The superb Option series at Experimental Sound Studio returns next week following a hiatus since last October. Curators Ken Vandermark, Tim Daisy, and Andrew Clinkman have announced eight new events, including a kickoff Monday with the virtuosic reeds improviser Ned Rothenberg, giving his first local solo concert since 2013. The intimacy of ESS's studio provides an optimal setting for Rothenberg's playing, which builds on the extended techniques of Evan Parker—with whom he's regularly collaborated—but brings a more serene, hypnotic flair that's less driven by marathon flights of circular breathing. His technical mastery can certainly blow one's mind, but he tends to situate such displays in concise chunks that explore a single idea or two.
He's fluent on a wide number of instruments, including alto saxophone, clarinet, and bass clarinet, but he stands out among other free improvisers thanks to his excellence on the Japanese end-blown bamboo flute called the shakuhachi, which he's been playing for nearly three decades. The performance will be complemented by a discussion with Vandermark, a player with his own strong solo free-improv practice. But there's much more to Rothenberg's game than solo work. He's played in countless different contexts over the years (he was in James Falzone's Renga Ensemble for that group's Chicago visit in 2013), whether exploring arty funk verities and/or jazz standards, playing in reed trios, or collaborating with Tuvan singer Sainko Namtchylak or shakuhachi masters.
Last year Rothenberg dropped his first album in four years with In Cahoots (Clean Feed), a fantastic improvised trio effort made with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman—two players whose aesthetic tendencies, strong rapport, and extensive experience playing together (they're married) have resulted in a finely etched sound that leans as much toward Western classical tradition as jazz, even when they improvise. The tonal purity of their lines, the elegance of their melodic shapes, and the dramatic architecture of their pieces in no way impinge upon the remarkably luminescent atmosphere. Below you can check out the wittily titled "For a Minute It Was Almost Like Opera." On Wednesday Rothenberg will celebrate the release of another new album, called Full Circle, a live recording made last year in Poland with Chicago drummer Hamid Drake. They'll reconvene at Constellation, joined this time by bassist Joshua Abrams.
This morning I learned that the brilliant, wildly idiosyncratic, and wholly original pianist, bandleader, and composer Misha Mengelberg has died at the age of 81, in his longtime home of Amsterdam. The musician had been suffering from advanced dementia in recent years, which forced him to stop performing live, including his consistently remarkable concerts with ICP Orchestra, the freewheeling group he formed in the 60s with drummer Han Bennink and reedist Willem Breuker.
Mengelberg was an irascible contrarian, a deep thinker and nuanced player who constantly challenged the status quo. He forever prevented his groups from falling into routine, finding endless ways to trip himself and his colleagues up, forcing everyone to stay on their toes and adapt to unexpected situations. He had an abiding love for theater and the absurd—nearly as deep as his love for Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Herbie Nichols. I was lucky enough to see him perform many times over the years, mainly with ICP Orchestra, but also solo and in various small-group settings. I don't hesitate in calling him a genius, and even though he hasn't played live or recorded anything in quite a few years—and wasn't expected to ever again—knowing he's gone is incredibly sad and sobering. He was a true one-of-a-kind. It would take a lot of examples of his playing and composing to convey the full range of his legacy, but the song below vividly showcases his astonishing touch and imagination as a player—a reading of his composition "Who's Bridge" cut in 1994 with bassist Brad Jones and drummer Joey Baron.