June 28, 2013
A rare glimpse of Roscoe Mitchell’s singular skills as an orchestrator and conductor, the fascination of Numbers is how well an 11-piece strings-and-horns ensemble can balance the saxophonist’s notated and improvisational tropes so that the core of the reedman’s creativity is maintained.
Recorded at a Sardinian Jazz festival, the program’s bets are hedged in two different ways. For a start the three compositions were either – in the case of “Quintet #1 for Eleven” and “Quintet #9 for Eleven” – transcribed from charts Mitchell created for his working combo, then rearranged to allow free sections in this score for the larger group, or in the third, based on game theory. Now titled “Cards for Orchestra”, but really “Memories of a Dying Parachutist”, the track is an aleatory invention, where each solo is based on six cards of musical instruction given to each player by the composer. The instructions can be used in any order and played at any tempo.
Globally, the fail safe to prevent the expanded program degenerating into New music pretentiousness is that the players are members of flutist Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble. Chicago-based, all have close connections if not outright membership in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (ACCM), which Mitchell helped organize in the mid-1960s. Thus despite the presence of violin, cello, harp, flute and soprano vocalist beside the horns and rhythm section, everyone is fully conversant with the intricacies of improvised music.
This becomes most evident in the conclusive “Quintet #9 for Eleven” where the penultimate section is given over to a swing sequence that balances pianist Myra Melford’s high-frequency comping and Mitchell’s harsh, double-tongued tremors with an unambiguous groove from bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Marcus Evans. In contrast the exposition is made up of melodic patterning from the four strings and graceful legato puffs from trumpeter Robert Griffin. Throughout, the theme bounces between formalist impulses and freer one characterized by piano pitter patters and drum backbeats. A climatic crescendo is delineated at midpoint as Maja’s careful harp glissandi are balanced with the yipping, yodeling and warbling from vocalist Mankwe Ndosi. Following a rhythm section impelled sequence loose ends are wrapped up with sul tasto sweeps from cellist Tomeka Reid plus more harp glissandi.
Slightly lengthier, “Quintet #1 for Eleven” works the same way with some outstanding soloing present in the form of contrapuntal note clusters and stop-time expression from Melford plus cymbal cracks, a basso see-saw from the cellist and bassist, a spiccato outpouring from violinist Renée Baker plus a smooth-to-rough variation from alto saxophonist Greg Ward that begins romantically and concludes dissonantly.
Possibly because its core is wedded to a highly symbolic poem verbalized theatrically and sometimes raucously by Ndosi, the otherwise languid “Cards for Orchestra” inhabits a space of its own. Notwithstanding a blend of piano string plucks, guzheng-like harp sweeps, mellow plunger trumpet and peeping flute comments, the cumulative instrumental shudder seem to be disconnected from the recitation.
Despite this potential misstep, each of the tracks seems to reach its point of demarcation in a noticeable and mostly rewarding fashion. Then again, if both Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble and the saxophonist/composer were given the amount of rehearsal time and funding that routinely go to so-called classical composers and ensembles, imagine what potential masterworks could be realized.
Track Listing: 1. Quintet #1 for Eleven 2. Cards for Orchestra 3. Quintet #9 for Eleven
Personnel: Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble: Robert Griffin (trumpet); Nicole Mitchell (flutes and piccolo); Greg Ward (alto saxophone); David Boykin (tenor saxophone); Myra Melford (piano); Renée Baker (violin); Tomeka Reid (cello); Joshua Abrams (bass); Maia (harp); Marcus Evans (drums); Mankwe Ndosi (vocal) and Roscoe Mitchell (conduction)