Hyde Park was still a lively, stimulating place when Roscoe Mitchell lived there in the 1960s. He played his woodwinds and "little instruments" all over the neighborhood, from the University of Chicago's Mandel Hall and campus lounges to a church, a school, the small theaters of the day, and on the lakefront at the Point on summer mornings. Musically it was an exciting time: he was leading his Art Ensemble in its formative period, as it discovered new forms, sounds, and structures--as it evolved into the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Thereafter people began to get arrested for playing music at the Point, urban renewal and gentrification gradually made Hyde Park ghostly, and the Art Ensemble left home and became famous. During the 70s and 80s the group returned to their old stomping ground (pun intended) now and again--as did Mitchell alone, pursuing his remarkable separate career. So when the University of Chicago wanted a jazz event for its centennial concert series, Mitchell was an obvious choice.
Mitchell's odyssey apart from the Art Ensemble has been unique, to say the least. Early events included a Mitchell-led crowd of saxophones, with two drummers, playing a Bach fugue, and a rumbling Mitchell sextet of baritone and bass saxophones, bass and contrabass clarinets, string bass, and bass drum. Then came his investigations of sound, harmony, and rhythm per se, as he isolated the constituent elements of music and analyzed them, often in solo saxophone concerts. These investigations climaxed in the startling late 70s albums Nonaah (Nessa LP) and L-R-G-/The Maze/S II Examples (Chief CD, Nessa LP), which placed Mitchell squarely in what music critic John Rockwell calls the tradition of great American loners, after Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, and Ornette Coleman. Critic Larry Kart likened Mitchell's search to that of Guillaume Dufay and his peers, over half a millenium ago, when polyphony and harmony were new ideas in Western music: "He is discovering anew that when music is truly broken down into its component parts, a new order can emerge."
What did this new order yield? After six years of solo alto-sax variations, "Nonaah" metamorphosed into an alto-sax quartet that began as a maddening perpetual-motion machine and disintegrated gradually into a vortex of leaping, turbulent sounds. L-R-G and The Maze were completely composed, in a form that Mitchell called "sound collages." L-R-G had Mitchell and two partners playing cycles of near-phrases--that's the only word for it--on 16 woodwind and brass instruments, a world of shared separatenesses. The Maze was percussionists striking wooden and metal objects, most of them found or invented; the work's immense detail, unique form, and rich chiaroscuro in its many joinings made it a major step in post-Edgard Varese percussion literature.
In a way it was forbidding music. Here were Mitchell and all these other musicians making freak sounds on freak instruments in unfamiliar structures, using angular, often harsh sonic materials. At times he appeared obsessive, especially in a few solos that were utterly unlike Coltrane and yet the most violent saxophone utterances since Coltrane; the humor, irony, and wide scope of his early work partially subsided. It wasn't completely forbidding music, however--some gifted young musicians traveled long distances to study with him, and his direct influence is evident from Europe to San Francisco, in the ROVA Saxophone Quartet. His fascination with joining uncomplementary sounds continued into the 80s, when he often worked with a classical countertenor singer and a player of the sarrusophone and other strange woodwinds; at times they were joined by Brian Smith, who played a bass so gigantic that he had to climb a ladder to finger the strings.
But also in the 80s Mitchell began to discover a new lyricism. I don't think he was always well served by his associates in those years--too often they were tentative about playing his music, which was often composed in high detail. But there was nothing tentative about the band he brought to the HotHouse last September. It had pianist Jodie Christian, two bassists, and three drummers, and it hit hard, the accompanists providing a stampede of sound while Mitchell improvised.
Essentially the same group came to the University of Chicago in early February, as Roscoe Mitchell and the Note Factory: added was trumpeter Hugh Ragin, a partner in some of Mitchell's happiest 80s ventures, and not present were two of the drummers, ill with the flu. That subtraction may have been a boon to concertgoers--Mandel Hall, with its cavernous acoustics, virtually eats bands with loud drummers, and in any case the inner workings of the group were more audible without the extra percussion density.
