Monday, August 19, 2013

CD Review: Roscoe Mitchell Quartet - Live at "A Space" & Roscoe Mitchell - Not Yet

Roscoe Mitchell Quartet
Live at "A Space" 1975

2013 has seen the release of a few albums that elevate Roscoe Mitchell beyond his main identity as a jazz musician and founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago to that of someone equally fluent as an classical-avant garde composer. Earlier this year, percussionist Alex Cline released an album-length reimagining of "People in Sorrow," that took the Art Ensemble piece and turnied it into an orchestral multi-media epic. (I thought it worked well, as you can read here, though a Downbeat writer did not.) Now there are these two discs, one a reissue of 1975 performance, the other a new one of other musicians performing Mitchell's compositions. Both pose the idea that Mitchell's m.o. has always been more than that of an adventurous jazz man.

"A Space" is the actual name of a performance venue in Toronto which hosted performers like Mitchell throughout the '70s. His group for this October 1975 date consisted of AACM co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams (piano), George Lewis (trombone, in his first recorded performance) and Spencer Barefield (guitar). 

The bonus cuts on Live at "A Space"  indicate that Sackville's original release didn't contain much in the way of jazz references. This edition begins with an atonal ballad (of sorts) titled "Prelude to Naima" which leads into a one-chorus reading of John Coltrane's "Naima." Strip away that track and all signs point to something new and different. And challenging, even to devoted fans.

Mitchell recorded two of these pieces with the Art Ensemble (aided by Abrams) in 1973 for the Fanfare for the Warriors album. "Tnonna" is a study in tension, with low sounds (in volume and pitch) flowing along. The AEC version included heavy breathing through the horns and a thunderous climax, which made all that suspense pay off. This version has some of the air, but no final thunder, which is something of a surprise. Still elements like Barefield's tremelo fretwork gives it extra color. "Nonaah," which Mitchell wrote as a solo saxophone piece before the AEC played it, is another bonus track, ending the set with a brief blast that gives the quartet a chance to wail. 

Everything beyond that is rocky terrain. Lewis' 14-minute "Music for Trombone & B-Flat Soprano" sounds like spontaneous exchanges between the two horns, but they frequently finish a thought together, indicating that more is going on. "Cards" may or may not be a game piece, in which the musicians play ideas taken from a deck. But it's marked by some of Mitchell's more abrasive writing techniques, where everyone plays in short outbursts, and if anyone plays for more than a few seconds, they're holding one note. Abrams in particular seems to rumble the same low piano notes over and over, sounded like a cue for a change that doesn't really come. Better are "Olobo," a solo trombone recitation, and the final bonus, "Dastura," where Barefield has a chance to be heard clearly as he duets tenderly with Mitchell. 

Roscoe Mitchell
Not Yet - Six Compositions
(Mutable Music)

Not Yet actually contains five compositions, since "Nonaah" appears twice, in vastly different arrangements. The mood and sound change with each track, as they all came from a March 2012 concert at Mills College (where Mitchell teaches) saluting the composer. (Mitchell plays on none of them.)

One of the surprising things is hearing Mitchell's work played on alto saxophones with the clear tone of a classical performer, rather than the gruff, scratchy feel of his playing. This is most noticeable in "Not Yet" where Jacob Zimmerman is accompanied by pianist Dan VanHassel. Zimmerman is also one of the four altos in the James Fei Quartet (which includes Aram Shelton) who blend that tonal clarity with the appropriate squonk on their reading of "Nonaah."  Although their version uses the staccato melody as an entry point, the version by the chamber orchestra (directed by Petr Kotik) begins in a more relaxed manner and seems to only reference the theme as the end. Where they go in between gets rather fascinating.

Mitchell must have approved of the album's sequencing as it begins in a way that forces you to drop expectations immediately. "Bells for New Orleans" has eight minutes of William Winant played tubular and orchestral bells. Once past the idea that these tones are not just marking the time but are playing an engaging melody, it can have a hypnotic effect.

"9/9/99 with Cards" could be a reference to "Cards" from the earlier album, but the Eclipse Quartet is harder to latch onto than the Mitchell Quartet, because the strings don't sound focused or cohesive. "Would You Wear My Eyes?" puts an emotional Bob Kaufman poem to a chamber orchestra accompaniment, but the words get buried in Thomas Buckner's heavy vocal vibrato, which doesn't waver throughout the whole piece.

Too many creative composers seem to get their due recognition after they've died. We can be grateful that Roscoe Mitchell has been able to chronicle his unique music during his lifetime. Even better, he's continuing to create to this day.

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