Thursday, November 1, 2012

Roscoe Mitchell Across Five Decades

Roscoe Mitchell: Before There Was Sound (Nessa)

Art Ensemble: Early Combinations (Nessa)

Roscoe Mitchell: Numbers (RogueArt)

The story of the coming of age of the Art Ensemble of Chicago is one of the great tales of avant garde jazz, if not 20th Century American music. In a nutshell, Muhal Richard Abrams formed his Experimental Band on the south side of Chicago 50 years ago, which led to the development of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Roscoe Mitchell was the first member of that organization to release a record, Sound, in 1966, and within a few years his band, the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, led a small pilgrimage from Chicago to Paris which also included Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins and Leo Smith. During their two years in Paris, Mitchell and his ensemble met American drummer Famadou Don Moye and a promoter billed the band as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, putting a stamp on what would become one of the biggest and most successful experiments in jazz in the 1970s.

During that brief time in Paris, the Art Ensemble also recorded like mad and found labels willing to commit their work to wax. As a result, most of our aural knowledge of band’s early years comes from that prolific period in Paris. But while they weren’t yet “of Chicago” while they were still in Chicago, there were precursors. A year before the recording of Sound, Mitchell got together with trumpeter Fred Berry, drummer Alvin Fiedler and future Art Ensemble bassist Malachi Favors to record the eight tracks that see their first release on Before There Was Sound.

Mitchell hadn’t entirely come into his own by the 1965 session – there’s a strong Ornette Colemen influence heard here not just due to the instrumentation. No doubt part of what Mitchell saw in Coleman was the determined spirit of forging one’s own path, and the path Mitchell was to set out on is apparent on the album. The shifting, near-unison horns of Coleman’s quartet would of course become a feature of the Art Ensemble, played out in more dramatic and sometimes even comical ways. The titles here are mostly Mitchell’s (including two takes of “Carefree,” which would also be recorded by the Art Ensemble more than once, and “Jo Jar,” which would be recorded 25 years later by Mitchell’s 3x4 Eye Ensemble) but there’s a lovely, loping ballad by Barry and a rare composition by Favors. It’s also worth noting that if Mitchell hadn’t entirely come into his own at 25, he was still supremely capable of leading a strong session of distinctive music. Before There Was Sound may be a prelude, but it’s stands on its own merits.

By 1967, the Art Ensemble was starting to come together. Mitchell and Favors were playing with Lester Bowie and “Jo Jar” dedicatee Joseph Jarman, both of whom would be members of the longstanding quintet that came back from Paris. In September of that year, they recorded two demos (with Thurman Barker and Charles Clark supplying a second bass on one) to send out to European festivals. Those two tracks saw light as part of the 5 disc set Art Ensemble: 1967-68 (released by Nessa in 1993) and are available now on a single disc. The first of the two cuts, “A to Ericka,” shows the group already establishing its working methods, playing in distinct isolation and snapping together on tight themes, using shouts and song fragments, whistles and handheld percussion to broaden the scope of their sound and creating a feeling that anything might happen. It’s actually two pieces, the 22 minutes resolving in Jarman’s “Ericka,” another track that the classic AECO lineup would revisit more than once.

The second half of the disc is a piece of Jarman’s entitled simply “Quintet.” It opens with a strained solo by Bowie which resonates with the trademark AECO sound. A full eight minutes of horn-and-drum meditation is allowed before saxophones step up and Favors’ solid and soft-spoken bass slides underneath. A free blow is allowed to last only a few minutes before they shift down to another contemplation. It can be seen as foreshadowing much of Jarman’s career (which he has referred to as being the music of a peaceful and chaotic universe) ending in horn harmonies that reveal their free-reigning groupthink.

If the early members of the AACM were prescient in bringing new approaches for composition to the jazz idiom, Mitchell has been on the fore (along with Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill and a select few others) of continuing to push such strategies in the ensuing decades, even entering into the territory often called “classical.” Numbers collects a baker’s dozen small pieces, solos and duos for piano, strings, percussion and bass. Mitchell is only heard on one track, a beautiful duet with William Winant on percussion. Winant also frames the disc with the three part “Bells for New Orleans,” which nicely opens, closes and marks the midpoint of the record. Elsewhere the masterful pianist Joseph Kubera plays a wonderful duet with violinist Vartan Manoogian and accompanies baritone Thomas Buckner on three settings of e.e. comings verses, revisiting territory they had explored together before: Mitchell scored cummings texts for himself, Buckner, Kubera and Manoogian on his 1994 album Pilgrimage. Mitchell has a particular sensitivity for cummings, and for that matter seems to have a good touch in writing for Buckner, so it’s a welcome pleasure to hear more of that combination of forces.

Mitchell’s journey from “jazz” to “new music” has been a remarkable one, and one that can be witnessed this month when he presents a new solo saxophone piece, sharing space on a program with John Cage and Petr Kotik and the stage with Kubera as a part of the Beyond Cage festival. Perhaps the border-crossers are finally getting some land of their own.

- Kurt Gottschalk

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Nov. 2012 issue of the New York City Jazz Record.