A few weeks ago, I began a project of converting as many of the interviews I did during my 1985-2008 tenure on WKCR from cassettes to digital format, adding to the 100 or so I’d transcribed over the years. This 2-1/2 hour interview with Han Bennink came from a week where the Dutch master was playing in quartet with Dave Douglas at Iridium — a lot of information contained therein.
Han Bennink (Out To Lunch, WKCR, Sept. 23, 2000):
[MUSIC: Bennink-Dave Douglas, “Cherokee”-Serpentine-1996]
TP: Dave Douglas was the trumpeter, and Han Bennink on trapset and…
HB: No. I only played snare drum and clogs. No hi-hat, no bass. Only snare drum, brushes and clogs.
TP: Han Bennink and I are here for hopefully 3 hours. We have a wide array of music that brings us from 1964 to the present. Han Bennink is performing at Iridium with the Dave Douglas Quartet this week, with Misha Mengelberg on piano and Brad Jones on bass.
You were just describing to me your first visit to New York, which was 40 years ago.
HB: It was in 1960. I worked on a ship called the Maasdom(?—6:01) to play commercial or dance music for the passengers. Then we were about 5 days in Hoboken. At that time, I went to the Village Gate. I saw the John Coltrane Quartet. He was totally obsessed with “My Favorite Things.” The second set was Aretha Franklin playing an upright piano and a microphone in between her legs – and a drummer. It was just fantastic. Opposite the street was a joint called Caffe Ruffio, and I saw Steve Lacy there for the first time live. We’re now very good friends.
TP: You’ve recorded with him on a number of occasions.
HB: Yes, but he lives in Paris, as you probably know, and I see him often… Well, I actually saw him and his wife in Chicago on the 3rd of September.
TP: How does New York now impress you vis-a-vis 40 years ago?
HB: I am not a big city guy. I live very sort of lonely, like a monk, in a stable in Holland, like this sort of ivory tower. Here, somebody gave me a flat to live in, and it’s very nice for me. It’s opposite Central Park, so I can go bird-watching. After this enormous rain, the park was so fresh; it was really beautiful to be there. But for the rest, I am not a big fan of big cities. But most of my concerts are in big cities, and I’ve been traveling now for 3 weeks. I actually do 24 gigs in 27 gigs. I am so proud of that. But I have to travel for that a lot. And the last week is just fine; now I can go walking to Iridium. It’s only 45 blocks. That’s nothing for me. I like to walk. And back also in the night. So that’s cool.
TP: Forty years when you came here, you were playing on a ship, dance music. That’s how you started professionally as a drummer, isn’t it, playing swing music, dance music.
HB: Yes, my father was a studio drummer. Rein Bennink. He also played clarinet in Benny Goodman’s style, and very good tenor in sort of Coleman Hawkins’ style. So the first drummer I ever heard was Gene Krupa, playing with Benny Goodman, “sing, Sing, Sing.” My father also had a band where he played for the Army. I refused to go in the Army (but that’s another thing), but I still played for them when I was like 17 years old. So I started doing these gigs with my father. But besides the band, we had singers, acrobats, and sometimes a nude show or whatever. So I’ve been doing all that sort of shit, really.
TP: Who were the drummers you patterned yourself after? By the 1950s, Kenny Clarke had moved to Europe…
HB: Kenny is my absolutely favorite. I saw him a couple of times in Holland, because he was working with Pim Jacobs Trio with a female singer, Rita Reys. Rita Reys was sort of well known. She recorded in New York with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I think it must have been around 1957. Then I was sort of teaching at the conservatory later, and I invited Kenny to do a master class. So I really did know him and his wife, who came from Rotterdam – she was Dutch. They lived in Montreuil, in Paris. Kenny set…it’s a black premier(?—10:42) still on the music school there. He was an amazing drummer.
TP: Say some more about his qualities and his place in the pantheon.
