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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Pauline Oliveros, Roscoe Mitchell, John Tilbury, Wadada Leo Smith - Nessuno (i dischi di angelica, 2016) *****

By Nicola Negri

Nessuno, recorded live on 8 May 2011 at the always excellent AngelicA Festival in Bologna, Italy, features one of the most incredible line-ups ever, as it documents the one of a kind encounter of Pauline Oliveros, Roscoe Mitchell, John Tilbury and Wadada Leo Smith – simply some of the most important and influential musical thinkers of the last (and present) century.

With musicians like this, what could possibly go wrong? But free improvisation is ultimately about exploration and surprise, and even when putting together some of the best improvisers on earth the result is not guaranteed. With the strong instrumental voices present here, finding the right balance to effectively integrate the musical discourse without overpowering it demands a superior sense of ensemble thinking, and Nessuno (Italian for “nobody”) is indeed the perfect title for this record, as the performance demanded a complete openness to the possibilities of the encounter, accepting the risks inherent in the confrontation with different musical practices without resorting to the safety net of tried and true personal improvisational strategies. As soon as the record begins, it’s clear that the musicians effectively found a strong mutual understanding, constantly listening to each other, disappearing in the collective sound while retaining their personal traits.

The resulting performance inhabits a space between free improvisation and contemporary music, while referencing both the tradition of creative music (especially in Smith’s trumpet playing) and electroacoustic research (thanks to Oliveros’s digital accordion). The first few minutes are already perfectly calibrated, all the musicians facing the collective improvisation with the right dose of restraint, without sounding overly cautious. The dialogue is kept on the possibilities of counterpoint, dynamic development and tonal contrasts, until the musicians focus on more specific roles: Oliveros creates an ever-changing background to support the developing structure, while Tilbury delineates a wide net of musical signposts to broadly delimit the harmonic frame; Mitchell participates with a subtle and forceful textural work, and Smith assumes the soloist role, sketching long narrative arcs over the richly layered backdrop provided by the ensemble. These roles are of course fluid enough to keep the music constantly challenging and surprising, pulverizing the group in different combinations and relentlessly pushing the performance forward. The following track is a completely different take on the same basic principles: here the instrumental voices fully maintain their independence, building a dense four-way dialogue in which every musician contribute with clear ideas and a strong presence, always maintaining an extraordinary cohesiveness and structural coherence. The third and final piece is another tight collective exchange that concentrates the previous trajectories in a powerful burst of creative energy, brilliantly closing a truly monumental album – essential listening for anyone interested in the art of musical improvisation.

Pauline Oliveros – V-accordion
Roscoe Mitchell – alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute
John Tilbury – piano
Wadada Leo Smith – trumpet