The entire first set was "Sing/Song," to which Mitchell returns often lately. Mitchell once spoke of the harsh "Nonaah," which has had many themes and developments, not as a melody but as a "world or atmosphere . . . once you put yourself in that atmosphere you can ride on forever." The atmosphere of "Sing/Song" is sweet, tender, as if Mitchell, on flute, were investigating his own relationship with gentle emotions in relatively even note values and triadic harmonies, the simplest, most consonant kind, never quite resolving into a conventional melodic line. There were sweet resonances in Christian's accompaniment; the warming sound of "Sing/Song" added much body and sparkle when Mitchell played alto sax in a fast, free ensemble section, to which Ragin added further brightness; the work concluded in a most lovely chorus of melody.
The second set was just the opposite--thorny, abstract, severe. In the past Mitchell occasionally played works in which the environment, rather than his own lines, spurred the development--for example, a solo beginning with a single intricate phrase repeated for seven minutes, to the growing anger of the audience (John Cage would have approved), and the 25-minute "Chant," two fast, powerful drummers behind four endlessly repeated alto-sax notes. The latest installment came at Mandel Hall in "The Reverend Frank Write," a tenor-sax note honked over and over while the band exploded in collective improvisation around Mitchell. After a while an extraordinary kind of variation began to emerge, as his vicious honks turned into split tones, moving, changing from blat to blat--it was the willed sweetness of "Sing/Song" turned inside out, into a dark, cruel humor.
"Total Sound Pictures" was a free improvisation on the tension of sound and space in isolated rips, raps, bits, and blurts of unconventional sounds; Mitchell intoned momentary noises on his woodwinds and struck his toys, found objects, small percussion--"little instruments." Once again, the music moved: without ever becoming dense, the space became fuller with sound; amid this quiet intensity, Mitchell rang a doorbell and bassist Malachi Favors called, "Who's there?" A definite shape and even humor emerged from the abstraction. Mitchell opened "The Flow of Things" with a very long, unaccompanied, unbroken--"circular breathing," it's called--soprano-sax line, a single, fast, multinoted phrase lasting several minutes, his clear, bent notes twisted into fantastic shapes, before the Note Factory entered with furious collective improvisation, an exciting exhibition. For an encore there was a blast from the past: the straightforward, free-bop "Mr. Freddie," which Mitchell had composed during his early career in Chicago.
Such a range of ideas, such a variety of music is rare in jazz or any other kind of concert, and such variety and range has almost always characterized Roscoe Mitchell's programs. Most of the Note Factory were old hands at his music, and most of the pieces they played were familiar (if I recall rightly, they'd done three of them at HotHouse). You might say that it was a typical day in the life of Roscoe Mitchell--he's concerned now with elaborating on and refining his discoveries. His most exploratory work seems to be behind him, though given his many changes we can never be sure of that.
As for the Art Ensemble of Chicago, in which Mitchell still spends much of his time, the five-man group has released four new albums in the last year, all with guests, all on Japan's DIW label. The one with the Art Ensemble and Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy hasn't yet come this way, but the two Art Ensemble of Soweto discs, in which the guests are South Africa's Amabutho Male Chorus, are here; the second, titled America-South Africa, is less satisfying than its predecessor. In support of the Amabutho men the Art Ensemble plays lines that recall Chicago composer Phil Cohran's jazz works with blues, gospel, and flamenco artists--the jazz players reveal a generous sympathy, but there's no real fusion of the separate traditions.
The real news about these CDs is that the fourth, the Art Ensemble with Cecil Taylor, titled Thelonious Sphere Monk, is being reissued this winter by a major American distributor, Columbia. For most of pianist Taylor's career the joining of forces represented by this CD would have been unthinkable--the formal complexity, grand rush, and furious density of his playing would have devoured alive any other individuals, however distinctive. But a late-blooming and growing capacity for sympathetic collaboration culminated in the monumental 12-CD set Cecil Taylor in Berlin '88 (FMP). In this new disc, Taylor not only does not dominate the Art Ensemble, he enters its own special idiom to become another voice in free improvisations, gargling and reciting a surreal poem, then adding piano movement to the music's communal ebb and flow. The Monk title results from very free interpretations of two Monk songs; "Nutty" offers comic variations on the title as well as musical variations on the theme. They may not be major works by these major artists, but they're quite good ones, and moreover they're quite distinctive, which makes them especially valuable nowadays; as usual, Roscoe Mitchell contributes imaginatively to the cooperative effort and makes the listener grateful for his presence.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc Pokempner.