HB: The first time I saw him was in the Concertgebouw. The Phineas Newborn Trio was playing there, and Kenny was playing, Oscar Pettiford was playing there. Lee Konitz was playing there. The Concertgebouw is actually built for classical music, so it’s very boomy. When I saw Kenny playing for the first time, it was a shock for me. I was listening to a very tiny little radio at 12 o’clock under my blankets. We had Willis Conover from Luxembourg, and he had a jazz program. So I listened to music always fearing to control the button… But when you see the guys playing live, that’s another thing. It just sounded so amazing. And his brushes playing! I loved his brushes playing. And the feeling for the rhythm. It’s so light. It’s so up. It’s always dancing. It’s never draggy. It’s amazing.
TP: Who were other jazz drummers you paid attention to during your formative period?
HB: I’ve seen Philly [Joe Jones] a couple of times. Beautiful.
TP: Did he come over with Miles Davis and you heard him then?
HB: Yeah, and I saw him later with the group Dameronia that he was leading. An amazing drummer.
TP: But that was later.
TP: You were already a professional.
HB: Oh, yeah, professional. I am never a…
TP: Well, you certainly are. Over 40 years…
HB: Yeah, yeah, but it’s just such a heavy word.
TP: Anyway, describe his impact on you.
HB: It is hard to say. Enormous control. I was sort of aping the American drummers. But I come from Europe. It’s a completely different cultural background also. But part of the background, of course, is this jazz music. When we were young, we were listening either to Little Richard, Bill Haley, or jazz music – and that was about it. But now it’s hip-hop or rap or whatever.
But it’s very hard to say what it actually meant to me. For example, seeing Elvin live… And later on when I was playing in the Gato Barbieri band in Europe, we were traveling all over Europe, and it was the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, the Gato Barbieri group (I was in that group with Lonnie Liston Smith and Mtume and me on drums), and the other group was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. So I met them all.
TP: You’ve been playing drums, I’d guess, since you could pick up a pair of drumsticks, given your father’s profession.
HB: yes, more or less.
TP: So I’d guess that seeing these great drummers and the different ways they got sound from the instrument, you’d be a quick mimic – see what they did and get that feeling.
HB: Yes, trying to get that feeling.
TP: You had a reputation among American musicians.
HB: Well, in 1962, it went like very quick with me. I started playing with Rene Thomas, but later on with Johnny Griffin, of course, and Don Byas, and Ben Webster lived in Amsterdam, and Dexter of course, and Wes Montgomery and Clark Terry and all those cats.
TP: They’d come through, you’d be the drummer, and they liked you because you could swing.
HB: Yeah, that’s right.
TP: When did you and Misha Mengelberg meet?
HB: I know Misha since 1960.
TP: What were the circumstances?
HB: Misha had a trio, and he was very much into material by Thelonious Monk to play. It was sort of strange in Holland; they were more interested in a fluid style like, say, Oscar Peterson or that thing. If you did Monk, that was really outrageous. At that time, I was at the Academy of Art in Amsterdam, and I brought all those records to our lessons, like “Misterioso” and all those pieces. So it happened to be that Misha was looking for a drummer, and it was in Utrecht in a jazz club called Persepolis. I played with him, and since we’ve been playing all the time. It’s an incredibly long…
TP: 40 years.
HB: Yes. Amazing. So strange. I think the only people who could say that in the music were Duke Ellington and Harry Carney.
TP: Maybe John Lewis and Connie Kay… There are a few people, but not many.
HB: Yes, it’s amazing. And in daily life, I practically NEVER see Misha. Maybe I’ve been at his place a couple of times, but not for food.
TP: So you don’t socialize. You just play.
HB: Not so much.
TP: I’ve read in press clippings his describing a famously love-hate relationship.
HB: Yes, but Misha is a big liar also.
TP: He’s a big liar?
TP: What does he lie about?
HB: About everything. But on a very high level.
TP: Perhaps we can hear how that manifests at Iridium this week as the Dave Douglas Quartet performs.
HB: It’s a brilliant quartet. It sounds very good. I am very happy to play. Especially with Brad. It’s for me the first time to work with him… Because we’ve been playing with Dave in a trio and I’ve played a couple of duo gigs with him. I played last year in Italia, in the Dolomites 1,800 meters high. So I know Dave. But to be with Brad is really nice.
