Roscoe Mitchell
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One of the original members of Muhal Richard Abrams' Experimental Band, Chicago's saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell (1940) released the very first album of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Before There Was Sound (1965) documents an early recording, dating from the very first meeting of the AACM.

Sound (august 1966), mainly taken up by the 21-minute Sound, truly set the standard for the rest of Chicago's creative music. The sextet (with trumpeter Lester Bowie, tenor saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, trombonist/cellist Lester Lashley, bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut, drummer Alvin Fiedler) challenged the dogmas of jazz improvisation and composition, venturing into dissonance and unusual timbres (even toy instruments). The instruments just did not sound like themselves: they were mere vehicles to produce abstract sounds. These sounds derived from the extended (and mostly dissonant) ranges of the instruments were made to interact and overlap. Sound explored the timbres of percussion instruments, and the ten-minute Little Suite focused on the subtleties of "little instruments". But the real breakthrough was the very notion of how to play: this was highly intellectual music, meant to be used by a brain, not by a heart, unlike New York's free jazz that was meant to be emphatic and frantic. These musicians were European scientists, not African shamans. They were scientists of the subtle. Thus the effect was that they were more interested in "silence" and in microtones than in "music". Silence was indeed the "space" in which music happened: silence was a key ingredient in the musical event.

Old/ Quartet (may 1967), mainly taken up by the 38-minute Quartet (november) and released only in 1975, showed further progress/regress towards a music of minimal and primitive gestures. The live shows, that included pantomimes and clownish acts, besides the arsenal of "odd" instruments, increased the feeling that Mitchell's music was a form of theater. Free-jazz musicians, no matter how radical their experiments, had performed using bebop instrumentation and behaving like bebop performers, but the Art Ensemble showed no respect for these conventions. In 1967 the renamed Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble was paired down to a quartet with Bowie, Favors and a drummer. Early Combinations contains the 21-minute A To Ericka (september 1967) and the 23-minute Quintet (november 1967). And perhaps the real manifesto of Mitchell's revolution was Congliptious (march 1968), an album that first redefined the jazz solo with three solos for bass (Tutankhamen), alto saxophone (Tkhke) and trumpet (Jazz Death?), and then resumed the project of redefining harmony with the 19-minute Congliptious/Old.

As the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEOC), without a drummer and with the addition of saxophonist Joseph Jarman, took on an identity of its own, Mitchell's austere, highbrow experiment was somewhat modified to interpret a more humane, populist and even playful concept of music. Instead of a futuristic revolution, the AEOC embodied a synthesis of classical jazz, African music, American folk music and European classical music. It also embodied a strong sense of humour (unheard of in jazz since the heydays of New Orleans) and a political message. It even emphasized a circus-like theatrical element that harked back to the plantations and to Africa itself. This group was extremely prolific during its stay in Europe. Much of the music that they recorded was trivial and redundant, but some pieces do stand out: A Jackson in Your House (june 1969), dominated by Mitchell's 17-minute Song For Charles, Tutankhamun (june 1969), with Mitchell's 15-minute The Ninth Room (and a tedious version of the title-track), The Spiritual (june 1969), with Mitchell's 20-minute The Spiritual, People in Sorrow (july 1969), that contained just one 40-minute piece, perhaps their masterpiece, A Message to Our Folks (august 1969), with the 20-minute A Brain For The Seine and the eight-minute Rock Out (Jarman on guitar, Favors on bass, Mitchell and Bowie on percussion), Reese and the Smooth Ones (august 1969), another 40-minute piece, Eda Wobu (october 1969), an even longer (but far less engaging) live jam, Certain Blacks (february 1970), another minor album, with a 24-minute cover of Chicago Beau's Certain Blacks, Go Home (april 1970), with the 15-minute Dance. There were elements that acknowledged the innovations of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, but reinterpreted according to the quartet's unique aesthetic, that had little patience for musical dogmas.

The AEOC became a quintet with the addition of drummer Don Moye, whose devilish polyrhythms added a new dimension to the band's sound on Chi Congo (june 1970), with the 11-minute tribal maelstrom Chi-Congo, the 14-minute free-jazz work-out Enlorfe and the ten-minute orgy of Hipparippp, the film soundtrack Les Stances a Sophie (july 1970), with Fontella Bass on vocals and piano (Theme de Yoyo, a pioneering fusion of funk, soul and jazz), With Fontella Bass (august 1970), mainly divided between the 18-minute Ole Jed and the 19-minute Horn Web, and Phase One (february 1971), divided into two side-long jams, Ohnedaruth and Lebert Aaly.

