Review: Roscoe Mitchell Jackhammers a New Musical Funhouse

On Wednesday at the Park Avenue Armory, toward the end of a solo on sopranino saxophone that had lasted more than 10 minutes, Roscoe Mitchell made it seem as though the intimate dimensions of the Armory’s Veterans Room were in the process of being jackhammered.

After the solo’s gradual introductory section — full of rough-textured honks and droning harmonics — Mr. Mitchell started dispensing a stream of lightning-quick traditional notes, each one full of robust authority. And then, thanks to some gales of circular breathing, he managed to thread one of those earlier, overblown harmonics atop the ongoing, bebop-influenced flurry. This time the droning pitch was pealing, and ecstatically clear.

The room shook with the swelling overtones of amplified, electroacoustic music. But Mr. Mitchell’s funhouse was a fully acoustic one.

Then, switching back to his rougher extended-technique pitches, he once again sneaked in that liquid legato line of traditional notes, this time in a raspier style. The cumulative impact of this solo tour de force involved two different ways of looking at his polyphonic capability.

The piece, “Sustain and Run,” was the highlight of Mr. Mitchell’s presence as an instrumentalist on Wednesday. But it wasn’t the apex of the two concerts of his music that were presented at the Armory as part of the Artists Studio series organized by the pianist and composer Jason Moran.

In the evening’s first set, Joseph Kubera brought intensity and warmth to the toccata-style central movement of Mr. Mitchell’s piano piece “8/8/88.” In the second concert, a collection of players drawn from the Ensemble showed off a lovely group blend when navigating the sympathetically swirling melodic motifs in “Cutouts for Woodwind Quintet.”

Mr. Mitchell was heard in a larger chamber ensemble that closed the second concert, as well as in the Trio Space, a new version of a past group with the baritone Thomas Buckner. (The band now also includes the multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson.) It was possible throughout these performances to hear the wide vistas of near-silent poise, in between peaks of intensity, that characterized Mr. Mitchell’s more widely heard work with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the pathbreaking group he co-founded 50 years ago.

This year Mr. Mitchell and another longtime Art Ensemble member, Famoudou Don Moye, will lead a new lineup of the group at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tenn., and will release a double album on Pi Recordings. Later this month, Mr. Mitchell will also release a new set of his orchestral music, on the Wide Hive label.

Aspects of that record — “Littlefield Concert Hall Mills College” — were similarly reflected in the sets Mr. Mitchell presented on Wednesday. On the recording and at the Armory, it’s clear that Mr. Mitchell’s presence as a soloist is not required for performances of his music to sound idiomatic, and that his past work is continuously open to radical revision.

At the second show on Wednesday, his stridently strutting 1970s “Nonaah” was played in a more lyrical later arrangement for piano, oboe and flute. And on the “Littlefield” recording, a 25-piece orchestra plays newer versions of pieces that the Wide Hive label has already released, like “Frenzy House.”

The journey of “Frenzy House” to its current state also works as a useful summary of Mr. Mitchell’s versatility. The piece began as a riotous improvisation by Mr. Mitchell, the pianist Craig Taborn and the percussionist Kikanju Baku. But after that improvisation was transcribed and rearranged for its first orchestral recording, its composer was not yet finished exploring it.

‘Frenzy House’

In its latest version, there is some fresh opening thematic material that adds a surprising, if characteristically tart, quality of Americana. Unlike on prior recordings of “Frenzy House,” Mr. Mitchell doesn’t play on this new recording — but in all its unpredictable mergers of style, it sounds completely of a piece with his back catalog.

“The thing I like about this process,” Mr. Mitchell said in an email this week, “is that it’s ongoing.”

Roscoe Mitchell
Performed on Wednesday at the Park Avenue Armory, Manhattan.

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