Song for My Sister
PI Recordings 103

Avant garde jazz fans who remember the 1960s and 1970s have the tendency to come on like moldy figs when they compare the activities of many highly celebrated younger players with the accomplishments of their elders.

Case in point is this CD. For while a few youngsters have been over-praised for merely mastering the intricacies of a particular jazz style — be it hard bop, modal or even a hip hop take on the New Thing — reedist Roscoe Mitchell, 62, showcases a lot more.

Mitchell, who plays soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, flute, bass recorder, great bass recorder and percussion on this disc, has also written a set of unmistakably modern tunes that touch on playful R&B, precise swing, Third World anthems, jagged contemporary composition and even Early music. Assisted by eight young and veteran improvisers — and four more for the “classical” piece — Mitchell easily slides from one stance and style to another without ever losing his identity or resorting to tonal impersonation.

Pretty impressive for someone who was one of the founders of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the mid-1960s and has been making impressive records on his own and as a members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago since that time.

Now a resident of Madison, Wisc., Mitchell has recorded with The Note Factory twice before, but only bassist Jaribu Shahid has been on all three discs. In the decade since the first CD, the band has grown from six to nine pieces, with new, impressive players joining. Especially prominent on his recording debut with this group, is Chicago trumpeter Corey Wilkes, whose contributions range from Harmon-muted whispers to brass band cadenzas.

New pianist Vijay Iyer leads his own bands around New York, while returning pianist Craig Taborn has gone from working with Young Lion James Carter to becoming a part of saxophonist Tim Berne’s electric trio. Bassist Leon Dorsey and drummer Vincent Davis have played and recorded with Mitchell in different configurations, while Shahid, guitarist Spencer Barefield and drummer Gerald Cleaver came out of Detroit subterraneous avant jazz scene.

Perhaps the best way to analyze a disc like this is to point to the two most unusual compositions. For a start there’s the almost 11½-minute “Wind Change”, a piece which evolved organically from a set of cards Mitchell developed to help beginning improvisers study. Switching between notated and improvised sections, and with the addition of Anders Svanoe on clarinet and bass clarinet, Willy Walter on bassoon, Janse H. Vincent on violin and Nels Buttmann on viola, the ensemble resembles a chamber orchestra. Except it’s a chamber ensemble where reverberations from Cleaver’s marimba, and bell shaking from Davis, make the more “legit” instrumentalists create sharp-angled sections, rife with the pizzicato string plucks. Meanwhile, Mitchell’s so-called classical sounding flute arches over the proceedings.

Equally unusual, “this”, recasts one of the composer’s chamber pieces written for a baritone vocalist, with Mitchell’s great bass recorder filling the singer’s role. Regarding Early music as yet another way to transmit his sound into another sphere, the saxophonist, a card-carrying member of the American Recorder Society, melds the canyon-wide, but limited range of the recorder with other sounds. In the end, the batter of marimba glissandos, muted trumpet lines, cello-like arco bass tones and shaken and stirred exotic percussion, end up with a product sounding like a Westernized version of gamelan orchestra music. Then there’s “The Megaplexian”, featuring Mitchell and the two percussionists improvising on instruments he invented for a special concert commission. Sounding like a combination of glockenspiel, vibes, wind chimes and bell tree, the megaplexians impart both an otherworldly and Third World feel to the composition. It also showcases the two pianists using a thicket of whole notes, bent notes and a few glisses.

On the other hand there are tunes like “Step One, Two, Three”, which comes across as half hard bop and half Middle Eastern court music. As the dual pianos sound out the infectious descending push-and-pull theme, Mitchell lets loose with some updated Swing tenor, so that you get an image of a college football half-time band marching through the narrow streets of the Casbah.

Not that more traditional music is neglected either. “Count-Off” is a rollicking, modern R&B type tune featuring a fruity Earl Bostic-style alto saxophone snaking through the music, with some Harmon muted tones from Wilkes, chordal guitar fills from Barefield and old-timey piano tinkles from one — both? — of the keyboardists. Then there’s the title tune, honoring Mitchell’s late sibling, but which comes across as bluesy rather than mournful. Displaying the saxophonist’s hard tenor tone, muted work from Wilkes, both basses walking and a waterfall of dual piano notes, it’s half modal and half freebop.

Age may have to withdraw for beauty sometimes. But in music the truly talented can produce beauty with intelligent content, because of their age and experience.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Song for My Sister 2. Sagitta 3. This 4. When the Whistle Blows 5. The Megaplexian 6. Step One, Two, Three 7. The Inside of the Star 8. Wind Change* 9. Count-Off

Personnel: Corey Wilkes (trumpet); Roscoe Mitchell (soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, flute, bass recorder, great bass recorder, percussion); Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer (pianos); Spencer Barefield (guitar); Jaribu Shahid and Leon Dorsey (basses); Gerald Cleaver (marimba, percussion, drums); Vincent Davis (drums, percussion); plus on*: Anders Svanoe (clarinet and bass clarinet); Willy Walter (bassoon); Janse H. Vincent (violin); Nels Buttmann (viola)