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Posts tagged ‘Roscoe Mitchell’

Entangled in Berlin

Irreversible Entanglements - Jazzfest Berlin 2018 - Haus der Berliner Festspiele (C) Camille Bl ake - Berliner Festspiele -8

Moor Mother with Irreversible Entanglements in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele (photo: Camille Blake)

I’ve spent the past few days thinking about the enormous wealth of music I heard last weekend during the first edition of Jazzfest Berlin curated by Nadin Deventer, who selected some very fine artists, devised interesting combinations and highlighted provocative themes while moving the festival’s furniture around sufficiently to make the event feel fresh and new.

Among the things I carried away with me included a surprise encore on the final night with Mary Halvorson joining Bill Frisell for a lovely guitar duet on “The Maid With the Flaxen Hair”, the title track of their highly recommended recent album on the Tzadik label; Kara-Lis Coverdale’s dramatic and absorbing pipe-organ solo recital in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church; Jaimie Branch’s electrifyingly bold trumpet solos with a quartet driven by the drummer Chad Taylor; the fantastically creative cello solos of Tomeka Reid with Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star International and a 12-piece Art Ensemble of Chicago; Kim Myhr’s mini-orchestra of strumming guitars; and Jason Moran’s centenary tribute to the soldier/bandleader James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters, which moved me more than I had expected.

In a festival-related event, there was also a chance to see the artist Arthur Jafa’s “A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions” at the gallery of the collector Julia Stoschek. Having missed it at the Serpentine Gallery last year, I was particularly struck by one of the video pieces, which cut together YouTube footage of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Bootsy Collins, and an electrifying 10-minute performance by the gospel singer Lateria Wooten, singing “Nothing But the Blood” with the late Thomas Whitfield’s choir (which you can watch here).

The solo of the festival was played by Ingrid Laubrock with Mary Halvorson’s wonderful octet. Her tenor saxophone emerged from the warm textures of a ballad called, apparently, “No. 60” (the composer numbers her tunes before assigning them names), like Ben Webster taking his turn in an Ellington small group 80 years ago. The tone, the trajectory, the internal balance of the improvisation were all simply perfect. It was a moment of absolute beauty and the effect was spine-tingling,

But most of all I came away with the memory of Moor Mother, otherwise known as Camae Ayewa, a spoken-word artist from Chicago who was heard in several contexts, most notably with her group, Irreversible Entanglements, featuring Aquiles Navarro on trumpet, Keir Neuringer on alto, Luke Stewart on bass and Tcheser Holmes on drums. Her fierce, declamatory recitations seemed like the logical evolution of the poetry-and-jazz explorations of Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and Jayne Cortez. Over a highly expressive and flexible band, she drove her words home with a caustic power intensified by a command of economy and repetition echoing that of old blues singers. And then, after a short interval, she appeared in a duo with the Art Ensemble’s Roscoe Mitchell, who played his sopranino saxophone as she riffed on phrases borrowed from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Here we had the old and the new, speaking directly to today’s world.

Art Ensemble at Cafe Oto

AEC Cafe OtoAmid the strangest weather in 30 years, with sand from the Sahara and dust from Iberian wildfires turning the air in London dark red at lunchtime on the hottest October 16th since records were first kept, there was another surprise awaiting the audience for the second of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s three sold-out nights at Cafe Oto this week.

We had bought tickets expecting the regular four-piece line-up of the current AEC: co-founder Roscoe Mitchell (saxophones) and long-time member Famoudou Don Moye (drums and percussion) plus trumpeter Hugh Ragin and double bassist Junius Paul. What we encountered was the band extended to a septet by the presence of Mazz Swift (violin and vocals), Tomeka Reid (cello) and Silvia Bolognesi (double bass, the only one not visible in the photograph above). It was a special treat.

As you would expect, the unbroken 80-minute performance was a mixture of the prepared and the spontaneous, moving easily through contrasting ensemble passages which gave way to solos from each of the participants. The extra string players never felt like a bolt-on extra: they were fully integrated into the ensemble, playing equal roles in the composed passages, in the textured backgrounds and in the long, boilingly intense collective improvisation which prefaced the sign-off with the familiar descending cadences of “Odwalla”.

Mitchell played an astonishing sopranino solo during which he manipulated rapid sequences of harsh cries against a sustained whistling sound. Ragin alternated between regular and pocket trumpets, four-valve cornet and flugelhorn with unfailing relevance. Paul’s wonderfully emotional solo and his fast walking 4/4 with Moye in one passage evoked the spirit of the late Malachi Favors. On the opposite side of the stage, Bolognesi responded with an improvisation making energetic use of the bow. Swift sang with restrained warmth and she and Reid both left, in their solos and in the ensemble, the impression of instrumentalists of great character and inventiveness, virtuosos of unorthodox techniques and startling effects that contributed to the overall scheme. Throughout the set Moye reminded us of what wonderfully subtle and propulsive drummer he is.

