Roscoe Mitchell And The Note Factory
Far Side


"Absence makes the heart grow fonder" is an English saying that came to my mind the moment I learnt of the imminent release of a new album by The Note Factory, the "pocket orchestra" with a variable line-up whose wide instrumental palette has received considerable acclaim since the release of their first album, Nine To Get Ready (1999). This was followed by the also very good Song For My Sister (2002). While the fine material featured in The Bad Guys (2003) was badly served by a recorded sound that one could only rate as being so-so, at best.

I thought hard about the "absence/fondness" factor since I always try to avoid having subjective factors intrude on a careful examination of music. What's more, the enormous quantity of rubbish that - totally by chance - I found waiting for me inside my mailbox during the last month made me doubt the fresh enthusiasm I derived from listening to Far Side. So: many listening sessions, at both low (to test the analytical dimension of the work) and high (to appreciate its emotional side) volume.

I'm pleased to say Far Side passed the exam with flying colours. Sure, it's a difficult work - which is something that won't come as totally unexpected, given the writing and the criteria guiding the performance that are so typical of Roscoe Mitchell's work. But the clear thought process, the excellent recorded sound, and the brilliant instrumental performances that one can easily find here will obviously be of help to those who will choose to listen to this album. (The only requirement being a quiet listening room - yes, I know it ain't easy nowadays.)

It goes without saying that the logic embedded in these titles is not immediately apparent, but its presence is made apparent "by inference", so to speak, given the fact that these long, complex performances don't fall apart. Not talking about themes (yes, there are themes), hearing "regularities" and "signposts" is not too difficult. For instance, check the repeated note played on the piano at 4' 04" and 8' 30" on track one, then check the parallel cymbal figure at 9' 10", 9' 40", 10' 38", and 15' 21". As it's typical of Mitchell, the key word here is "control". An "elastic" kind of control, of course, but a control nonetheless.

Let's have a look at the line-up. The drums, well placed in the stereo field, are played by Tani Tabbal and Vincent Davis; they often sound quite "dark" (this being also true of the album as a whole), hence the very "dramatic" quality in the use of cymbals (or, likewise, trumpet and saxophone). Jaribu Shahid is featured on double bass, often played arco, in the left channel; Harrison Bankhead is on double bass, also on (excellent) cello, on the opposite side. On piano, we find two very well-known musicians: Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn; while they produce some "overlapping" musical landscapes, it's not too difficult to picture the more round, full-bodied tone placed on the left as produced by Iyer, with the "spiky" tone with the faster release as played by Taborn on the right. Mitchell is mostly on alto sax, soprano, and flute. Corey Wilkes is featured on trumpet and flugelhorn, his performance (as it's to be expected by now) being very versatile and absolutely first rate.

The album was recorded live, but in my opinion the editing and the very careful mixing play a not so tiny part of its being so good. Just a peculiar thing that I noticed: in a couple of instances (first part of track one, start of track three) one can easily hear two trumpets playing at the same time: one with a buzzy, compressed tone, the other with a clear, full timbre. At about 65', the album has the first track at about 30', the remainder being more or less equally split by three pieces.

Far Side/Cards/Far Side is a picture painted on a wide canvas. It general traits will be familiar to those who've already caught the group live. The piece fades in quite slowly, with "pedal" and overtones gradually coming to the fore. Then it's the percussion section, pianos, saxophone, and trumpet. There's a fantastic joint solo by the two pianos starting at about 15' 38", with a furious backing from the drums, very much 60s "Free Jazz" style. There's a fine solo by Mitchell on soprano sax, very reminiscent of an "African reed", starting from 19' 42". There's a lively trumpet solo by Corey Wilkes, here in a fine mixture of Lester Bowie and Freddie Hubbard, starting from 26' 20".

Quintet 2007 A For Eight starts with an "implicit swing" that's so typical of some old pages by Charles Mingus with Eric Dolphy sitting on alto (also, now that I think of it, The Art Ensemble Of Chicago in their "Mingus mode"). But after the theme, instead of the "walking" bass one would maybe expect backing some orthodox solos, we hear a very rarefied air for alto and trumpet, then a very "bluesy"-sounding phrase is passed between the instruments, creating a sense of "structure". Then, the piece features the pianos, alto, trumpet, double bass, and cello, with fine backing by cymbals and drums. Maybe I'm hearing things, but - starting from about 7' - the mood here reminded me of the "chamber-like" moments of Eric Dolphy's Something Sweet, Something Tender, off his masterpiece titled Out To Lunch.

Trio Four For Eight starts with a "minimal" theme for flute, piano, cello, and percussion. The following section, starting from 0' 57", has a "fat-sounding" double bass played arco, cello, and those aforementioned "two trumpets". To me, this is one of the freshest-sounding moments in the whole album. Skilled use of piano, la Muhal Richard Abrams, starting from 4' 50". Then the flute, at 8' 00", leads the ensemble towards a very dark-sounding percussion interlude. Then, it's flute, muted trumpet, and the whole ensemble that bring the piece to its conclusion.

The start of Ex Flover Five has the piano playing a lyrical-sounding theme, but with a few sharp corners, which is immediately performed by the alto. Starting from 1' 50", a frantic solo part played by the "overlapping" pianos in a way reminded me of Conlon Nancarrow (!). At about 2' 48" there's a "splice" by alto sax, cello, and percussion, like a "reminder" of a thematic fragment, while the pianos go on soloing. We hear the fragment again at 6' 38", then there's a transition by the ensemble, then starting from about 7' 45" there's an alto solo by Mitchell, la Nonaah. There's a "lyrical" theme at 11' 10", then the close.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2011 | Jan. 4, 2011