TP: We have cued up a duo between Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink from ICP 031, I think.
HB: It’s old, maybe 9 years or something like that.
TP: It’s an improvised duo?
HB: Of course.
TP: We’ll probably have to cut out, because it lasts 33 minutes and 42 seconds…
HB: It’s beautiful, but it goes much too long.
TP: I’ll fade out when Han Bennink tells me to.
[MUSIC: Han-Misha Excerpt-1991; Dexter Gordon 4 with Han, “Scrapple From the Apple”-Feb. 5, 1969-Amsterdam Club Paradiso]
TP: You couldn’t have a better aural illustration of Han Bennink’s scope and the history that he encompasses in his tonal personality. I’d like to speak a bit about your experiences during the 60s with some of the American jazz musicians you mentioned – Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster. How long did you play with Dexter Gordon?
HB: I played a couple of years with him. Not years… he lived in Copenhagen and he came on and off to Holland for tours, like for 14 days. I used to do gigs with him, and I loved playing with him. He was also a very, very good singer. But at a certain time, he was working for an amount of money and I was working also for a certain amount of money, but my money was so less that I asked the promoter if he could pay me a little bit more. That was not possible at that particular time, so I left actually. It had also to do with the fact that at that time I was playing with Willem Breuker and Misha and Peter Brotzmann and Evan Parker. So I was still doing time gigs, time playing, and trying to swing as hard as I can, but also the other improvisation stuff that doesn’t have to be time. It can be but it doesn’t have to. So my real interest at that particular time was already on the other side.
TP: I’d like to talk more with you about that evolution. But you also played with Ben Webster, you played with Sonny Rollins…
HB: Sonny Rollins – fantastic! He’s my still living big example. What a guy. Amazing. I talked about Pim Jacobs already. He actually died. But he had a television jazz program, what was called Jazz Scene. Because he had the money and the power to invite people to come from America. Like, Donald Byrd played there, and Wes Montgomery, and Johnny Griffin – but also there was one thing with Sonny. Pim was not playing at all. It was his brother, Ruud Jacobs, who was playing the bass. So it was actually my favorite setup, like Sonny Rollins live at the Village Vanguard with Elvin and Wilbur Ware, or Pete LaRoca. So we did play maybe for a week or so. It was just amazing. Amazing. I recently received a letter from him while he was performing in Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I tried to keep in touch with him, but he was too busy and all that. I was very emotional, like, hearing him… But two days later, there was a big letter from him on my doormat. I am very proud of it. My big wish is to play once with him again, really.
TP: As you said, you were playing time gigs, swinging gigs, and also with the nascent…
HB: But now I am doing exactly the same with the Dave Douglas Quartet. We have let’s call it places in the rough, like with golf, but we have also straight gigs, or time – but that has to swing. There was a time with the so-called “new music” or “free music”… “Free” is such an incredibly weird title. “Free music.” Does it mean that you have to pay for it? Or what is free? Anyway, if a drummer is playing more a pulse than a meter… After a while, I found it to be boring. Because when I like to hear something interesting, you can also put your drumkit in a hailstorm and you can hear all sorts of sounds. But when it comes to tempo, I like to play rhythms as a drummer. I think that’s actually what a drum is made for – to play rhythm and to swing the band, rather than this plink-ploink stuff. I do that, too, but not all the time. I have a short counterpoint for that. Not too long. I also like a meter. And when it is a meter, it should swing – or at least trying to swing, like Kenny or Philly Joe or Roy Haynes.
TP: So Kenny Clarke and Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes are in the back of your mind regardless of what the situation is.
HB: That’s all history. Right? Or Baby Dodds, or Zutty Singleton, or Ray Bauduc. All those people. Fantastic.
TP: When did the notion start to form of playing in different, or playing just with sounds if you wanted to just play with sounds?
HB: When I was just coming from the art school I started to listen to Albert Ayler. I saw the Albert Ayler Quartet in Hilversum with Sunny Murray. I borrowed my drumkit to Sunny Murray. Gary Peacock and Don…
TP: You loaned Sunny Murray your drumkit for that record with Albert Ayler.
