In my Semi-Isolation listening I have this week turned to the music of the American saxophonist and composer and founder member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Roscoe Mitchell. and through his music to that of the Transatlantic Art Ensemble led by Roscoe and Evan Parker.
I have heard Roscoe play on a number of occasions, always in London and sadly never in Birmingham. The first time was with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but more recently I have heard him in small groups he has led under his own name at Café Oto. In the performances at Oto I have been impressed by both his playing and his stage presence. On his saxophones, mostly alto and soprano, he weaves long flowing lines that have a complexity that can be quite challenging to absorb, but ultimately the experience of engaging with them is extremely rewarding. And somehow his rather austere stage presence matches the music; he has always been dressed very smartly in a suit and tie and his demeanour is committed and serious. He hardly ever addresses the audience.
Roscoe has a huge legacy in terms of recordings; there are all the Art Ensemble of Chicago albums and then the albums with the Note Factory Ensemble and recently the excellent Bells for the South Side which presents a number of different trio configurations. But it to his 2004 album Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 that I often return. It is a fascinating album that came about as a result of a symposium about improvised music in Munich. For this Roscoe Mitchell and Evan Parker were commissioned to set up the Transatlantic Art Ensemble, an ensemble of 14 improvisers for which they would both write music. The 14 players were divided equally between players from UK and from USA and were carefully selected by Roscoe and Evan. A list of the personnel is at the end of this piece.
Two Cds on the ECM label emerged; Roscoe Mitchell’s Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 and Evan Parker’s Boustrophedon. The recordings were taken from the live performances and the personnel is therefore the same on both Cds.
The music on Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3, moves between notated passages and freely improvised sections which may be with one soloist, or a section within the ensemble such as the string section or the two percussionists, or the whole ensemble. The improvisations with the whole ensemble have a particular energy and excitement and create a wonderful blast of a sound. The music also moves fairly seamlessly between a classical feel and a jazz feel, but throughout there is a unity to the writing that comes from the mix of unique ensemble sounds and textures; these arise from the varied instrumentation of the ensemble and the individual character of the musicians.
On the Cd there are 9 pieces listed with Roman numerals; the connection of these to the title, Nos 1, 2 & 3 is not explained in the Cd notes. Track III is perhaps characteristic of the CD; it features Evan Parker on tenor sax and he begins playing solo. He is then joined by the strings, i.e. violin and viola, followed by a series of interactions with pianist Craig Taborn which are gradually enhanced by the backing from the ensemble. This leads into a long wild improvisation from the whole ensemble; Evan stands out at first, but gradually it becomes a group improvisation; the track concludes with a short composed line for trumpet and strings. Track IV is characteristic of another aspect of the Cd; it’s much gentler piece with a beautiful solo from John Rangecroft on clarinet which is intensified by some subtle textures from the bass and the ensemble. Overall I believe that the performance brings together very successfully composition and improvisation and the feel of both classical and jazz music.
Evan Parker also has a huge legacy of recorded material, but this is much more in the area of totally improvised music. However, he has been involved with larger ensembles such as the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and the flexibly sized Trance Map. In these ensembles the writing provides a structure around which the improvisations are built.
For the Boustrophedon Cd the format focusses in each track on duets between one of the UK players and one of the US players, thus we have in Furrow 1 (after an overture each track is called a Furrow) a duet between US pianist Craig Taborn and UK flautist Neil Metcalfe, Furrow 2 has the two string players, Phil Wachsmann (UK) on violin and Nils Bultman (USA) on viola, Furrow 3 is between cellist Marcio Mattos (based in UK, but from Brazil) and saxophonist Anders Svanoe (USA), but they do not interact very much with Mattos’ cello going first and then leading into a forceful solo from Svanoe with energetic ensemble backing, Furrow 4 is between UK clarinettist John Rangecroft who has a very enjoyable musical conversation with US trumpeter Corey Wilkes before the latter takes the track out with some brilliant playing, Furrow 5 is between the two double bass players Barry Guy (UK) and Jaribu Shahid (USA) who join in a lively conversation that also brings in Craig Taborn who supports with a repeated rhythmic motif. The final two tracks, Furrow 6 and the Finale, present some of the most exciting and impressive music of the two Cds; Furrow 6 features the two leaders, first Evan Parker whose solo is supported by some remarkable sounds from the ensemble, and then Roscoe Mitchell whose solo is supported initially by piano and drums and then equally amazing sounds from the ensemble. The Finale has short solos from various members of the ensemble punctuated by short blasts from the ensemble and the whole things climaxes with some stunning textures from the whole ensemble.
The two Cds provide some wonderful listening and are a perfect example of how composition can be integrated with free playing.
Both Cds are on ECM: https://www.ecmrecords.com/catalogue/143038751721/composition-improvisation-nos-1-2-3-roscoe-mitchell-the-transatlantic-art-ensemble and https://www.ecmrecords.com/catalogue/143038751723/boustrophedon-evan-parker-the-transatlantic-art-ensemble
The personnel is as follows:
- Roscoe Mitchell– soprano saxophone
- Evan Parker– tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
- Anders Svanoe– alto saxophone, baritone saxophone
- Corey Wilkes– trumpet, flugelhorn
- John Rangecroft– clarinet
- Neil Metcalfe – flute
- Nils Bultmann– viola
- Philipp Wachsmann– violin
- Marcio Mattos– cello
- Craig Taborn– piano
- Barry Guy, Jaribu Shahid– bass
- Paul Lytton, Tani Tabbal– drums, percussion