Solo [3]
Mutable Music 17515

One of the first reedists to perform and record solo, Roscoe Mitchell has upped the ante even higher with this magnum opus. Almost 40 year after the Art Ensemble of Chicago founder and Association for the Advancement of Creative Music leader pioneer waxed a solo saxophone LP, he’s confident enough of his material to turn out this three-CD set. Luckily each disc offers something different.

CD2, Solar Flares for Alto Saxophone, showcases manipulations of his main axe, with the output more concerned with legato story telling than the sort of multiphonic techniques most soloists exploit. Almost self-explanatory, The Percussion Cage and Music on the Go, CD3, features a few soprano saxophone explorations as well as Mitchell exhibiting his prowess banging, hitting and thumping the hundreds of little instruments he has gathered into a four-sided Rube Goldberg-style contraption he dubs a percussion cage. Most unusual is CD1, Tech Ritter and the Megabytes, where the reedist who has been involved in New music and electronics over the years, double and triple tracks his sax work to create interlocking reed bands.

With 38 tracks, lasting from 43 seconds — “Green Sky”, a slurred soprano sax outpouring on CD3 — to almost 20 minutes — “November 18, 2000” on CD1, a soprano saxophone showcase from a concert in Essen, Germany — quality and execution varies. Some of the most memorable pieces play varied percussive timbres off against one another or contrast saxophone tones.

Because of this — especially in a three CD context — the solo saxophone disc offers the fewest surprises. Each of the 10 numbers seems to unroll at the same meandering tempo, with only the odd bent note muddying the output. All tunes are lyrical in a post-modern way and at almost 10½ minutes “The great red spot”, the longest, is typical of them all. Working, as others do, with elongated up-and-down runs, after a couple of minutes Mitchell introduces reedy resonation that vibrates against the metal. The final third contrasts lower-pitched tenor sax-like resonation and pinched, ney-like runs as separate split tones. When they finally unite, the result is satisfying and appropriate.

Satisfaction has to be spread among 21[!] tracks on the third CD, with Mitchell on some tracks moving among the hundreds of real and invented instruments he has crammed into his percussion cage and playing solo soprano sax on others. Among the more consistent tones produced are ones from gongs, air horns, whistles, tubular bells, claxons, hollow logs, balophones, wood blocks, real drums that are or resemble batas or djembes, triangles, toy xylophones, glass armonicas and temple bells.

A piece like “Truly”, for example, contrasts hollow clip clops with woodblock thwacks, rim shots plus vibrated finger cymbal timbres that resonate for many second at a time. “Clocks”, living up to its name, uses the reverberations of hanging temple bells and cowbells to replicate the regular pulse of clocks. Later smacks on hollow wood and hubcaps cut through the unwavering tones.

Despite its Sun Ra-like title, “It Was Only a Nebula Away” pales beside the Arkestra’s percussive inventiveness. Beginning with gong resonation, small items like knitting needles propel rhythms from, chimes, bells and hollow logs, with these tones succeeded by teeny tiny toy xylophone-style vibrations. As a woody polyphony makes an appearance, double timed bounces bring gongs and snares into the picture. Shorter pieces concentrate on chime reverberations or metallic vibrations.

Meanwhile, compositions like the interconnected “An Ambiguous Sign of Life” and “On Rolling Hills” pretty much sum up Mitchell’s solo soprano work. Almost bizarre when a sax riff appears in the midst of percussion, the reedist builds most of his solos around split tones. On these two pieces, and other shorter ones, the idea appears to be how the soprano’s nasal vibrations can be subdivided into secondary, chirruping lines until the two are compressed into one elongated tone.

Recorded live at the same concert as “November 18, 2000”, “November 17, 2000”, on CD1 is a more impressive soprano saxophone showcase. Here Mitchell contrasts an unstable lower-pitched tone and near whistling from a higher-pitched one. As his harsh, hunting horn-like slant gets more angular and grainy, he introduces circular breathing — creating split tone shards that vie for space with one another. Sideslipping into different keys, he varies the output with glottal punctuation and tongue stopping. Surmounting all that has gone before with a diaphragm-related vibrato, his splayed reed tones split into small peeps and sharp tongue slaps. Decelerating down to foreshortened notes, he ends overblowing, as if he’s sounding more than one reed instrument a time.

That’s certainly true for “The Little Big Horn 2 for Bb bass and Eb sopranino saxophones” where he’s comfortable enough in the situation to make the named saxes sound like they’re duetting in real time. With shrill trills from sopranino and pedal point snorts from bass, there’s no obvious disconnect between the two.

Additionally, the two short roughs of the CD’s title tune, “Tech Ritter and the Megabytes”, finds him going saxophone combos like the Word Saxophone Quartet one better, creating a shifting miasma of overdriven smeared tones. Finally, his two experiments with the percussion cage, sound much more impressive isolated from other percussion tracks. Especially noteworthy is “1999/2002 For Flute and Percussion Cage.” Using an undercurrent of steel drum-like portamento and straight thwacks on cymbal and drum heads, without overdubbing, Mitchell produces both a light, legato flute tone and a resonating basso trill from the horizontal metal.

Longtime Mitchell fans will probably rate these CDs higher. They certainly provide insight into Mitchell’s value as an instrumentalist, composer and improviser. But in three CDs some less-than-stellar tracks are included. To properly appreciate the oeuvre, the massive musical meal should be taken in slow, small bites.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD 1: Tech Ritter and the Megabytes: 1. The Little Big Horn 2 for Bb bass and Eb sopranino saxophones 2. November 18, 2000 for Bb soprano saxophone 3. 1999/2002 For Flute and Percussion Cage 4.Tech Ritter and the Megabytes/Improvisation for two altos, tenor and bass saxophones 5. November 17, 2000); for Bb soprano saxophone, 6. A dim distant world for percussion cage 7. Tech Ritter and the Megabytes/Composition for alto, soprano, tenor and bass saxophones CD 2: Solar Flares for Alto Saxophone: 1. Nemus 2. Beyond Neptune 3. The Kyper Belt 4. Miranda 5. As the Sun went Down He would Look Up 6. Icy Pearls 7. The Great Red Spot 8. The Forgotten Players of the Solar System 9. Methane Snow 10. Frozen in Time CD 3: The Percussion Cage and Music on the Go: 1. Horn Bell and Drum 2.Clear Pictures 3. The Park 4. The Mercurians 5. Clocks 6. A Surface Covered with Cracks 7. Meteor 8. Rings 9. Some Flowers were Seen 10. Rock Number 84001 11. An Ambiguous Sign of Life 12. On Rolling Hills 13. Jump 14. Green Sky 15. One Two and Red Blew 16. Truly 17. It Was Only a Nebula Away 18. Next Stop Titan 19. At Corona’s End 20. Dust 21. Sailing

Personnel: Roscoe Mitchell (sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor and bass saxophones and percussion cage)