Crossing Reeds: Roscoe Mitchell and Evan Parker on ECM

–Locution–

Jazz multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell has been called many things: technical genius, avant-garde pioneer, iconoclast. Although I may expound upon any of these assertions by way of proof, there seems to be a futility to the reviewer’s task when in the presence of his sound. Mitchell grew up on sound. His musical household was brimming with it, leading him to take up saxophone and clarinet as a young teen. While stationed in Germany in the 1950s, he met the great Albert Ayler and others, from whom he learned to develop his palette without fear. After returning to the States, he fell in with two Lesters (trumpeter Bowie and trombonist Lashley), bassist Malachi Favors, saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, and drummer Alvin Fielder—a group first known as the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet and out of which grew the legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago. By no mere coincidence was their first path-breaking album entitled Sound (Delmark, 1966). It was, and remains, the alpha and omega of what he does. 

Across the pond in England, one might tell a similar story about Evan Parker. The free jazz stalwart also picked up the saxophone in his early teens and sought inspiration in Ayler, Paul Desmond, and John Coltrane. If Mitchell is about sound, Parker is about breath. Since the 1960s, he has shared his characteristic love of extended techniques, of which his mastery of circular breathing has become something of a doctrine. His first defining efforts came with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, with whom he cut his first record and which included drummer John Stevens, guitarist Derek Bailey, bassist Dave Holland, and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. Parker and Bailey went on to form the Music Improvisation Company, the free wonders of which were documented on ECM’s fifth ever album of the same name. Subsequent decades have brought fresh collaborations across the board and the formation of his most influential, the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. Formed in 1990, it remains the benchmark of his collaborative achievements.

In 2003, Munich’s Kulturreferat (one of twelve municipal departments responsible for the promotion of art and culture) invited Mitchell and Parker to participate in a symposium on the role of improvisation in the compositional process. Thus the Transatlantic Art Ensemble was born, pushing the boundary—fuzzy as it is—between predetermined and spontaneous music-making. Together, these master thespians of the reed present a double bill of “scored improvisations” that combine the cross-idiomatic interests of the one with the stimulatingly open approach to group performance of the other.

–Illocution–

In addition to his activities as a jazz artist, Mitchell has been a longtime classical composer (he would just as soon call it “music,” plain and simple). This work has led him to his current post at California’s Mills College, where he holds status as Distinguished Darius Milhaud Professor of Music, and comes across vividly in Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3. Through nine “scenes” Mitchell instructs the musicians to improvise from: (a) prewritten cards (Nos. VIII and IV), (b) using only a certain set of notes (I, II, V, VI, VII, IX), and (c) through real-time manipulation of previously composed elements (III). If this sounds like a puzzle, it’s only because said elements fit together so complementarily. Along the way, Art Ensemble of Chicago members Corey Wilkes (trumpet, flugelhorn), Jaribu Shahid (bass), and Mitchell sideman Tanni Tabbal (drums, percussion) share the stage with pianist Craig Taborn, whose stylings have since caught the ECM wave in well-deserved projects both solo (Avenging Angel) and alongside bassist Michael Formanek (The Rub And Spare Change), not to mention Mitchell’s own Note Factory project (Far Side, Nine To Get Ready). Parker cohorts Philipp Wachsmann (violin), Paul Lytton (drums, percussion), and Barry Guy (bass) add spark to an already iridescent fire, along with a handful of classically trained talents.

Roscoe Mitchell
Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 (ECM 1872)

Roscoe Mitchell soprano saxophone
Evan Parker tenor and soprano saxophones
Anders Svanoe alto and baritone saxophones
Corey Wilkes trumpet, flugelhorn
John Rangecroft clarinet
Neil Metcalfe flute
Nils Bultmann viola
Philipp Wachsmann violin
Marcio Mattos cello
Craig Taborn piano
Jaribu Shahid double-bass
Barry Guy double-bass
Tanni Tabbal drums, percussion
Paul Lytton drums, percussion
Recorded September 2004, Muffathalle, Munich
Engineers: Manfred Eicher and Stefano Amerio
Produced by Steve Lake

