Five Essential Roscoe Mitchell Recordings

Seth Colter Walls

By Seth Colter Walls

on 06.07.13 in Lists

Saxophonist and composer Roscoe Mitchell has been at the forefront of innovation in jazz — hell, in music in general — ever since his landmark 1966 recording Sound. With that debut, he helped usher in a less constantly frenetic avant-garde. Though Mitchell and his cohorts from Chicago’s South Side revolutionaries in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) could bust reeds and pound with the best experimental screamers, they also thrilled to the spare, austerely gentle classical modernism of Anton Webern (for example).

Sound, along with subsequent titles from the “Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble,” issued by the Delmark label, would the proving ground for a band that would eventually take on a different, better-known name: The Art Ensemble of Chicago. While serving a year as the toasts of France in 1969-70, the band cut more than a dozen records. By the time they rotated back to the U.S., the Chicago scene that had influenced Mitchell in his post-Army days had already made significant inroads in New York. Mitchell hasn’t looked back since, whether as a teacher at Mills College (where he currently has the Darius Milhaud chair in composition) or as a gigging and recording musician. This year has already seen two fantastic new albums from Mitchell: the classically-oriented Not Yet, on Mutable Music, and a record of duets with drummer-pianist Tyshawn Sorey. (Trumpeter Hugh Ragin appears on a few cuts, too.)

Here are five of Mitchell’s essential recordings.

Three hugely important 1969 albums — some of them infrequently available digitally — by Roscoe Mitchell's breakout project, the Art Ensemble of Chicago are collected here in a high-value, no-duh purchase. (Look at that price point!) The title track of Jackson reveals the band's postmodern mashup strategy: after the opening, jump-cut switches between free playing and modern composition, the band transitions to a New Orleans-flavored outro (one that is sincerely soulful, not mocking). Message is even better, and somehow more varied: "Old Time Religion" blends gospel and drone textures; "Dexterity" underlines the band's connection to Bird; while "Rock Out," as an abstraction of popular song-form, feels like avant-jazz's answer to White Heat-era Velvet Underground. Reese is one long improvisation, split into two tracks, that is particularly worthy for the noise-guitar freakout on the second side of the original LP.

In which the polymath Mitchell embraces the emergent sounds of hip-hop as well as those of late 20th-century chamber music styles — on the same album. Four of the six tracks here are austere, small ensemble compositions (some of them featuring modern-opera singer Tom Buckner). But two uptempo groovers, "You Wastin' My Tyme" and "Linefine Lyon Seven" show that, some 15 years after the Art Ensemble created R&B-inflected avant-jazz jams like "Rock Out" and "Theme De Yoyo," our hero can still return to the wellspring of pop inspiration. The former even offers a chance for Mitchell to try his hand at appropriating the good-humor cadences of early NYC rap. He works it!

This is a late-period tour de force: three different "solo" albums, packaged together. The opening "album," subtitled Tech Ritter and the Megabytes, opens with a multi-tracked Mitchell (on different horns), blasting through a staccato composition called "The Little Big Horn 2." Two long, proper solo improvisations follow (featuring various extended techniques, circular breathing, the works); while the "Tech Ritter"-titled pieces bring the multi-tracked intensity back. The more familiar, purely alto-saxophone album starts with the lovely "Nemus." The final album, a percussion-heavy suite that harkens back to some of the Art Ensemble's "little instrument" pieces, isn't as dynamic — but the set as a whole brings welcome evidence of Mitchell's conceptual, performative and compositional power in a new century.

Far Side

Roscoe Mitchell

How influential and well-respected is Roscoe Mitchell, at this point? Well, on this live date for ECM, the two pianists in his octet are Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn (arguably the two biggest names in contemporary jazz piano). The rumbling, droning opening suite of three pieces takes its time winding up — but explodes in a gratifying way at the midway point. (Hearing Taborn going nuts behind Mitchell's soprano playing is a singular highlight of modern jazz.) The "Quintet" and "Trio" pieces are shorter, and more consistently driven by pulse, while "Ex Flower Five" is driven by the stellar piano power on offer.

This is Roscoe Mitchell's finest classical album yet. And, interestingly, it's one on which his own horn playing is absent; he's intent on fully inhabiting the role of composer. It's no secret how a modern conceptualist gets good performances of fiercely difficult, experimental works: you get a chair in composition at a major music school, draw interested students to your side, and present concerts. Mitchell has done that as a chair of composition studies at Mills College. And his student Jacob Zimmerman does the teacher proud in the skittering, sheets-of-sound atonality of the title track (for saxophone and piano), as well as in the sax-quartet arrangement of the infamous Mitchell piece "Nonaah." Some more senior eminences drop by to tackle a chamber orchestra version of "Nonaah," also. When paired with the finest recorded example we have of Mitchell's writing for string quartet ("9/9/99 with Cards"), this album becomes an essential document of a portion of the composer's legacy.