The two sustained standing ovations that greeted the end of the set and the brief hymn-like encore were the equal of anything I’ve heard at Cafe Oto. It was an unforgettable end to a day marked by natural wonders.

Roscoe Mitchell’s ‘Bells for the South Side’

Roscoe Mitchell uncroppedI’ve been reading Message to Our Folks, Paul Steinbeck’s new biography of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and enjoying in particular the reminder of the impact the group made when they arrived in Europe in the spring of 1969. Their voluntary exile lasted a month short of two years, ending with their return to the US in April 1971. During that time, which was mostly spent in France, they made some important albums (including A Jackson in Your House, Message to Our Folks, the epic People in Sorrow and the soundtrack to the film Les Stances à Sophie) and participated in several significant events, including the five-day Actuel festival in Amougies in October 1969 — intended, as Steinbeck observes, to be continental Europe’s answer to Woodstock and the Isle of Wight — and Joachim-Ernst Berendt’s Free Jazz Meeting in Baden-Baden two months later, where they encountered Kenny Wheeler, Terje Rypdal, Albert Mangelsdorff and many others. They also met the drummer Don Moye, who became their fifth member.

What the Art Ensemble did was free up the idea of how a modern improvising group could go about its business. Their motto — “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future” — was startling at the time. In terms of form and structure, their unorthodoxy exerted a widespread influence. Doing away with the notion that modern jazz could only be played in groups employing certain instrumental combinations adhering to a particular balance, they made the use of “little instruments” — particularly percussive devices of all kinds — into an essential part of their strategy. Their costumes and face-paint brought a new dimension of theatricality and historical reference to the music, while their use of irony and satire extended its range of gesture and intention.

I was lucky enough to see them a couple of times in the 1970s, at their New York debut in Central Park in 1973 and at the Roundhouse in London half a dozen years later, and they were spellbinding on both occasions. (Brian Case, reviewing the Roundhouse gig in the Melody Maker, said that “it made nonsense of any critical reading, save surrender.”) Two members of that group — the trumpeter Lester Bowie and the bassist Malachi Favors — are now gone, but the spirit of the Art Ensemble suffuses Bells for the South Side, the new album by their former colleague Roscoe Mitchell, the great saxophonist and composer.

This 2CD set was recorded live in September 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago during a project in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, in which Mitchell and the other members of the AEC played a key role. For these performances the leader was joined in a series of four trios and aggregated larger groupings by James Fei (reeds and electronics), Hugh Ragin (trumpets), Tyshawn Sorey (trombone, piano, drums and percussion), Jaribu Shahid (bass, bass guitar, percussion), Tani Tabbal (drums, percussion), William Winant (vibes, marimba, percussion), Craig Taborn (piano, organ, electronics), and Kikanju Baku (drums, percussion).

For those interested in free improvisation and the way it can be directed by a great composer, here are two hours of music that provide a mosaic of marvels, from mysterious rustling and enigmatic flutters to thunderous epiphanies via passages of intense lyricism. Although the individual contributions can be isolated and admired, notably Ragin’s piercingly emotional piccolo trumpet, Taborn’s austere piano and Baku’s wild but beautifully controlled drumming, that’s not really the point. There is a much bigger picture here, just as there was in the Art Ensemble’s work. It reaches a wonderful resolution in a manner that I’m not going to spoil except to say that it achieves its full impact only if you’ve listened to the whole thing — or at least to the whole of the second disc.

As the personnel details suggest, percussion is important here, and it comes imbued with a strong sense of the Art Ensemble’s history. Baku — a young British drummer who wrote to Mitchell asking if he could play with him, and was immediately rewarded with a gig at Cafe Oto — plays Malachi Favors’ percussion set-up, Tabbal plays Moye’s kit, Winant plays Lester Bowie’s military bass drum and Sorey plays Mitchell’s own percussion cage, a thing of visual and aural wonder. The fine detail of the shifting textures is recorded by David Zuchowski and mixed by Gérard de Haro with Steve Lake, the album’s producer, to brilliant effect.

A few weeks ago, as part of a “financial stabilisation” programme, Mitchell was in danger of losing his teaching job at Mills College in Oakland, California. A petition to reverse the decision gained so much support that the college was forced to reconsider, and he remains in post as Darius Milhaud Professor of Music. For those who will come under his tutelage in the future, this is very good news. One way for the rest of us to celebrate might be to listen to Bells for the South Side, a perfect example of the continuing vitality and relevance of his imagination and a wonderful summary of his gift to generations of listeners and fellow musicians.

* Bells for the South Side is released on ECM Records. The photograph of Roscoe Mitchell is taken from the album’s insert. Message to Our Folks is published by the University of Chicago Press. Roscoe Mitchell and the latest configuration of the Art Ensemble of Chicago — with Hugh Ragin, Don Moye and the bassist Junius Paul — return to London for a short residency at Cafe Oto from October 15-17.