Roscoe Mitchell
Bells For The South Side


Just a few days ago, on August 3rd, Roscoe Mitchell turned seventy-seven. (Congratulations!) Though a bit tiny, those pictures that appear in this album's booklet show a quite healthy individual, in so differently from those that appeared in the booklet of Far Side, the fine ECM album released in 2010 but recorded three years earlier.

So maybe in the past there was a little something to worry about, but no fear whatsoever about the quality of the music, as the two hours plus featured on this (double) album easily show. Sporting a perfect recorded sound - "dry", anti-rhetorical, never bombastic: just like Mitchell's music - Bells For The South Side presents an "orchestral" panorama that's closely related to the fine Nine To Get Ready (1999), an album where Mitchell featured a "mini-orchestra" of improvisers.

So, is everything perfectly fine? Well, almost but not quite. An article-interview which appeared in The New York Times at about the same time this album was released talked about Mitchell being fired, alongside eleven colleagues, by Mills College - the prestigious music institution where Mitchell holds a Chair in Composition - due to Mills's decision to downsize for financial reasons. There was a petition posted on the Web, immediately signed by many (are these fantastic times, or what?), and now the tempest appears to be over. But the episode - though it could maybe be filed under "those usual facts of life" (next month, multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey, who performs quite well on this very album, will take Anthony Braxton's post at Wesleyan University) - clearly shows how precarious the status of this music today.

After attending a concert by Anthony Braxton, US pianist Ethan Iverson recently wondered how many artists of the same outstanding originality one could expect to see in the future.

Which brings us straight to Bells For The South Side, a perfect specimen of Mitchell's genius.

There's something I'd like to stress now: though some places on the CD cover-booklet clearly show the words "Roscoe Mitchell Trios" - musicians playing on this album are also members of those different trios Mitchell has worked and recorded with in the last decade - those different line-ups that appear are sometimes quite larger. All matters of "commercial appeal" aside, this is something that's important to clarify, since - having incorrectly understood the CD liner notes - I was quite surprised when I noticed that the first track featured many musicians - and two pianos!

Recorded two years ago, the album was not intended as a celebration of Mitchell's music, though in a sense it is, but of the Association For The Advancement Of Creative Musicians (I'm sure readers will remember the motto "Great Black Music - Ancient To The Future", maybe once intended to answer such questions as "But is it Jazz?), established in Chicago fifty years before.

As part of a larger celebration - percussionists featured on this album also play historical instruments once played by various members of the AACM - the music on this CD was recorded at the Museum Of Contemporary Art Chicago by David Zuchowsky. Mixed in May, 2016 by Gérard de Haro and Steve Lake at Studios La Buissonne, Parnes-les-Fontaines. Mastered by Nicolas Baillard. Produced by Steve Lake. Excellent recorded sound, with spectacular dynamic range: those (many) moments of silence will immediately show the condition of one's ampli's circuitry.

On the minus side? Well, one that's not really part of the album proper: absolutely no liner notes (Mitchell's notes are about the musicians, not the music). It's a conscious choice, of course - the booklet has space for many pictures, and I remember Steve Lake as a perceptive thinker - but I would have preferred otherwise: those who listen to this kind of music like to ponder issues. One could maybe argue that this is what critics are for. But it was only thanks to that piece in The New York Times that I learned that on the first track here Mitchell conducts the music, something which immediately made it clear to me why the music, while too teleological to be aleatoric, didn't sound as being performed "exactly as written on the page".

Let's have a look at those musicians, and what they play. Let's take a deep breath.

Roscoe Mitchell on sopranino, soprano, alto and bass saxophones, flute, piccolo, bass recorder, percussion. James Fei on sopranino and alto saxophones, contra-alto clarinet, electronics. Hugh Ragin on trumpet, piccolo trumpet. Tyshawn Sorey on trombone, piano, drums, percussion. Craig Taborn on piano, organ, electronics. Jaribu Shahid on double bass, bass guitar, percussion. William Winant on percussion, tubular bells, glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba, roto toms, cymbals, bass drum, woodblocks, timpani. Kikanju Baku on drums, percussion. Tani Tabbal on drums, percussion.

The album features a great - and decidedly welcome - variety of combinations, and of course listeners will find their own preferred moments-players. Here, I'd like to highlight the role of percussion instruments, especially their variety when it comes to timbre. It could appear as nothing to shout about in the year 2017, but just think how pioneering - and how musical: something that's definitely not to be taken for granted when it comes to "modern music" - was Mitchell's work when it comes to percussion, first with the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, later in his solo work. And who could ever forget that giant picture showing eight musicians in a studio with a forest of percussion instruments while recording The Maze?

As I'll argue in the following examination, there are a few instances that appear to showcase individual musicians, but not as "virtuosos": let's say that a few moments do not sound as strongly "Mitchell-related" as I'd like. But nothing too important. Have a good listening!