HB: Yes. I saw Don there, and sometimes I played with Don with the Peter Brotzmann Trio. But that was like a shock, to see that in 1964. It was amazing.
TP: You were oriented to swing and bebop. How did it strike you when you first heard that music?
HB: Of course, I wanted to do that, too, and I started listening to the New York Art Quartet with Milford Graves and Roswell and John. So I got very much into that, and by the time I recorded with Willem Breuker for our own label, the New Acoustic Swing Duo, I was playing and was interested in playing tablas, mringdam, balafons and gongs. I had a whole van full of that shit. Really! Bells from everywhere. It was like a little museum. I needed so much space on the stage that it was a bit odd for Misha. Misha was sitting all the time in the corner and I was banging around. Now I am reducing myself tremendously. I just like to go like Marcel Duchamp, only use a couple of sticks, or a matchbox with two matches, and still play the shit out of it.
TP: Do you see analogies between Duchamp’s approach and the way you approach music?
HB: Actually, I am an artist and a painter, and I come from the art school. So I am still looking and looking. I don’t have much time to paint or to do art, because my heart and my desire is in playing music and I have to travel so much for that, so by the time I’m home I really have to rest before I start to do another drawing, I like to practice very, very long. There is less time. I have my diary and I make even the new record sleeves, something like that…or CD sleeve – sorry.
[MUSIC: Misha Mengelberg solo, “Ik Hab Een Turqoise…I have a Turquoise Cap”-Buzz Records; Misha-Han duo-1992; ICP Orch, 1997, from Jubilee Varia]
TP: That duo entered more orchestral sections. The ICP Orchestra has been existence in one form or another for over 30 years, as is the label ICP – Instant Composers Pool.
We’ve heard Han Bennink with Dexter Gordon, in duos with Misha Mengelberg and Dave Douglas over the first hour. The next segment will present music by the Clusone Trio, a group which I guess gave you in your late forties or early fifties…gave Americans their first consequential exposure to Han Bennink, who had been highly visible to an international audiences for many decades. Clusone emanates from ICP Orchestra. I’d like to step back to the 1960s, and discuss the gathering-together of like-minded musicians looking for new ways to express themselves, to shape form, to find their own voices within a European context.
HB: Well, you had in Germany Peter Brotzmann. He started his own label, actually a half-year before ICP started. ICP was at that time Willem Breuker, Misha Mengelberg and myself. In England, people like Evan were very busy, and Paul Rutherford, and Derek Bailey of course, and Steve Beresford…
TP: In the 60s, Steve Beresford…
HB: Yeah, yeah…
TP: John Stevens was doing it then.
HB: Yeah, of course. John was playing, and Trevor Watts.
TP: How did you find each other?
HB: It comes by playing on a festival or whatever. You just meet somehow. There’s no special reason for it. For example, I am not the type at all who comes out of his house or say, “Now I go to London to see what’s happening there.” No-no…
TP: You’re a working musician, and in the course of your work you encounter people and make associations.
HB: Yeah, that’s right. Peter Brotzmann had a bit more facilities in Germany – because Germany is simply bigger than Holland is. He invited Evan Parker and Derek and Paul Rutherford, and then it started working.
TP: I think my earliest document of ICP is a record John Tchicai did with you around 1970.
HB: Yes, that’s ICP 004. It’s called Fragment. It was Derek Bailey, John Tchicai, Misha and myself.
TP: I should have brought the LP>
HB: Wow. Well, you brought so many already.
TP: All CDs. But let’s talk about ideas evolved. It seems people from each country developed different ways of organizing sound, and developed distinctive personalities that merge when the individual musicians come together.
HB: Mmm. We always were sort of compared to the other European countries a bit tasteless. We were doing everything… Like, for example, in England in improvised music at that particular time it was absolutely forbidden to go into a blues or a march or whatever. We were absolutely tasteless in that sense. We took everything. That has a lot to do with Willem, of course, as a composer, and of course Misha. They were both writing for bigger groups. We were doing theater pieces, musical theater — still in 1974. Then Willem Breuker went his own direction and Misha stayed like ICP.
