Roscoe Mitchell: Bells for the South Side (ECM 2494/95)

2494|95 X

Roscoe Mitchell
Bells for the South Side

Roscoe Mitchell sopranino, soprano, alto and bass saxophones, flute, piccolo, bass recorder, percussion
James Fei sopranino and alto saxophones, contra-alto clarinet, electronics
Hugh Ragin trumpet, piccolo trumpet
Tyshawn Sorey trombone, piano, drums, percussion
Craig Taborn piano, organ, electronics
Jaribu Shahid double bass, bass guitar, percussion
William Winant percussion, tubular bells, glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba, roto toms, cymbals, bass drum, woodblocks, timpani
Kikanju Baku drums, percussion
Tani Tabbal drums, percussion
Recorded September 2015 at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago by David Zuchowski
Mixed May 2016 at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines by Gérard de Haro with Steve Lake
Mastered by Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Steve Lake
Release date: June 16, 2017

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Roscoe Mitchell presented a cornucopia of trios at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in conjunction with the exhibition The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now. Said exhibition included percussion set-ups favored by Art Ensemble of Chicago legends Don Moye, Malachi Favors, Lester Bowie, Don Moye, and the reed-favoring multi-instrumentalist himself, all incorporated into the present double-disc recording.

Mitchell is the alpha and omega of this project, spearheading a series of designated trios to explore different organs of his immense compositional body. With Hugh Ragin (trumpet) and Tyshawn Sorey (here on trombone), he offers “Prelude to a Rose,” a somewhat funereal dirge that pops a cathartic blister about midway through.

With Jaribu Shahid (double bass) and Tani Tabbal (drums), Mitchell presents an unabashedly soulful sermon in “Prelude to the Card Game, Cards for Drums, and the Final Hand.” By force of his muscular alto, he punches holes in the time cards printed and cut by Shahid’s thick bowing before Tabbal turns the very concept of time inside out in an extended soliloquy, leaving a brief trio to throw some light at the end of the tunnel. Mitchell continues down that same introspective avenue in “Six Gongs and Two Woodblocks.” For this he’s joined by James Fei (reeds, electronics) and William Winant (percussion) for what may just be the album’s most brilliant turn of events. Its balance of outer and inner is at the very core of what Mitchell does best as a composer.

Even with pen laid aside, as in “Dancing in the Canyon,” a group improvisation with Craig Taborn (piano, organ, electronics) and Kikanju Baku (drums, percussion), he’s still the catalyst for an otherwise impossible chemical reaction. His sopranino dances as if it’s on fire and the only way to keep itself from turning to ashes is to sing until its throat runs dry. The sheer musicality of this unscripted dive inward is lucid to the extreme.

The album’s remainder is as shuffled as its musicians, for throughout it Mitchell recasts his trio actors in new roles and configurations. From the picturesque latticework of “Spatial Aspects of the Sound” to the nearly 26-minute blend of ambience and explosions that is “Red Moon in the Sky,” the latter segueing into the AEC’s calling card, “Odwalla,” played by the entire nonet, sound is substance. Connective tissue along the way spans a world of apparent influences, from Pierre Boulez and Iannis Xenakis to Anthony Braxton and Edgard Varèse. Taborn (electronics) and Shahid (bass guitar) unearth haunting ore in “EP 7849,” while in the title track Ragin slings precise arrows of piccolo trumpet over the “percussion cage” Mitchell created for the AEC and which is resurrected here to wonderous effect by Sorey. But even at its most explosive, as in the drums- and piano-heavy “The Last Chord,” there’s more Genesis than Revelation at play. Let there be music.

Roscoe Mitchell: Nine To Get Ready (ECM 1651)

Nine To Get Ready

Roscoe Mitchell
Nine To Get Ready

Roscoe Mitchell saxophones, flute, vocal
Hugh Ragin trumpet
George Lewis trombone
Matthew Shipp piano
Craig Taborn pianos
Jaribu Shahid basses, vocal
William Parker double-bass
Tanni Tabbal drums, percussion, vocal
Gerald Cleaver drums
Recorded May 1997 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Nine To Get Ready realizes a leap of intuition for saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and his Note Factory ensemble. The influential Art Ensemble of Chicago veteran observes structure in even the freest settings and activates that structure with convulsive possibility. Taking his previous collaborations with Evan Parker as litmus, we find in Mitchell’s approach to composition a like-spirited feeling of bridled spontaneity. Yet if those two unforgettable sessions represented the breaking of new ground, this one enacts a finer sifting of its upturn.

The mysterious “Leola” opens in goopy meditation and perhaps shifts expectations to another plane entirely. From a slow draw it liquefies the pips on playing cards and scrambles them until a royal flush of reflective art takes form. From this Mitchell deals as potent a hand as one could imagine, introducing us to the post-AEC developments he has so meticulously sustained. Here is a scene where sunlight peaks out from overcast Byzantine sky with all the weight of a dictionary compressed into a single utterance. Like the mouth rounded in preparation, its textures work in a symphony of muscle and air. As the atmosphere builds up the depth of its green, trills add fresh movement to an implied and fragrant biosphere. Here is the power of imagination, kneaded until the grammar of brass is personified even as it is depoliticized.