Spatial Aspects Of The Sound features Craig Taborn and Tyshawn Sorey on pianos, William Winant on tubular bells, Kikanju Baku on bells, and Roscoe Mitchell on piccolo. The piece starts with two pianos, placed at opposite sides of the stereo field, and tubular bells. Chords and single notes appear on a "silent" canvas, with just a few notes played, which reminded me of those solo pieces where Mitchell plays just one note per instrument, alternating them. At 8' 24" the bells are first heard, with a fine timbral contrast. At 10' 36" there's a cut, then silence, then a chordal accompaniment to a fine, personal melody played on the piccolo.

Panoply opens with percussion and cymbals, then trumpet and alto sax playing unison, a loud bass drum, trumpet and saxophone, "held" notes. Alto sax-drums. Trumpet, drums, percussion, alto, "held" notes. Again. Again. Then a vivacious trumpet solo, vibraphone, drums, percussion growing in volume and density of events. At 6' 50" a crash cymbal, at 7' 02" a very brief coda.

Prelude To A Rose features Hugh Ragin and Tyshawn Sorey - here the featured instrumentation obviously reminds one of the trio episode - a whole side - of the double LP titled L-R-G/The Maze/S II Examples from '78. Winds forming a chord, then a kind of "Baroque" air. At 3' 15" this section ends, and a new episode starts, where winds behave pointillistically, varying note attack and duration. At 6' 08" a cut, then sounds start again, hushed, then the trumpet, then a dramatic entrance from the bass sax, with that impossible-to-mistake Mitchell attack in both high and low end. At 9' 16" cut, an interlude, then it's back to the "Baroque" narrative, with unison, then "imperfect" unison, so creating beatings between alto sax and trumpet. "Cut" on a chord.

Dancing In The Canyon features Mitchell, Taborn, and Baku, and is totally improvised. It starts with tiny percussion, then synthetic sounds. At 3' 33" percussion, piano, alto, and a loud snare drum with snare. "Free" drums with snare, ride cymbal, and a fine role for the bass drum. For a moment I thought of the old definition of the New York "free" music of the 60s as "Triple fortissimo all the time" but here the whole sounds more similar to the "tutti" of the Note Factory. Overtones, then a coda for piano and percussion.

EP 7849 features Taborn on electronics and Shahid on electric bass. It starts with low-sounding synth, "explosions", cymbals, toms, then at 3' 31" a melodic solo feature that to me sounds like an electric bass filtered through a few pedals, the whole sounding surprisingly quite Fripp-like (!).

Bells For The South Side features James Fei on contra-alto clarinet, Ragin on piccolo trumpet, and Sorey playing inside the "percussion cage". Door bell rings, a siren, a delicate percussive episode, then piccolo trumpet. At 4' 22" low modulations, mumblings from a woody clarinet - the whole sounding, quite surprisingly, very Braxton-like, with those clarinet and synth. At 7' 58" the piccolo trumpet is back, over a percussive background. It slowly fades, also acting as a slow fade for CD 1.

Prelude To The Card Game, Cards For Drums, And The Final Hand start CD 2, highlighting Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal, especially the latter. It starts with alto sax - "almost bluesy" for Mitchell - over a background of double bass played arco acting as a pedal. At about 4' starts a  drum solo where one can easily find precise figures being played. Those sound like rock drums! At 14' 16" the alto is back, with pizzicato double bass, and drums. Cadenza! Close!

The Last Chord starts with tubular bells, piano, percussion, toms, piano trills, clarinet, high notes on soprano, then it gets faster in the style of the Note Factory, trumpet, and at about 6' everything stops for a "mariachi" moment that reminded me a lot of Lester Bowie. Snare drum-bass drum, cymbals, percussion-drums solo, some "stopped" notes from the electric bass played pizzicato, woodblocks, at about 9' the piano is back. At 11' 13" Mitchell in circular breathing takes the piece to its close.

Six Gongs And Two Woodblocks features Fei and Winant. Soprano sax playing single notes, synth, percussion. Some note sequences are "mirrored" by the synth. At 3' 05" a North-African lullaby in circular breathing, a low modulation plus something that reminded me of a ring modulator, high-pitched sounds, single notes placed against a synthetic wall that reminded me of Richard Teitelbaum in his Modular Moog days. At 6' 35" bells, cut, percussion, then at about 7' 05" theme, end.

R509A Twenty B features Fei and Winant. Two sopranos, me thinks, with "beaten" notes, toms, two minutes of pure "Mitchell intonation".

Red Moon In The Sky highlights electronics by both Fei and Taborn. Electronic episodes, then at 5' 20" there's trumpet, piano, snare, percussion, bass sax, the percussive parts get richer, at 10' 15" trumpet and sax are back, with a fine "free" snare. At 12' 14" the bass sax, playing a strict cadenza, then trumpet, percussion, the works: trumpet, trombone, alto, crash!, and at 17' 10" it's time for...

Odwalla, in a "Latin" style that at first reminded me of Steely Dan (!). Theme for winds, piano. Surprisingly, in the section 18' 55" - 19' 05" time appears to be "stumbling". At 19' 35" Mitchell plays a brief solo, then introduces the featured musicians, who all play a brief solo (he plays over some of them, a nice touch).

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2017 | Aug. 8, 2017