TP: How would you describe the difference?
HB: Still I love to play with Willem as an improviser, but I don’t like to play like a fixed program, in a way. It was a bit too static, in a way, probably for me. But nevertheless, I admire Willem tremendously, and all our work, all our CDs are coming via BVHaast, and distribution is done, and we have the same fantastic manager in ICP and Willem Breuker in the sense of Susanna von Canon, who has been doing this wonderful work for us. So it’s nothing like enemies at all.
TP: I was trying to get to the aesthetic direction more.
HB: Willem liked to have a band and travel with a band, and the feeling of those… ICP, for example, our band now is Mary Oliver on viola, Tristan Honsinger on cello, Ernst Glerum on bass, and we have Ab Baars for reeds, Michael Moore for reeds, Wolter Wierbos for trombone, Thomas Heberer on trumpet, Misha and me. All of those people personally can fulfill a one-hour solo program. So in the end, they are all solo players. But somehow, the chemistry in this band is so well. They like to work for each other, and that is amazing. So the setting is already different, compared to Willem. We have, of course, a lot of material, but Misha just makes a program like, say, 5 minutes before the show, and then we’re waiting, looking for the sheets… I can’t read notes, so for me it’s very easy. I have it all in the head. Sometimes it happens that I am the only one who knows about all tunes by Misha — I can sing them. “How was that going?”
TP: Are some of the things ICP plays now thing Misha wrote in the 60s?
HB: For example, in the group with Dave for this week we play many old compositions from Misha. But also Herbie Nichols material, which is of course very nice, and some Monk pieces.
TP: Even Ellington. I think you were playing “Happy Go Lucky Local” to conclude a set at Tonic recently.
HB: Yes, with the ICP Band. But I am very quick moving from the Quartet to ICP.
TP: Sorry. You were talking about Dave Douglas; I was talking about ICP. Talk about what in the broader cultural milieu of Holland in the 60s influenced you towards incorporating theater and absurdism in your presentation. Misha Mengelberg has talked about being influenced by the Fluxus movement.
HB: Yes, absolutely.
TP: John Cage, Nam June Paik – those kind of people.
HB: Misha is, of course, older than I am, and he was doing some Fluxus movements. For me, I was very interested and reading about it, but I was in the art school… I met later on Wolf Vostell via Brotzmann, because Brotzmann was also a Fluxus member, and then we had a very good friend and Fluxus member, Thomas Schmidt, in Berlin. I met Josef Beuys and I played at his opening. So it’s not so much to say. It just happened.
TP: It was part of the milieu in which you existed and functioned.
HB: Absolutely, too, when we played in 1969 in Berlin, we played for the heavy left-wing student movement – Rudi Dutschke and all those cats. Peter was very much into that. I am not interested in politics at all. I can play for all parties, but I don’t like to play for fascists and rednecks. But for the rest I am very flexible.
TP: Was Misha political in the 60s?
HB: You should ask him. Yeah, I think he was, but not so heavy than all the other…
TP: Less so than in England or Germany with many of the musicians. Let’s talk about the affinities by which Clusone Trio was established out of the ICP Orchestra.
HB: The Clusone Trio…actually we had an invitation to play in Clusone. Clusone is in the north of Italia, near Bergamo. At the time we were invited to play, it was a quartet. There was no name for it. The quartet was Michael Moore, Ernst Reijsiger, the cello player, Guus Janssen, and me. Those are all fantastic players. But somehow it was set-up…actually thesame set-up that I work in this week… It was a jazz set-up. But Ernst was dealing with the cello, so there was no bass. But it was a real jazz quartet. I like actually a bit more space. I love to play with Guus Janssen duet. He’s most of the time playing with his own brother. But I love to play with him. He’s a very good composer and a very skilled piano player.
