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.