Roscoe Mitchell’s Chicago Trio

Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo
CODA Issue 335

Vastly dissimilar in attire, the members of Roscoe Mitchell’s Chicago Trio aptly demonstrated to the audience at an almost full auditorium at Buffalo, N.Y.’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery in late April that cohesive improvisation doesn’t demand sartorial consistency.

Suitably dapper in well-cut shirt and trousers, the veteran Art Ensemble of Chicago reedist convoluted harsh split tones, extended circular breathing and touches of foot-tapping melodies into a singular statement on alto and soprano saxophone during two set-long pieces. Alternately whacking or stroking precise tones from his double bass or cello was Harrison Bankhead, resplendent in casual sports shirt and straw boater, who took a position to Mitchell’s right on the well-lit, bare stage. In the middle, using sideswipes and back beats with equal finesse was drummer Vincent Davis, in rustic black turtleneck and jeans.

Mitchell, whose usually dour expression masks the elation he brings to creation, played swiftly and speedily on alto saxophone. On the curved horn his output varied from close-packed, circular-breathed elongated phrases; to classic Free Jazz that used harsh squawks and multiphonics to scrape all prettiness from errant note patterns; to a set-closing blues line that apparently channeled jump-band altoist Tab Smith.

Diaphragm-expelled overblowing at one point made his cumulative notes resemble those of a bagpipe. Distinctively see-sawing his torso as he played, plus constantly repositioning his mouthpiece during solos, Mitchell’s soprano saxophone pitch varied from snake-charmer nasality to bursts of legato arpeggios. Still, his constant molten flow of notes while sharp and staccato, never sounded overly abstract.

Bankhead, who also plays in the Indigo Trio and the 8 Bold Souls, is no slouch in the technique department himself. At one point following a series of grinding arco runs from his bass, he displayed two bows which he then manipulated cross-wise on the strings to produce extra cadences and color. Able to triple-stop and strum with guitar-like facility when he unveiled his pizzicato talents, he set up a formula that made it seems as if he was playing call-and-response on a single instrument. He actually does double however. Spiccato slaps and sweeps from his cello were showcased at one point to temper the dissonance of Mitchell’s abrasive alto saxophone peeps and squeaks.

Content to stay slightly in the background – and not just because of the instrumental set-up on the stage – Davis’ only overt display came in the penultimate minutes of the final tune, when his suddenly vociferous cymbal splashes and bass drum rumbles momentarily masked the other two’s sounds. Throughout, however, his rhythmic reactions unrolled in sympathetic – if contrapuntal – pulses. Reining in any errant time meandering with ruffs, rolls and ratamacues, his tendency was to slap, not pummel parts of his kit, with felt-tipped mallets and wire brushes literally at hand, as frequently as drum sticks were brought into play.

Satisfying and memorable, it could be that the only negative parts of the Buffalo performance – besides lack of an encore – was that Mitchell’s unique tough-romance flute procedure never appeared, despite the instrument itself being prominently displayed on stage.

— Ken Waxman