Old-school avant-garde jazz fans often associate pianist Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink with the duo's enviable big break: supporting Eric Dolphy on his final tour of Europe just weeks before the legendary artist's untimely passing in the summer of 1964. But their contributions to Dolphy's Last Date, while adequate, are unremarkable. At the time, both Mengelberg and Bennink were pretty new to the “New Thing” — the pianist has even stated that he didn't much know what he was doing back then. But that was 35 years ago.
Fast-forward to 1999: Mengelberg and Bennink are lionized as two of the founding revolutionaries of what journalist Kevin Whitehead calls “New Dutch Swing” in his book of the same name. Indeed, the Netherlands-based duo have been widely acknowledged as leaders on the European improv front, a movement renowned for its radical recasting of compositional forms, which in the mid- to late '60s began to distinguish itself from the “free” evolution in American jazz.
Although both players have more than proven themselves savvy in the capital J jazz tradition — Mengelberg has paid homage on record to Monk, Ellington, and Herbie Nichols, while Bennink still occasionally appears in slam-swinging concerts with Johnny Griffin and Von Freeman — the duo truly excel in the improv context. The pianist's strong, stark dissonance, especially in the lower register, offers a superb foil to the drummer's often nutty, octopi rhythms. And while the pair have performed together off and on for more than three decades, it's unlikely they'll take the clichéd route in this rare Bay Area performance. “No little tricks with numbers,” explains Mengelberg in the notes to the album The Root of the Problem. “No first, second theme. No development section, no reprise. There are no simple calculations for life.”
Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink perform on Sunday, Sept. 19, at 8 p.m. at Mills College, 5000 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland. Tickets are $13; call (510) 430-2296.