Roscoe Mitchell/David Wessel

Rogueart Rog-0023 DVD + CD

Sometime in the 1970s when Chicago-based multi-reedist Roscoe Mitchell was experimenting with the expansion and alteration of acoustic timbres with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, David Wessel, with a doctorate in mathematical psychology was at Paris’ Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique Musique (IRCAM) developing interactive musical software for personal computers. Wessel’s subsequent position as music professor and director of Center for New Music and Audio Technologies at University of California Berkeley has extended to live improvising with players like trombonist George Lewis and saxophonist John Butcher. Wessel and Mitchell have been collaborating since the mid 1980s and this dual CD/DVD captures particularly fertile meetings on audio from Berkeley and on video from Paris.

Master of most woodwind instruments, Mitchell concentrates on alto and soprano saxophones here. Meanwhile, as the DVD illustrates, Wessel, who describes making music on a laptop as akin to “office work”, improvises using a specially designed touch sensitive interface called Thunder. Capable of creating more than the expected electronic static, blurs and twists, Thunder produces textures resembling those from guitar, organ, piano and accordion; plus miscellaneous percussion, reed and brass instruments. Processing in real time, Wessel also captures some of Mitchell’s initial timbres and alters them as they’re fed back into the mix.

Major statement of the CD is a two-part threnody “For Oliver Johnson”, honoring the late drummer. Known for his work with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, Johnson introduced Mitchell and Wessel. With an exposition that melds gentle soprano saxophone puffs with keyboard-like strokes and signal-processed wave forms, the meandering piece allows narrowed reed smears to uncoil with the same velocity as broken-octave oscillations. These forms soon take on spectral properties similar to those which tambura drones give classical Indian performances. While Wessel’s chordal obbligato remain constant, Mitchell varies his output among disconnected treble tones, upwards curling contralto vibrations and harsh overblowing. Solidifying his position with seemingly never-ending circular breathing, the saxophonist pitch-slides through the scales as the programmer produces a resonating texture that could come from a Jazz drummer. Eventually, after rough timbres and concentrated glottal punctuation are heard from both instrumentalists, Mitchell downshifts his tone from andante to adagio for a carefully measured final statement.

On much shorter tracks such as “The Call”, there’s more obvious give-and-take. Here Wessel’s electronics become reflective and pulsating, altering the sonic textures so that its slithering buzzes and oscillating flutters almost mirror Mitchell’s musette-like reed tones. Following a bit of piano-like chording, the programmed drone dissipates, revealing a near-lyrical, a cappella flutter-tongued ending from the saxophonist.

As an added bonus the DVD features a half-hour performance by Mitchell and Wessel captured in 2004 during the Résonances festival at IRCAM. Filmed almost exactly two years after the CD was recorded, the music is comparable and as memorable. Moreover at the end Wessel, transforming from performer to music professor, details some of the techniques involved in using electronics in improvisation. The DVD’s drawback however is that the filming of the performance is particularly static, apparently done with only one camera, or at least a minimum of camera angles.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. For Oliver Johnson Part 1 2. For Oliver Johnson Part 2 3. Orange Sky 4. Moving 5. Schreeds 6. Jakarta 7. The Call

Personnel: Roscoe Mitchell (alto and soprano saxophones) and David Wessel (Thunder touch sensitive interface in Max/MSP environment)