So Guus went out and we carried on as a trio, the Clusone Trio, and it became very, very successful. We traveled to Australia. We were playing in Vietnam. We were playing in China. We were playing in Burkina-Faso. We were playing in Mali, and all over Europe. It was really very nice. I know Ernst since he was 12 years old, and then he came to me already. So I had a relationship with him. Ernst was sort of responsible for getting Michael to Europe, so that was cool. And Michael’s interest in pieces and…
TP: He comes from a background not so dissimilar to yours, with a father who is a music teacher…
HB: Yes, his father is Jerry and he’s a very high-rated teacher in Eureka, California.
TP: So I guess it was a superb chemistry.
TP: And I guess the group disbanded maybe two years ago.
HB: Something like that.
[MUSIC: Clusone 3, Irving Berlin repertoire]
TP: We were speaking of the ICP Orchestra as it developed during the 80s, when it, as one of the clippings I read from Misha Mengelberg put it, it began exploring repertory, and specifically repertory by the composers who were his great influences in the 1950s, Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. Had did this transition happen, from the raucous, more open-ended, theatre-composition from before.
HB: I think Misha actually is more interested to write his own material, but somehow I think he had an invitation for the radio to do a whole Herbie Nichols set-up. Because we always have to a little bit force him in the direction to put up or to come or play this older material. I think it was an invitation from a radio station, and it was the ICP Orchestra plus George Lewis and Steve Lacy.
TP: George Lewis was exploring electronic music and AI in Amsterdam at the time.
HB: Right. He was busy with his improvising robot. But of course, with us he played the trombone, thank goodness.
TP: The track we’ll hear features another trombonist, also appearing in town this week with Archie Shepp, Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille, and Grachan Moncur at the Jazz Standard. It’s Roswell Rudd, from a record titled Regeneration from 1982 on the Soul Note label, with Steve Lacy – both were involved with the music of Herbie Nichols and Monk during their formative years in New York. Also Misha Mengelberg on piano, Kent Carter on bass, and Han Bennink. What do you recollect about the album?
HB: This record was also an idea by our friend Filipo Bianchi, and of course, we knew that Roswell played with Nichols and there are more compositions of Herbie Nichols also, so we brought it together.
TP: On Herbie Nichols’ original recordings, the drummers were Max Roach and Art Blakey – also Dannie Richmond. Did you hear those recordings when they were out?
HB: Of course. I have them all. I particularly like them with Art Blakey. I have two 10″ he actually made for Blue Note, and a bigger one, a normal one with Max. But I prefer the ones with Art Blakey. Maybe it’s with the type of his piano playing… Personal taste.
TP: Herbie Nichols in his writing orchestrated for the drums.
TP: The feeling of the drums, and sometimes the parts were specific. In your interpretations, do you hew to that?
HB: Of course I hew to that. On one album for Blue Note, he wrote these fantastic liner notes. Of course, Misha, who brought me the whole idea of Herbie Nichols… When you play that stuff, I think you have to stay as close to what’s actually meant with the particular music at that time. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense to me.
TP: For you it’s all an aural process? Do you have the sort of memory where you hear something and it imprints itself… Do you hear like that?
HB: Oh, no-no. I can’t tell you nothing what I am doing. I cannot do that, because it’s music and it’s no words. When it was music, if it was language, so I could write a book and you could go from page to page what I am actually doing. But it is not. So I have to do it tonight again, and hopefully tomorrow again, and after tomorrow. But there are no words for that to me. I cannot declare my music.
TP: I wasn’t trying to break down your technique. I was thinking of the way music enters your mind and comes out.
HB: Yeah, but it’s completely abstract how that works. I can tell you nothing about it.
TP: So it’s as organic as language.
HB: Yes, I guess.
TP: I guess you’ve been doing it since you start learning language, so it’s organic as language.
HB: Yes. Well, you dive in the middle of a swimming pool and you try to reach the sides, and there’s nothing more to tell. I throw myself into a musical situation, and I have to…
TP: If you’ll use the analogy of being thrown in the swimming pool, then hopefully you’ve learned how to swim.
TP: You’re not diving in without a thorough background.