The AEOC returned to Chicago in january 1972 and recorded Live at Mandel Hall (january 1972), the politicized Bap-Tizum (september 1972), including Unanka and Ohnedaruth, and Fanfare for the Warriors (september 1973), with Muhal Richard Abrams on piano, containing Mitchell's Nonaah, Favors' Illistrum and Jarman's Fanfare For The Warriors. Despite the publicity, the quintet had lost much of its charm. On the other hand, its music had become much more accessible.

In the meantime, Mitchell had recorded some more milestones of the creative music. The live Solo Saxophone Concerts (july 1974) focused on Mitchell's playing, alternating on soprano, alto, tenor and bass saxophones. Quartet (october 1975), featuring guitarist Spencer Barefield, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and trombonist George Lewis, offered a summary of Mitchell's ideas, from the emotional Tnoona to the unemotional duet of Music for Trombone and B Flat Soprano, from the cerebral group piece Cards to the lyrical trombone solo of Olobo.

Nonaah (february 1977), featuring an all-star cast of improvisers in different combinations, delivered two expanded versions of Mitchell's most famous composition, Nonaah (a 22-minute solo and especially a 17-minute version for the alto saxophone quartet of Mitchell, Jarman, Threadgill and Wallace McMillan) and assorted experiments, notably Tahquemenon in trio with Abrams and Lewis, A1 TAL 2LA in duo with Favors and the 13-minute solo Improvisation 1.

Sketches from Bamboo (june 1979) tackled the large-ensemble format (which he called Creative Orchestra). Mitchell's chamber music reached a zenith with the double LP LRG/ The Maze/ S2 Examples (july 1978), that contained three of his most austere, complex and difficult compositions: the 17-minute soprano saxophone solo S2 Examples, the 36-minute LRG (which stands for Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis), and the 21-minute The Maze for nonet, mostly on percussion (even Braxton, Threadgill, Favors and Jarman, besides Moye and Douglas Ewart) except Mitchell (saxes), Leo Smith (trumpet) and George Lewis (trombone). Not only were they fantastically disjointed, but they were more composed than they looked, being kept together by a cold logic of sound. The Maze ranked among the most sophisticated compositions for percussion ever.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago was still alive. They released Nice Guys (may 1978), with Bowie's Ja, Moye's Folkus and Jarman's Dreaming Of The Master, Full Force (january 1980), mainly taken up by Favors' Magg Zelma, the live Urban Bushmen (june 1980), perhaps the best of the later albums, with the 15-minute four-movement suite Urban Magic, Mitchell's Uncle and Moye's 22-minute Sun Precondition Two. The Third Decade (june 1984), and Naked (july 1986), the commercial sell-out.

Mitchell's career continued with his new creatures, the Sound Ensemble (trumpeter Hugh Ragin, guitarist Spencer Barefield, bassist Jaribu Shahid and percussionist Tani Tabal) and the Space Ensemble, that adopted a friendlier, more spontaneous and even hummable sound: Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancin' Shoes (december 1980), 3X4 Eye (february 1981), with Cutouts for Quintet and 3x4 Eye, The Sound and Space Ensembles (june 1983), that added vocalist Thomas Buckner, trumpeter Michael-Philip Mossman and saxophonist Gerald Oshita,

Out of collaborations with members of these ensembles came Mitchell's most experimental recordings of the period: More Cutouts (february 1981), with Hugh Ragin and Tani Tabbal; New Music for Woodwinds and Voice (january 1981), with Buckner and Oshita; An Interesting Breakfast Conversation (1984), again with Buckner and Oshita; First Meeting (december 1994), with pianist Borah Bergman and Buckner; and 8 O'Clock (december 2000), the third trio recording with Oshita and Buckner. Buckner's voice was a challenging factor for most of this phase.

