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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Roscoe Mitchell with Ostravská Banda , Plays Distant Radio Transmissions (Also Nonaah Trio, Cutouts for Wind Quintet, and 8.8.88) (Wide Hive, 2020) ****

By Gary Chapin

My gateway into modern chamber music was, believe it or don’t, the AACM and Art Ensemble of Chicago, which, I know, is not the way it’s supposed to go. But the AEC, amidst everything else, had these chamber-ish pieces that eschewed the usual appeals to emotion (via repetition, pattern, dynamic shift, density, or what Andrew Cyrille called “that feeling of levitation we call swing”) and were, instead, evenly pulse-less, pace-less thoughtful provocations. They refused to trigger me in the usual way, and got thoroughly under my skin and still get to me. Then, in 1990 or ‘91, I heard Thomas Buckner sing with Roscoe Mitchell at a Songs in the Wind performance and I was, as they say, ensorceled.

In Distant Radio Transmissions, Buckner returns to Mitchell’s side as an improvising soloist, and that’s just one of the interesting things about this recording. Performed with the Czech modern classical ensemble, Ostravská Banda , the title piece is based mainly on a transcription of an improvised trio done by Mitchell, Craig Taborn, and Kikanju Baku on Mitchell’s 2013 Conversations I album. I say “mainly” because there were a few other steps along the way before Mitchell orchestrated it in 2017 for the Ostrava Days Festival of that year. I mention these steps of provenance because another of the interesting things about this recording is the relationship between through composition and improvisation. Mitchell is best thought of (by me, anyway) as a prolifically creative improviser. The bulk of “Distant Radio Transmissions” is through composed (transcribed and orchestrated) based on a previously recorded improvisation, and on top of this further improvisations (from Mitchell’s soprano sax and Buckner’s voice, for example) ensue.

The Nonaah Trio (piano, flute, oboe) is based on Mitchell’s masterwork solo alto saxophone pieces from his 1971Nonaah album. Here he builds upon them and makes through composed trio works (upon which he does not play). It’s worth noting that for a later commission, Mitchell expanded the solo sax work and “infuse[d] it with the grandeur of a full orchestra” for another festival in Glasgow. The “Cutouts for Wind Quintet” is, again, completely notated (I keep mentioning this because Mitchell himself does in the notes), and, again, it’s based on a series of concepts that originally were constructed for an improvising ensemble. The final piece, “8.8.88,” was composed for pianist Joseph Kubera, but is here executed on a disklavier and — as with Frank Zappa’s works for synclavier — the precision allowed by the technology gives the work a relentless energy and lightness. There are three short movements that really take the top of your head off, a brilliant encore to the whole recital.

And that’s what this recording is, metaphorically, a recital featuring a variety of Roscoe Mitchell’s chamber compositions truly illuminating the organic, generative relationship between composition and improvisation. I don’t think that relationship is controversial anymore, though it’s still worthy of comment, and it still surprises at times how powerful the music of that relationship can be. I’m tempted to bring out one of my favorite free jazz listener bon mots — “If you like this sort of thing, then you’ll like this sort of thing.” — but that tautology could go at the head of any review I write. I might put it on a tee shirt.

The fact is that Roscoe Mitchell is very good at this sort of thing and it comes naturally from him, and naturally to us. It isn’t mechanistic (despite the disklavier). It isn’t a confrontation. It isn’t tectonic. It’s ecosystemic. It is grounding, interesting, intriguing. It absorbs all the curiosity we have. And builds causes and effects upon implications, intended or not. This month it has actually provided comfort. It’s been that kind of a month. And it’s that kind of music.

Purchase at Wide Hive Records.


Captain Hate said...

Nice review. Are those earlier transcriptions from the Conversations discs the ones that were done for Ride the Wind on Nessa and Discussions on some other label, maybe Wide Hive?

Gary Chapin said...

I honestly don't know, but would be interested to find out.

Sam Byrd said...

I enjoyed this review--and yes, definitely, the music of AACM (particularly Muhal, Braxton, Jarman, and Mitchell) were great introductions for me to modern chamber music. To answer Captain Hate's question, yes. Roscoe Mitchell has mined the improvisations from the two "Conversations" albums for "Ride the Wind" (Nessa), "Discussions" and "Littlefield Concert Hall" (both on Wide Hive), and two pieces on "Splatter" (IDA). "Splatter" includes another orchestral version of "Distant Radio Transmission" with Thomas Buckner. It's all wonderful music, and I am continually amazed at how Mitchell has opened up and expanded the inspiration he obviously got from the sessions with Craig Taborn and Kikanju Baku. As I've said elsewhere, Roscoe's on a roll!

Captain Hate said...

Thanks to Sam Byrd which I didn't notice until last night. Yes, who'd have thought that the material from two trio sessions would be the inspiration for so many expanded applications. It's really the output of a fertile mind with no sign of slowing up.