Stepping into the suite at hand, we recognize the variety of architectural turns, tempered by an idiosyncratic feel for harmony and appreciation for pause. The haunting viola of Nils Bultmann articulates the first of many monologues, which with increasing clarity map the genomes of the ensuing developments (Bultmann returns for the end, hub to a forlorn and longitudinal ode to losing oneself). When the helix breaks and the family grows, the conversation suspends its provocations from the beam of judgment, only to cut their strings and notate their descent into sanity. Percussion solos speak in riddles of color. Winds scour away the film of predestination and refill the basin with trust before carrying over into gorgeous turns from Parker on tenor, building with the group to a level of virtuosity so intense it can only be described as oneness incarnate. The pastoral clarinet of John Rangecroft leads us into a den of foxes, where the fear becomes flesh, and flesh an opportunity for reflection. Neil Metcalfe on flute reveals a subtly adorned canvas, while Wilkes flashes his notes like sunlight off a turning crystal. Anders Savanoe completes the picture with his spastic yet saintly contortions on baritone. Because everyone reacts, possibilities narrate themselves with humble authority, somehow jarring in its regularity toward the end. There is so much commitment to the moment that we can only follow along like shadows, filling the spaces left behind.

–Perlocution–

The second half of the Mitchell/Parker collaboration finds the Englishman laying compositional concepts before the same personnel while also leaving spaces for improvisation to flourish. The title is at once curious and instructive. Meaning “like an ox plowing,” it gives insight into six “Furrows,” each of which cultivates its own crop of fertile solos.

Evan Parker
Transatlantic Art Ensemble
Boustrophedon (ECM 1873)

Evan Parker soprano saxophone
Roscoe Mitchell alto and soprano saxophones
Anders Svanoe alto saxophone
John Rangecroft clarinet
Neil Metcalfe flute
Corey Wilkes trumpet, flugelhorn
Nils Bultmann viola
Philipp Wachsmann violin
Marcio Mattos cello
Craig Taborn piano
Jaribu Shahid double-bass
Barry Guy double-bass
Tanni Tabbal drums, percussion
Paul Lytton drums, percussion
Recorded September 2004, Muffathalle, Munich
Engineer: Manfred Eicher and Stefano Amerio
Produced by Steve Lake

A spiral staircase of percussion from Lytton and Tabbal in the “Overture” pairs one musician with his transatlantic counterpart in the watery expanse of the Furrows, each a different curl of octopus ink in the brine. The instruments take on their roles with surety and purpose. In this context said roles are not theatrical, but are (psychologically, at least) offstage. Rangecroft’s flute in “Furrow 1” is the knowing bird, conversational partner of Taborn’s keys. The latter elides the slide of its introspection and lays it to dry in the sun until it cracks underfoot—just one of countless leaves on the forest floor leading toward a sunlit grove. Violin and viola in “Furrow 2” are two travelers carrying histories in their satchels. The cello of Marcio Mattos in “Furrow 3” is the subterranean yearning to these aboveground wanderings (their protracted journey is a highlight of this live performance). Svanoe’s entrance on alto here is an awakening and reveals a voice of descriptive genius. The clarinet of “Furrow 4” becomes a base to the strings’ acid, the trumpet a distant commotion. The two basses in “Furrow 5” become a shadow of the past, which casts its lessons upon the yet to be and configures music-making decisions as would a breeze goad a butterfly’s path. Parker maintains notable restraint until the open sky of “Furrow 6.” He spreads the clouds like wings and gives his flight room to sing. But the compression of his playing is such that we feel more than an album’s distance in its shape. It is the sonic white dwarf, a single note of which weighs many scores yet which floats like a feather plucked from the cap of the Milky Way. His elliptical solo bleeds into a steamy rhythm section, bringing a flavor of the club to the dialogue at large. Hints of big-band ebullience shine through the tatters but are drowned by the density of the center. As the group fades, we hear that this density has resided all along in the drums. An intimate gallery of solos ensues in the oddly beautiful “Finale” (in order: Shahid, Metcalfe, Svanoe, Wachsmann, Taborn, Mattos, Bultmann, Rangecroft, Wilkes, Guy, Mitchell), tying a series of knots until they form a single ball of string.

The sense of flow imparted by the compositional elements in both albums is breathtaking, building textures organically and never indulging in extremes for too long. Rather, the continuity lies somewhere in the shadows, balancing on the fulcrum of surrender between static and whisper. In the end, such teetering of intuition becomes a way of life, a mantra for those whose ears flower with curiosity.

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