, was actually called Instant Composers
"The money that we got from the first one, we used to make a second
one," Bennink recalled. "The third was three barrel organs playing in
Amsterdam -- Willem was doing that. I came at that time from the art
school, and I made all the covers for the LPs by hand. I had also my
family involved, cutting covers and stuff like that. We were always
short of money, so we never made it like a real company, but we have a
real nice series of LPs and CDs out [45 to date], but we're not into
reprinting the stuff. Many, many people are asking us, 'Can you please
put this on CD, can you please put that on CD?' No, that was not the
meaning of ICP, never. We just wanted to get heard and then go
straight into another album. We have an LP with Eric Dolphy
[Epistrophy], you know, number 15 -- everybody wants to have that on
CD, of course, but we are stupid."
The recent-vintage ICP has included trumpter Thomas Heberer,
saxophonist/clarinetists Ab Baars, Tobias Delius and Michael Moore,
trombonist Walter Wierbos, bassist Ernst Glerum, cellist Tristan
Honsinger and violinist Mary Oliver. Moore and Oliver (Bennink's
"girlfriend") are American (indeed Californian) expatriates. Bennink
has been coming the other way across the Atlantic since 1960, when he
made his first voyage to the United States.
"I was working on a ship to see the real jazz scene," he said. "I was
making commercial music at that time in order to pay for my trip. I
was in Hoboken for a while, so I saw John Coltrane. It was the first
time I met Steve Lacy, and later I worked a lot with him, of course. I
saw Aretha Franklin with Bernard Purdie as a duo -- that was great."
Earlier this year, Bennink played in California with Oliver and
bassist Mark Dresser, and, for the first time, in New Orleans, with
saxophonist Kidd Jordan.
"It's my absolute favorite city in America, because for me it's not
America-like," Bennink said about the Crescent City. "It's not even
European. It's everything. I love the people there. I played in the
house where Buddy Bolden was born. Yeah, man, it was opposite Congo
Square. From the room I could see the statue of Louis Armstrong and
If audience reception were the only factor, perhaps Bennink would
spend even more time on this side of the pond. "What I've found is
that the audience in the U.S. is the best audience to play for. It is
unbelievable for us. It's a real treat," he said. "People are
listening, people are giving standing ovations -- not that we go for
standing ovations, but it's nice to see that. It's just a wonderful,
attentive audience -- the best, for many of us, in the world, I swear.
That's not, as we call it in Holland, to 'lick ass,' but it's really
"The audiences are fantastic," he continued, "but probably not large
enough to pay all our expenses. We are 10 people, plus we have to have
a ticket for the cello, so it's a very expensive body to move all over
America, especially when you have 12 gigs. Without help from our
government, we aren't able to do it, because you can't get the money.
Thank God that we have a country like Holland where they care about
So don't expect Bennink to apply for U.S. citizenship any time soon.
In a dazzling, mercurial free-form ramble, not unlike an ICP
improvisation, he expressed further ambivalence about contemporary
America, linking jazz history, autobiography and current affairs: "I'm
here tonight playing at the Library of Congress, and I only know that
name because I have a whole collection of Jelly Roll Morton playing
solo -- the whole collection, all the LPs. There's never a dull moment
in life as a musician. I wanted to make a living in music, so in the
beginning I took every gig. Not now. I try to get rid of gigs --
certain gigs. But at that time, you did everything to have contact
with your instrument.
"I was playing with my dad for the army, but I refused to go as a
soldier in the army. I hate killing, I hate armies, I hate where
America is now, I hate surroundings I'm in -- it seems to be very
secure, but really insecure. Every corner, you see police. You can't
walk in this area. You have to show your passport everywhere. You can
see that America is at war. It's horrible. So I stayed in bed today.
F-- the cherry blossoms, I've seen that."
Next month, Bennink turns 65, a milestone that will be celebrated at
the Bimhius nightclub in Amsterdam. A host of musicians, including ICP
members, Peter Brotzmann and saxophonist Evan Parker, will play with
Bennink in a variety of settings.
"I like to vary a lot," said Bennink, who in the same year might play
in New York City with Dave Douglas and Ellery Eskelin, and in Ethiopia
with Mohammed "Jimmy" Mohammed and Mahmoud Ahmed. And, of course, that
experimental bent shapes his drumming. Bennink has been known to
strike his sticks and brushes against the walls, the floor and almost
any sort of found object (he even played a pizza box in duets with
guitar and banjo improviser Eugene Chadbourne), and he doesn't
hesitate to put his foot on a snare or tom-tom to change the drum's
response and tone.
But don't mistake variety for comedy. "I never go onstage to do
funny," he reiterated. "I go onstage like dying from nerves. I really
feel the responsibility -- not like, 'Ha-ha, now we're going to be in
this nice show.' I'm interested in art. I can also lie down on my
cymbal, that's also music. I can decide that I have to go pee during a
chorus, and go to the toilet and be back just in time as the band sets
in again. There are so many possibilities."
The ICP Orchestra performs Monday, April 9, at Yoshi's, 510
Embarcadero, Oakland. Showtimes 8 and 10 p.m. Tickets $16 (8 p.m.) and
$10 (10 p.m.). For more information, call (510) 238-9200