[MUSIC: Rudd-Lacy-Mengelberg-Carter-Bennink, “Blue Chopsticks”; ICP Orchestra, “Spinning Song”]
HB: Dutch Masters was made in an awful little studio in Milano, really, with a terrible drumkit, and I had to sit in a drum booth that was horrible. Horrible circumstances.
TP: Sometimes beautiful pearls emerge from the ugliest surroundings.
HB: Oh, yes. For example, listen to Bird at St. Nick’s. It’s one of my favorite albums, and the circumstances there must have been horrible – so much noise.
[MUSIC: Rudd-Lacy-Bennink, “Hornin’ In”; ICP Orchestra, “Bospaadje Konijnehol”; “Mooche Mix”]
HB: Many people are not playing in our band any more. Our band has been changing all the time. I think now we have the best band there ever was.
TP: Why is that?
HB: It’s so well balanced. I’ve been learning a lot, so… I have a name that I can play sort of loud. But in the ICP Orchestra I have to behave, because now I cannot play louder than, for example, Mary Oliver who is playing violin, and in pieces where the sections are playing things, has to be heard. So I am reduced to lots of brushes work. That makes you a good brushes player.
TP: You said “reduced.”
HB: Yeah, sure. My English is sometimes a bit short.
TP: Now the ICP Orchestra has been performing the repertoire it has for 20 years; it’s an established fact, and a few generations of musicians have come up hearing it, some of whom are playing in the band. How does that affect their approach to the music once they’re in the band?
HB: It’s not easy to play in that band. Well, it’s Misha’s band. Misha is writing for it. But I am also responsible to bring in new people. Because I play with a big variety of people, so I actually brought everybody in except Thomas Heberer, the German trumpet player – he came via Misha. But for the rest, I brought in all. There’s nothing more to say about it; it just functions fantastic. We all love to play in that band. We do a lot music-wise. It’s not an ego thing at all. We just go for it in a positive sense.
TP: I’ll raise a question that we were discussing when the music was on? Does ICP play much in Holland?
HB: We never play in Holland. We play, say, 5 or 6 times a year in Holland. We’d love to play more. But it’s expensive to have 9 people on the road, and then the possibilities in Holland… Everybody from abroad thinks, “Wow, Holland is a mecca of improvised music.” It probably is, but the possibilities for us to play are very small. Also, we live in a very small country. In that country’s network, say like 15 clubs where you can perform, and maybe we can perform in 7 of those clubs. When you do that round once or twice a year, you’re done. You have to go to Germany or france or England or America. But then you must have a name that people like to have you as well.
TP: And you have to establish a tonal personality that people recognize and want to hear.
TP: Which Han Bennink has been doing all his life.
HB: I do my best.
TP: you travel around the world, more than ever.
HB: More than ever.
TP: You know musicians everywhere, and you cover every area of music. A lot of older musicians now, from different ends of the spectrum, James Moody to Andrew Hill, say that the quality of musicianship among young players now is the highest it’s ever been. They’ve never seen it quite like this in terms of what they can do and their openness to many times of music. What’s your sense of that.
HB: If you think in the sense of instrumentalists, a skilled player, there are many, many skilled players, and not only in our music but also in classical music. When I was performing in the Lincoln Center, I was passing by Juilliard School of Music, and I was surprised at how many people from Asia were carrying a violin and coming out of that school. So I think there’s a hell of a lot of competition in certain musics, and probably also in ours. I train myself a lot, more than ever. But I think exactly what Kenny Clarke said to me. “Well, you must have enough technique to explore yourself so you can make yourself…” Like, having lots of technique like a Buddy Rich, or other technique like, I don’t know, Roy Haynes or someone like that – those people have their personal touch and personal tuning for drums, and personal sounds. So it comes to a person rather than to an overall technique. But they are very skilled. Nowadays people can play… And standing on their head, for example. Well, I’ve seen it once. Don Byas standing on his head, playing saxophone, “Body and Soul”, upside-down, also backwards.
TP: He played the tune backwards and was standing on his head.
