Click here to [close]

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Roscoe Mitchell - Bells for the South Side (ECM, 2017) ****½

By Martin Schray

At the end of the 1960s the situation for the publishing and production of avant-garde jazz music was very difficult, since the major labels were still reluctant as to signing artists and support them for a longer period of time, although there seemed to be an audience for this kind of music.  At that time Manfred Eicher, a jazz bassist and up-and-coming producer in his mid-twenties, decided to found a new label, ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music). Eicher’s plan was to establish a new approach by introducing a new way of high-class recording and presenting contemporary jazz. More so, he wanted to work with young musicians who were interested in uncharted fields of improvisation.

However, ECM was not the only German label which was initiated with this special intention. The same year Eicher started ECM in Munich (1969), Free Music Production (FMP) was founded in Berlin by a collective of musicians - mainly Jost Gebers, Peter Brötzmann and Peter Kowald. Although these two record companies represent two separate artistic ideas and producing values in terms of their approach to make music available, there is also an inevitable intersection as to their work. While FMP’s philosophy was focused on sonic condensation and piling up sounds in the style of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, ECM’s line was more closely connected to the more open music of the Jimmy Giuffre Trio and Lennie Tristano. And there’s another difference: FMP recorded many of their albums live, Eicher wanted to use modern studio equipment to develop a distinctive sound, an idea incredibly crucial.

Eicher has often been criticized for this ideology (e.g. when Peter Brötzmann said that he cut off the balls of powerful groups for his productions) but it seems to be important to keep in mind that his ideas aren’t based on artistic poshness but on the plain fact that inventive and challenging music should be presented with the best possible production standards.

Finally, let’s not forget the complex and experimental albums ECM has published during the years by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Dave Holland, Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, Joe Maneri, Barre Philips, Craig Taborn, and Roscoe Mitchell.

With Mitchell’s new album Bells for the South Side, Eicher combines both approaches mentioned above. It’s a live recording of an artist representing both the compact, uproarious side and the spacious, decompressed one, recorded with the best possible equipment.What is more, Bells for the South Side is the result of a performance premiering at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition "The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to now" displaying the history and legacy of Chicago’s "Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians" (AACM). For the first time, Mitchell combines his four trios, juxtaposing and re-organizing them into larger formations, and by that, exploring and surveying not only his own music, but the musical history and legacy of both the AACM and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. In two pieces the musicians use the percussion instruments of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (Don Moye’s and Malachi Favors’ set-ups, Lester Bowie’s bass drum and Roscoe Mitchell’s percussion cage) - an army of gongs, bells, rattles, sirens, hand drums and more of what the Art Ensemble called little instruments, which refers to the African tradition of this music. But that’s only one side of the coin.

On the one side, pieces like 'Spatial Aspects of the Sound', 'EP7849', 'Bells from the South Side', and 'R509A Twenty B' are programmatic and typical for ECM recordings. Mitchell’s musicians analyze the essence of their musical material and its spatiality, letting the music breathe by using long notes and well-chosen breaks, they work with the reverberant museum space. There are floating moments which are reluctantly wrapped around by figures that seem to appear from out of the blue and then vanish into the depth of the museum.

However, this is not euphonic and complacent, the compositions continually change colours and textures, for example in the lyrical, yet gloomy bass guitar feature for Jaribu Shahid in 'EP7849', Hugh Ragin’s extended and shrill trumpet solo in front of a myriad of bells in the title track or Mitchell's and Fei’s sharp-edged shouts in 'R509A Twenty B'.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of music based on the layering of sounds, compact and immensely tight. Music that displays Mitchell’s roots in the 1960s, wild and rampant. Especially the trio with Fei and Winant on 'Six Gongs and two Woodblocks' and the one with Taborn and Baku in 'Dancing in a Canyon' are rough rides on free jazz waves. The most prominent example is 'Red Moon in the Sky', the last but one track, a 17-minute cacophonous orgy including all twelve musicians, that’s built up slowly just to transcend the emotional spectrum displayed up to that moment.

The performance is concluded with 'Odwalla', the Mitchell-composed 1973 theme song of the Art Ensemble, the last reference to the history of Mitchell, the Art Ensemble and AACM.

Bells for the South Side is celebration and reinterpretation of Roscoe Mitchell’s work, but it is not self-satisfied, it’s ambitious and innovative, created by a then 75-year-old man (the album was recorded in September 2015), who’s still full of energy and looking ahead. It’s two hours of cutting edge avant-garde, finely conceived, mature and honed, cut to the chase. One of the best releases of 2017 so far.

The musicians:

  • Roscoe Mitchell - sopranino, soprano, alto and bass saxophones, flute, piccolo, bass recorder, percussion
  • James Fei - sopranino and alto saxophones, contra-alto clarinet, electronics
  • Hugh Ragin - trumpet, piccolo trumpet
  • Tyshawn Sorey - trombone, piano, drums, percussion
  • Craig Taborn - piano, organ, electronics
  • Jaribu Shahid - double bass, bass guitar, percussion
  • Tani Tabbal - drums, percussion
  • Kikanju Baku - drums, percussion
  • William Winant - percussion, tubular bells, glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba, roto toms, cymbals, bass drum, woodblocks, timpani

Watch “Spatial Aspects of the Sound“ here:


Unknown said...

Great review Martin. Man this is a great cd, glad I bought it.

Colin Green said...

If you want to hear Eicher as a bassist, try the Bob Degen Trio's Celebrations (Calig, 1968). Pretty good.

Steve N. said...

A great text Martin.
What amazes me with ECM, is the fact that after all these years, they still release so much good music. Manfred Eicher changed music history and he's still an essential player in the game.
And the same could be said about Roscoe Mitchell. Bells for the South Side is truly amazing!
For those he read french, here is what I wrote about it:

Steve N. said...

"for those he read french" ... Nonsense! "For those who read french" is what I meant.

Colin Green said...

C'est texte prédictive!

Steve N. said...

Yep. Sounds like predictive text!

Martin Schray said...

Thanks, Steve and vacuumtube1954 for the nice words. Interesting text as well, Steve, with a great link to Mitchell's famous Nickelsdorf solo performance.
Eicher's been an essential player in the game, that's for sure, with ECM being the most successful label at least in Europe. Although he reaches mainstream audiences with ECM, he's always been interested in more adventurous areas, too.