Hochschule Luzern - Musik, Abteilung Jazz

Music Talks XVII
Gerry Hemingway Meets WOLTER WIERBOS: Tales from the Maestro of the Pousanne

December 16, 2010

“Communicating with my fellow musicians, that's the whole idea.”

He improvises free-associative solo concerts that suggest still more avenues to investigate. Even in composed music, he may improvise-might make up a better trombone line than the one written for him. No wonder he's a 30-year linchpin of Misha Mengelberg's ICP Orchestra, where the players are always re-arranging the tunes. But he'll always nail a part if the harmonies depend on it. He's had long tenures in the co-op Available Jelly, and the bands and orchestras of Gerry Hemingway, Maarten Altena, Guus Janssen, and Sean Bergin. The groups he puts together for concert presentations at dOeK festivals (or his Amsterdam houseboat concerts) may improvise from scratch, or he may invite himself into another composer/performer's concept: the rhythmically fiendish guitarist Franky Douglas, or the Moluccan-Dutch singer Monica Akihary.

Listen to a pod cast of the interview here

Walter Wierbos

Music Talks
Mit der Gesprächsserie “Music Talks” lädt die Jazzabteilung der Hochschule Luzern ein zu facettenreichen Begegnungen mit profilierten Persönlichkeiten des Gegenwartsjazz. Die Gespräche drehen sich nicht nur um den Werdegang und das künstlerische Schaffen dieser Persönlichkeiten: Anhand von Tonbeispielen sollen auch persönliche musikalische Vorlieben diskutiert werden. Die Frage nach den Zukunftsperspektiven des Jazz soll ebenfalls aufs Tapet gebracht werden.

Die Gespräche werden geführt von Gerry Hemingway, Dozent für Schlagzeug, Ensemble und Kompostion

Gerry Hemingway

In Zusammenarbeit mit einem der letzten Jazz-Plattenläden der Schweiz:

Musik-Forum Luzern

I met Wolter Wierbos in the mid 80's when I first heard him in an improvised duo with the Dutch cellist, Ernst Reijseger. Ernst was my initial connection to the music scene in the Netherlands which is a robust community of highly personal improvisers and composers, that include a number of notable expatriates from the US and South Africa. Wolter and I struck up a musical relationship in 1989 when I invited him to join my quintet and we have continued to play together in that and many other projects over the past twenty-two years.

I was excited to have an opportunity to speak with Wolter about his musical path and in particular share his personal experience with many of the icons of the Dutch music scene, principally his very long relationship with Misha Mengleberg's ICP Orchestra, certainly one of the more important musical aggregations of the past forty years.

Around 1978 Wolter was based in Groningen, Holland studying “Human Geography” at school and playing trombone at dance classes and performances. His beginnings in the rural area where he grew up included brass bands and as nothing else registered to him as a profession in his early twenties and music was “already there” in his life he aimed his focus in that direction despite understanding that this would not be an easy endeavor. He had connected to a professional dance company via a workshop he had taken while studying at school in Groningen. He liked that in this context of music making he could explore his instrument and also the possibilities of musically relating to other musicians. This early context of working with a dance company included both improvised and scored material, which would prove to be a significant parallel discipline for him as he evolved.

Wolter also explored improvising in a kind of pop setting as a teenager in a band where he not only improvised melodies but also served as the vocalist for the band. This happened in the town of Deventer where he also was exposed to jazz music both at local clubs and also via his access to German TV (principally the WDR) which was only accessible in Eastern Holland. This is significant as there was not yet any pedagogy for jazz music available to him, only these opportunities to witness the music, such as Roland Kirk, Albert Manglesdorf and to draw inspiration for the possibilities of music. It was also in Deventer that he first heard Ernst Reijseger who was one of several musicians associated with pianist Burton Greene who often performed in Deventer.

His transition into the music scene in Amsterdam was via the expatriate tuba player Larry Fishkind who recommended Wolter to Misha Mengleberg who then called Wolter at his dormitory at school to ask if he would like to play with the Instant Composer's Pool (ICP). Wolter was of course delighted and excited as Misha was a big deal in the Dutch music world and he had heard both Misha and ICP's co-founder, the equally famous drummer Han Bennink perform numerous times.