HB: Yes, and standing on his head. In a bathroom of the Hilton Hotel. It was a party. The Dizzy Gillespie band was there, and Don came from Amsterdam (because he was based in Amsterdam) to see that. He did all those sort of tricks. He was an amazing player.
TP: There’s a certain component to what you do that’s lost on a CD. You have a visual aspect. You’ll play the telephone…
HB: That might be true, but you don’t miss it in the music.
TP: I sometimes have to close my eyes when I see you play, so that I can focus on the musicality of what’s going on. The visual stuff can be distracting.
HB: Yes, but it is still based on the music and the musical possibilities – what’s going on at that particular moment in the band. When there’s nothing happening, there is for me no reason to leave the drum chair and play in the hall, because it means nothing. But when there’s a musical tension between Misha and me on stage, then I can leave him alone and I can leave him PERFECTLY alone, because he can take care of himself probably better than I do in music live. So then it is a reason for me to do something else. But when the music is not happening, I can’t do it. It’s sort of static. For example, when I have to play in a club like where we play tonight, that is more like a jazz club set-up – when you’re behind the drums, you are behind the drums. You can hardly move because of the little space. I like actually for myself halls not too big, but a space on stage where you can move a bit. Because for me, playing on the floor, on a wooden floor, or not even on a wood floor, is exactly the same for me as playing on a drumkit. Some drummers stay…or they want a 50″ bass drum rather than that high. I don’t have belongings in that at all. I am just pleased with two sticks, and that’s it. I like to make the best and the weirdest music out of that. That is my goal.
TP: Doesn’t matter what the drumkit is.
HB: Doesn’t matter. I’ve been playing on pizza boxes, carton boxes, pieces of wood, drumkits falling apart, broken drumheads, broken drumsticks – all sorts of stuff.
TP: You do that in your sculpture as well, no?
TP: A lot of it is with found objects.
HB: Yes, objets trouvees.
TP: We have two more duos before you leave. This is the most recent of many duo collaborations you’ve done with Derek Bailey over the years. I guess it goes back to about 1968 or so. On Incus?
HB: No. I did the first thing with Derek on ICP. It’s ICP 004. I think it must be 1969.
TP: Again, Derek Bailey’s vocabulary is now an established fact of the music, over 30 years. Back then…I don’t know, perhaps it wasn’t totally new; there’s nothing totally new. But in some sense it was, because of its electronic nature. Again, how does that familiarity with your partner’s vocabulary change the nature of the interaction? And this is not a live encounter. Here, you’d tape something, send it to the other…
TP: …tape a response, send it back, a response gets taped, and so forth and so on.
TP: Just to use the word “free’ in the commonly accepted sense of free improvising, these people are all shaping utterly personal vocabularies that no one else is using. How does that familiarity then shape the responses?
HB: I don’t like it for myself when it’s static or fixed. And I know exactly what you mean. I was playing in Tonic not long ago, and Derek was staying there for a whole month, and I saw a concert he did with Blood Ulmer. I have to say, when you hear the guitar sound you recognize Derek immediately. I think that’s an incredible pro. You recognize Miles. You recognize Thelonious Monk. All great players. Also Derek. But in a way, it’s already done… “Oh, that’s Derek then.” But I’ve been recording now with a Punk guitar player from the Ex, Terrie Ex. His real name is Terrie Hessels. He is not into certain technique or overtones or this thing at all. He just starts moving. He’s more like an action painting, in a way. The sounds that’s coming from this sounded to me different from Derek in a way… Well, you can’t say from Derek that it’s not fresh, because he plays always fresh. But you know that sound now. So for me, it was fresh to hear the other approach from Terrie coming to it. Because when you play with Derek, you never know what he is playing, but you know that particular sound. But the other… That’s different with Terrie. So in a sense, when you play longer and longer, you have to run, otherwise the time is eating you. You know? And there’s not much time. The grave is yawning, as we say in Holland. So you have to keep running. That’s why I’d like to leave the studio and walk it off.
[MUSIC: Bennink-Bailey- “Duo#3”–Fragile (Incus 34); Bennink-Eskelin, “Let’s Cool One” from Dissonant Characters]