A new quartet (Mitchell, Favors, pianist Jodie Christian, drummer Steve McCall) recorded The Flow of Things (september 1986). The Note Factory (Matthew Shipp on piano, Jaribu Shahid and William Parker on basses, and two percussionists) recorded This Dance is for Steve McCall (may 1992), that contained mostly tributes to dead friends. These ensemble works became less and less interesting, although at least the nonet of Nine To Get Ready (may 1997), with Hugh Ragin on trumpet, George Lewis on trombone, Matthew Shipp on piano, Craig Taborn on piano, Jaribu Shahid on bass, William Parker on double-bass, and two percussionists, the quartet of In Walked Buckner (february 1999), With Jodie Christian on piano, Reggie Workman on bass and Albert Heath on drums, and the nonet of Song For My Sister (february 2002) displayed sections of brilliant counterpoint.

Mitchell's career was now clearly split between jazz and classical music. Some of his classical compositions fared a lot better than his jazz combos: Prelude for vocals (Buckner), bass saxophone (Mitchell), contrabass sarrusophone (Gerald Oshita) and triple contrabass violin (Brian Smith) on Four Compositions (1988); some of the pieces for solo woodwinds and overdubbed woodwinds and little percussion of Sound Songs (october 1994), entirely played by himself; O the Sun Comes up up up in the Opening on Pilgrimage (1994), credited to the New Chamber Ensemble (violinist Vartan Manoogian, pianist Joseph Kubera and especially baritone Thomas Buckner); and especially Solo 3 (2004), three discs of solo improvisations.

Mitchell also composed Variations and Sketches From The Bamboo Terrace for chamber orchestra (1988), Contacts Turbulents (1986), Memoirs of A Dying Parachutist for chamber orchestra (1995), Fallen Heroes for baritone and orchestra (1998), The Bells of FiftyNinth Street for alto saxophone and gamelan orchestra (2000), 59A for solo soprano saxophone (2000), Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City (2002), etc.

Streaming (january 2005) documents a session by Muhal Richard Abrams (on piano, percussion, flute), George Lewis (on trombone and laptop) and Roscoe Mitchell (on saxophones).

Contact (october 2002) documents a live performance.

Numbers (2011) collects solos and duets recorded from 2002 to 2010.

Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble performed some of Roscoe Mitchell's classical composition on Live At Sant'Anna Arresi (august 2009), including Quintet #1 for Eleven and Quintet #9 for Eleven, as well as Cards for Orchestra.

Not Yet (march 2012) contains live performances of six compositions by Roscoe Mitchell, including a chamber orchestra: Bells For New Orleans for tubular bells and orchestra, the title-track for alto sax and piano, 9/9/99 With Cards for string quartet, Nonaah for alto sax quartet, Would You Wear My Eyes? for baritone (Thomas Buckner) and chamber orchestra, and Nonaah again for orchestra.

Improvisations (march 2012) documents a live collaboration with drummer Tony Marsh and double bassist John Edwards.

In Pursuit Of Magic (april 2013) documents a live collaboration between Roscoe Mitchell (on sopranino and alto sax and several woodwinds) and drummer Mike Reed. including the 21-minute Constellations Over Denmark and the 25-minute Light Can Bend.

Tone Ventures (Sciensonic, 2014) documents a collaboration with fellow reedist Scott Robinson.

Mitchell, pianist Craig Taborn (also on organ and synthesizers) and drummer Kikanju Baku recorded the improvisations that surfaced on Conversations I (september 2013) and Conversations II (september 2013).

Roscoe Mitchell played sopranino and bass saxes, baroque flute, bass recorder, whistles and even percussion in the trio effort of Angel City (november 2012 - RogueArt, 2015), a 55-minute composition, with James Fei (sopranino, alto and baritone saxes, Bb bass and Bb contrabass clarinets, analog electronics) and William Winant (orchestra bells, tubular bells, marimba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, cow bells, triangles, woodblocks, gongs, percussion).

Sustain and Run (august 2013) documents solo live performances.

The 76-minute four-part suite Nessuno (may 2011) gathered Pauline Oliveros (accordion), Roscoe Mitchell ( alto & soprano saxes, flute), John Tilbury (piano) and Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet).

Four Meditations/ Sound Geometries (march 2003 - Sub Rosa, 2016) contains the 20-minute Four Meditations For Orchestra (1991-1997) and the 26-minute Sound Geometries (2003) for "chamber orchestra, expanded instrument system and 5.1 surround sound system".

Four Ways (october 2009) was a collaboration with the trio Yuganaut, i.e. Tom Abbs (double bass, tuba and cello), Stephen Rush (keyboards) and Geoff Mann (drums, cornet and banjo).

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(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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