Sunday, July 02, 2017

Roscoe Mitchell's "Bells For the South Side"

The school of composing improvisers who first came to prominence via their association with Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the '60s and made their mark on the '70s Lower Manhattan "loft jazz" scene before settling into academia in the succeeding decades are now claiming their place among the serious American composers of the 21st century. (One could argue that Ornette did it first, as he did with many things, but it's taken critics a few decades to wrap their heads around the idea that improvisation is just on-the-spot composition.) Anthony Braxton -- whose compositions always unashamedly displayed European influences -- had his McArthur "genius" grant as early as '94. His former trumpet foil, Wadada Leo Smith, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2013, before Henry Threadgill, who led a succession of colorful ensembles beginning with Air in the '70s, won the 2016 music Pulitzer.

Roscoe Mitchell might have less name recommendation than some of his peers, since his individuality was subsumed for years in what my friend Charles Young calls the "communal ethos" of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a cooperative group with several composers that was known for its Afrocentric costuming and ritualistic, theatrical performances. But the Art Ensemble started out as Mitchell's band, as documented on records like 1966's Sound and 1968's Congliptious. On 1977's Nonaah, he could be heard transforming a confrontational solo improvisation into an intricate ensemble piece, and with the following year's L-R-G/The Maze/S II Examples, he was blurring the lines between composed and improvised musics. Where Threadgill's Pulitzer-winning album, In For A Penny, In For A Pound, was a chamber music variant of his often carnivalesque earlier sound, and Smith's also-ran, the mammoth Ten Freedom Summers, shifted seamlessly between jazz group and chamber ensemble, Mitchell's Bells For the South Side merges and juxtaposes four trios in ways that showcase every facet of his oeuvre to date.

Mitchell's sidemen come from all over. The first trio teams him with colleagues from the Mills College faculty: percussionist William Winant, who's worked with composers Lou Harrison and John Zorn as well as the rock bands Mr. Bungle and Sonic Youth, and Taiwanese reedman James Fei, an alumnus of Braxton's Diamond Curtain Wall Quartet. Trumpeter Hugh Ragin, a mainstay of saxophonist David Murray's large groups, was in Mitchell's Sound Ensemble and appeared as "special guest" on Mitchell's album of duets with trombonist-pianist-drummer Tyshawn Sorey, an estimable composer who seems poised to pick up the torch from leading AACM lights like Braxton, Threadgill, and Mitchell. Keyboardist Craig Taborn, a busy leader and sideman in his own right, has been a Mitchell collaborator since the '90s, including two recent trio albums with the British jazz/noise/hardcore/improv drummer Kikanju Baku. Detroiters Jaribu Shahid (bass) and Tanni Tabal (drums) have worked with Mitchell since the '70s in his Sound Ensemble and Note Factory bands.

Bells For the South Side was commissioned for, and recorded during, a 2015 art exhibition commemorating the AACM's 50th anniversary. Each trio performs one piece alone (two, in the case of the Winant-Fei unit) and the musicians are recombined in various permutations for the remaining seven. Mitchell's own multi-instrumental mastery -- to include multiphonics, microtones, and circular breathing -- is matched by his musicians' flexibility, placing a broad tonal and textural palette at the composer's disposal. Besides a multiplicity of reeds, there are high and low brass, keyboards (including two pianos) and electronics, acoustic and electric bass, and the Art Ensemble's percussion array, which rivals Harry Partch's instruments for corporeal beauty and was on display as part of the exhibit.

Among the trio features, "Prelude to a Rose" starts as a doleful lament for wind trio, with Sorey on trombone. Around the three-minute mark, the players' interaction takes on an impressionistic cast, alternately raucous and playful, before returning to the pensive theme. "Dancing in the Canyon" (on which Mitchell shares composition credit with Taborn and Baku -- the only piece here on which he does so) opens with sparse percussion clatter and electronic squiggles which give way to tone clusters and fragments of melody, gradually building to a volcanic intensity that peaks, then abruptly recedes. "Prelude to the Card Game, Cards for Drums, and the Final Hand" opens with an episode of reflective beauty from Mitchell and Shahid (on arco standup) before Tabbal takes off on an exploration of the timbres of the trap set, then Mitchell unleashes a torrent of tumbling notes, and Shahid and Tabal jump in for a race to the finish. On "Six Gongs and Two Woodblocks" and "R590 Twenty B," Mitchell and Fei trade contrapuntal lines while Winant provides punctuation.

The other pieces are equally variegated, with the sound of surprise often present. "EP 7849," with its long tones and distorted electronic textures, treads on turf staked out in the '70s by progressive rockers King Crimson. The title track is Mitchell at his most minimalist, with Ragin's trumpet crying out plaintively. "The Last Chord" probably packs the most auditory events into the shortest duration (12 minutes, although it's not the shortest piece here), while "Red Moon in the Sky" is an extended soundscape with the gravitas of the Art Ensemble's People In Sorrow. A version of the Art Ensemble anthem "Odwalla" closes out the proceedings, allowing Mitchell to pay tribute to the past while keeping his eyes fixed on the future. Entering his world for the couple of hours and change it'll take you to listen to Bells For the South Side is a trip worth taking.


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