If the Parker comparison feels arbitrary, then through “Dream And Response” it finds purchase in Mitchell’s remarkable sopranism, which lends mysticism also to the silver chain of “Hop Hip Bip Bir Rip.” At once sibilant and razor-edged, it carves as it sings. The beauty of the former piece—and by extension of Mitchell’s sound-world on the whole—is that dream and response are one and the same. Like a nighttime vision it implies a vast and impenetrable backdrop, a sphere of myriad voices. The late Lester Bowie gets prime dedication in “For Lester B.” This gorgeous, slow swing through galactic travels is all the more poignant for trumpeter Hugh Ragin’s soulful approach. Couched in a loving cluster, he casts a bronze of stark quality. A shaded bass solo reaches a hand heavenward and pulls down a projection screen, across which flits a gallery of memories.

To offset the bitter sweetness of it all, Mitchell reveals a clear and golden tone in “Jamaican Farewell.” In the presence of his buttery textures and delectable intonation, the entrance of piano resounds with oceanic current and stuffs plenty of beauty into the naysayer’s pipe. The title track is another soprano feat, circular and intense. Here is also where the doubled backing trio reveals its many-chambered heart. Drummers Tanni Tabbal and Gerald Cleaver, bassists Jaribu Shahid, and pianists Matthew Shipp and Craig Taborn match the speed and tone of every phoneme in a Jacob’s Ladder of overzealous diphthongs. They are both the underlying soil and the fresh pavement atop it. Highlights abound further in “Bessie Harris.” This more straightforward morsel whirls until it spends itself in pure goodness. Phenomenal playing from Mitchell moves the spirit in Ragin’s thin-lipped solo, and bids both drummers to speak. After the insightful experiment in reanimation that is “Fallen Heroes” (featuring Mitchell on flute), the ensemble ends with two shorter tracks, “Move Toward The Light” and “Big Red Peaches,” the latter spinning a Tom Waits-like coda.

We can speak of this music all we like, but by the end it has spoken of us.

Roscoe Mitchell/The Note Factory: Far Side (ECM 2087)

Far Side

Roscoe Mitchell
The Note Factory
Far Side

Roscoe Mitchell saxophones, flutes
Corey Wilkes trumpet, flugelhorn
Craig Taborn piano
Vijay Iyer piano
Harrison Bankhead cello, double-bass
Jaribu Shahid double-bass
Tanni Tabbal drums
Vincent Davis drums
Recorded March 17, 2007 at Stadtsaal, Burghausen
Engineer: Gerhard Gruber (BR)
Radio producer: Roland Spiegel (BR)
Mixed at Artesuono Studio, Udine by Steve Lake and Stefano Amerio
Album produced by Steve Lake

Recorded live at the 2007 Burghausen Jazz Festival in Germany, Far Side documents Roscoe Mitchell’s expanding world of realizations. Working within his characteristically broad strokes is the Note Factory ensemble, something of a dream group for the saxophonist-composer and which includes the contributions of trumpeter Corey Wilkes, pianists Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer, bassists Harrison Bankhead and Jaribu Shahid, and drummers Tanni Tabbal and Vincent Davis. The result of this coming together is a breaking apart: of expectation, of rigidity, of power. Bringing this approach to the saxophone renders Mitchell’s instrument at once ruler and ruled. We hear this especially in the three-dimensional title piece, for what begins as a lisp on the tongue of convention is methodically developed into full-blown, articulate language. Iyer’s keys rise in a droning arc, like a flipped page or vaulted pole in pathos, a breath at peace with its regularity. A muted Wilkes touches his blade to its mirror image and makes music of its shattered reflection. A kiss of cymbal and ivory unlocks the fringe nature of what swings within and activates a light source hitherto unseen. These torches shuffle themselves into the pack of cards at its center. As hands fan them, the pips dance, and Mitchell waits for the perfect moment of catharsis to wave the magic wand of his soprano and reveal our freely chosen selection. His effectual, sinewy line is a (literally) breathtaking display not only of technical dexterity but also of emotional integrity, matched sentiment for sentiment by a gurgling ascent from flugelhorn. Though translucent, the textures are dense and biologically attuned.

The two atonal pieces that follow take their inspiration from contemporary classical forms. In them one feels the thread reinforced by others less audible. Where the rubato, tenor-led contortions of Quintet 2007 A For Eight ply open spaces in which each instrument is deployed as its own cluster concept, the Trio Four For Eight leans toward the playful yet maintains graciousness. To this fire Wilkes adds fuel, trailing flute and drums that would be otherwise alone in the cognizance of their becoming. They would be heard as they are played, felt through the intermediary mallet and falling into the slumber of a brief coda in tutti.

Ex Flover Five is the most focused piece, for it allows the breadth of spontaneity to rear its magic within the predetermined frame. Taborn is especially terrific here, while Mitchell regales us with such intensity, it’s as if he’s placed a hand on a cold window and furiously scribbled in an attempt to remember its shape before it fades.

Mitchell

Those hoping for the kinetic synergies of Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 may initially feel disappointed in the Quintet and Trio, but upon closer inspection they allow naked insight into what lies at the core of Mitchell’s art. Either way, the composed sections will be, I think, refreshingly obvious to most listeners. And while the middle section may not be as “exciting” as the outers, it lends the album a concerto-like structure, with a contemplative center. Mitchell’s sound is not that of a proximate whisper but of a distant cry, one that reaches us before it withers. This is music for its own sake, present and accounted for. The congruousness of incongruity is alive and well.

(To hear samples of Far Side, click here.)

*For those following along: Iyer, Shahid, and Tabbal are leftmost in the stereo mix, while Taborn, Bankhead, and Davis are rightmost.

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.