This entrance into the scene in Amsterdam became a kind of hub for many future relationships for Wolter as ICP functioned as a kind of collective at that point with many musicians coming and going to form their own projects and would only later in the 90's become a stable personnel that would remain consistent. Through ICP Wolter met numerous musicians including bassist and composer Maarten Altena, whose direction evolved away from improvisation and more towards chamber music.

This brought up my bringing attention to Wolter's unique interpretive gift's which were integral to the music of many of the composer's with whom he has had an extended collaborations. This has had its upside in an Ellingtonian way with Wolter uniquely shaping the music he has been a part of creating. It is not uncommon that Wolter will change the music that is written from performance to performance when he hears something in the moment he feels might improve the music as a whole. In his words “I see myself as a sort of sculptor or painter putting sound, rhythm and form into the music. This mostly happens very intuitively and on the spot. My range goes from totally improvised music to material that's mostly written out. The music I like to play most has a lot of my own invention in it-and improvised forms, the principle of instant composing. When music is 100% written out, I lose interest.”

The downside of his gifts he noted would occur as some composer's would focus on Wolter's extreme range which would require him to play with extreme tension (to get high notes) without the proper balance of relaxation and tension that allows improvisers to move in such extreme ways. He observed that the specialists who had made their career out of offering such services charged a higher fee as he bluntly put it, to pay the doctor's fee for the physical stress on their health.

I was also curious how Wolter developed such an authentic relationship to some of jazz's leading brass virtuosi. There are not many players of our time who can emulate the sonic specializations of “Tricky” Sam Nanton or the tonal elegance of Laurence Brown in their own unique way, and Wolter is without question very capable in this regard. He explained that those players reached him for many reasons one being that to his ears, they told a story in the way they played. After playing an excerpt of “Tricky” Sam Nanton with Ellington, one which displays Nanton's sound invention using a combination of mutes to result in a vocal quality, he explained the technique and went on to remark “I never tried to copy his sound ... why imitate, I prefer my own way to create these sounds”.

Certainly one of the centerpieces to Wolter's musical life has been his 30+ year relationship to Misha Mengleberg and the Instant Composer's Pool or simply ICP as it is known. As much as these performing experiences were intergral to shaping Wolter's musical path, Wolter's presence and long standing continuum in this group has also had a profound impact on the musical content of this group. Wolter spoke about some of the unique ways in which musical content is shaped by the musicians, often in real time, as the music unfolds. Misha Mengleberg, earlier in his musical life, was involved in Dadaism, so some of the notions of spontaneous, often disruptive strategy are part of what he encouraged amongst the musicians. For instance, if at any time any musician wants to stop the music, they give what they call a “pillar” - an end event, a vertical hand signaling everyone to play a long note, a fast descending shape and a short accent, and whatever was going on is over. Wolter referred to employing this kind of musical interaction as akin to being a musical terrorist. “ICP is a very interesting example of how you can combine fixed material like notes, or a jazzisstic scheme of music, with terroristic, movements, viruses or other strategies.” These strategies he goes on to explain evolved over time, partly from Misha embracing ideas or conflicts (musical and personal) that happened in the band. All of these motions were fodder for Misha's creative exploration and musical direction and give ICP an indelible part of its character.

Perhaps this helps to explain why Wolter has an extremely natural and honest character as a person which comes through clearly in his character as a musician. Below are some resources to explore further both Wolter's musical contributions and also some of his important musical associations.

Wolter Wierbos Website

Instant Composer's Pool Website:

Blog about the concerts Wolter presents on his houseboat in Amsterdam

Doek: A musician-run organization that Wolter helped to create

Gerry Hemingway (September 2011)

Listen to a pod cast of the interview here

Phone: ++41-41-412 20 56 / Fax: ++41-41-412 20 57 / E-Mail: jazz@hslu.ch