Roscoe Mitchell’s New York-Detroit Connection

HotHouse, June 10

From Louis Armstrong to Ornette Coleman, most of the major advances in jazz have been achieved by players in their 20s and 30s. But listening to elder statesman Roscoe Mitchell play rich and daring music makes me wonder what further surprises he has in store for the next five, ten, perhaps fifteen years.

Mitchell, a 54-year-old saxophonist, composer, and bandleader, has been at the forefront of jazz for three decades. A slight man with sad eyes and graying hair, he’s a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. In 1966 he made the first AACM recording, Sound, for the local jazz and blues label Delmark Records, which Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins termed “one of the decade’s seminal albums.” He’s also a member of the AACM’s most celebrated group, the Art Ensemble of Chicago (an offshoot of the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble).

Mitchell remains a vital figure in jazz. When New York’s premiere new-music club, the Knitting Factory, moved to a new location earlier this year, it featured Mitchell in two opening-week performances–one with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the other with his sextet, the Note Factory. Delmark recently released a fine new CD, Hey Donald, on which he leads a quartet. And in coming months Mitchell, who formerly taught at the University of Wisconsin and still lives in Madison, will be touring the U.S., France, Italy, and Israel.

At the HotHouse concert the saxophonist’s sound and phrasing were immediately striking. He began the evening on the alto saxophone with Joseph Jarman’s “Ericka,” a slow, shadowy piece. For several minutes he played with only the accompaniment of longtime collaborator Malachi Favors’s spare bass. He built the piece sound by sound–sharply accenting a tone here, hesitating for a moment there, then lingering over a tone as he turned it from sweet to bitter. His playing on this piece–and throughout the night–would have defied meaningful notation, as its essence lay less in particular notes than in their accents and colors. A series of highly nuanced sounds, Mitchell’s playing had the immediacy of speech without the literalness. His insistent focus on accent and color called to mind a comment Dizzy Gillespie made in an interview published in the late drummer and writer Arthur Taylor’s Notes and Tones: “I don’t care too much about music; what I like is sounds.”

Mitchell’s material ranged widely, avoiding the parochialism that often characterizes jazz concerts. Performing with a quintet (Matthew Shipp on piano, Spencer Barefield on guitar, Gerald Cleaver on drums, and Favors on bass), he played both feverish free-jazz pieces and swinging medium-tempo numbers that were structured more conventionally. But what was even more noteworthy than the variety of his performance was the intelligence with which it was organized.

Instead of being a series of discrete pieces, the concert worked as a unified whole in which each number played an essential role. The slow opening number accomplished several things. It focused attention on the key elements of Mitchell’s musical language–accent and color. It introduced unmetered rhythmic freedom through a more immediately accessible vehicle than the later hyperkinetic pieces. And its layer-by-layer structure–the alto saxophone and bass beginning alone, followed by the piano, guitar, and drums in succession–served to introduce each instrument’s voice. After this intimate, sometimes mournful beginning, the listener was not only accustomed to rhythmic freedom but ready for something more energetic. Mitchell responded with an untitled, freely improvised piece that began like a cyclone and only gained in intensity. A sweetly swinging number (Lester Bowie’s “Zero”) emerged unexpectedly from a drum solo, bringing the listener out of the storm and into a place as familiar as home. The structure of this set (and the second as well) suggested an artfully planned multicourse meal: contrasting flavors and textures made for a total experience far greater than the sum of its parts.

For all its intelligence, though, what ultimately distinguished this music was its emotional impact. The rhythmically irregular first piece took the listener step-by-step down an uncertain path into darkening woods. Mitchell’s repeated cries on the soprano saxophone in the next piece suggested a baby in the throes of a nightmare. While some jazz performers offer the listener a harbor safely removed from emotional upheaval, Mitchell conjured up a world that was often as disturbing as our own. But he did so in a highly structured musical setting, thus enabling the listener to experience unsayable emotions without the inhibiting fear of being engulfed by them.

Parts of this concert were less successful than others. During an extended free-jazz piece in the second set (Mitchell’s “Hop Hip Bip Bur Rip”), the music occasionally lost its focus. And the level of musical inventiveness and emotional intensity sometimes dropped when Mitchell wasn’t playing. But such unevenness is an inevitable by-product of music this adventurous. Some jazz concerts display the consistent proficiency of a talented child reciting multiplication tables. Mitchell’s performance wasn’t about reciting answers, but asking questions.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.