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Saturday, January 22, 2022

Tyler Mitchell ft Marshall Allen - Dancing Shadows (Mahakala, 2022)

By Sammy Stein

Bassist Tyler Mitchell has worked with stellar jazz musicians who have rightfully earned the title ‘legend’. They include John Hendricks, Shirley Horn and Mitchell’s long association with the Sun Ra Arkestra. He plays as leader and sidesman in the avante garde and traditional fields. From early in his career he has been surrounded by people who knew the greats of experimental jazz music like his bass teacher, Donald Raphael Garrett who worked with Coltrane, Shepp and Kirk and Malachi Favors who worked with the Art ensemble of Chicago. With the Sun Ra Arkestra, Mitchell recorded two albums and toured before joining Art Taylor’s Wailers and then Jon Hendrick’s for his 1990 European tour. He recorded the Grammy nominated album ‘Freddie Freeloader’ with Hendricks, Wynton Marsalis, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Al Grey and Al Jarreau among others. Since the late 1990s Mitchell has played with Rashied Ali, Frank Lowe and others, and continues to play with the Sun Ra Arkestra and with his own group.

Mitchell now releases Dancing Shadow on Mahakala music. The recording features the playing of the Sun Ra Arkestra leader Marshall Allen. Mitchell and Allen have known each other since the mid- 1980s and resumed their partnership over the past decade when Mitchell rejoined the Arkestra after taking a sabbatical during which he gained in musical knowledge and explored different paths. He travelled extensively in Europe, Mexico, Cuba and Central America. Allen and Mitchell have a lot in common besides the influence of their former leader, Sun Ra. Both players find common ground and cross-pollinate experiences in both free and compositional jazz music. Both are still exploring, learning and this album is the product of a collaboration which goes deeper than simply playing in the same outfit. Marshall is 97 years old but has lost nothing in his playing, nor his passion for the music, which is demonstrated by the superlative expression which he brings to the arrangements. If anything, listening to recordings where Allen plays in the 1970s and comparing them to now, Allen is even more adventurous perhaps and it is a joy to hear him on this album.

This project has been a vision for Mitchell for several years and for the recording, he brings to the album musicians Chris Hemmingway (tenor sax), Nicoletta Manzini (alto sax), Wayne Smith (drums) and Elson Nascimento (percussion), and the sextet deliver both horn arrangements and free passages with aplomb.

When Mitchell returned to the Arkestra in 2010 he felt he had to do a project with Allen and says, “ I said, ‘You've got to do a project with me one day!' I was just waiting for this moment to come. Oh man, it's beautiful, man! Everything just came so natural with Marshall. He's a master, man. He's from before be bop; he's from the swing era, you know?”

Allen is indeed steeped in swing as well as free jazz, he left his native Louisville, Kentucky during World War II. He played clarinet and alto saxophone with the U.S. Army's 17th Division Special Service Band, spent the late '40s working with James Moody, then studied at the Paris Conservatory of Music. By 1951, he had returned to the U.S. and, in 1958, joined Sun Ra's Arkestra, with whom he's been associated ever since. With James Spaulding initially being Ra's main alto player, Allen was encouraged to cultivate other talents over the years, including flute, oboe, piccolo, and EVI (a brass- and wind-based controller for synthesizer). Moreover, the Arkestra was the perfect ensemble for Allen to perfect his expressive, non-chordal approach, full of howls and birdsongs. His lifetime of music has given Marshall a full-house of expertise in all idioms within the genre.

Nowadays, when Allen leads the Arkestra, Mitchell says he, “covers all the different styles in jazz when we do a concert. It's not just swing, it's not just free. It covers a little bit of everything. We mix it all up, with some free stuff and old Fletcher Henderson stuff, to rhythmic songs with different kinds of layers. That's why this record has got a little bit of everything.”

The compositions of Sun Ra are the perfect vehicle for this eclecticism, especially those from the earliest years of the Arkestra, and the album includes Interstellar Low Ways, Angels & Demons at Play, Dancing Shadows, Carefree, Enlightenment and A Call for All Demons. However, don’t expect slavish reproduction on this album, with these musicians. As Mitchell points out, “Marshall was on all those records back in the day. But he chose not to sit and play the same arrangements. He preferred to put something fresh on top. A new line. He didn't want to just do his line again, like back in the '50s. He wanted to create on the spot.”

The set is rounded out with a Thelonious Monk tune, “Skippy,” two by the alto player Manzini and three by Mitchell himself. His contributions spring directly from his impressions of his fellow players. “Nico” and “Nico Revisited” refer to Manzini's nickname. Mitchell says, “We did a couple of takes on the song, and they were so similar, yet so different. That's why I called the other one 'revisited'.” His third was inspired by Allen, but actually begins with Mitchell’s bass solo. “I had him directing me,” says Mitchell. “He directed me so I could go off into it. 'Marshall the Deputy' is the title — that's what Sun Ra used to call him. It was a play on words: You've got the Marshall and you've got the deputy.”

The ensemble on the recording have a certain freedom in their playing, yet they also comply with the arrangements on some of the numbers where notation is clearly heard. Mitchell explains, “ I thought the voicings from the horns would do all the chords I needed. “Sometimes a piano can really lock a person in, you know? It locks you up where you can't get out and be free. But when the piano and guitar are gone, I can play a lot of different notes. A lot of different things that ordinarily would clash with the piano.”

Mitchell was keen to try some of Sun Ra’s tunes with a smaller band than the Arkestra. “The tenor player, Chris Hemmingway, joined the band just recently, and he turned out to be really good. Nicoletta is one of Marshall's proteges. She put a lot of arrangements together, and put in a lot of stuff to make it really happening. The horns kept things from really sounding too out there. The way they blew around the music really kept a cohesiveness around each song, where it wasn't just a soloist blowing. The shape of the song was always there. And then the drummer and the percussionist both play with the Sun Ra band, so they knew the music I wanted to do. It really paid to have somebody who knew the songs. I just did them a little different,” says Mitchell

And then there was Allen. Mitchell says, “Marshall will improvise on the spot. And if a song's too nice and neat and clean and all too perfect, he'll come and just mess it all up. You don't want it to be all too perfect. He likes to have the chaos. Because he believes there are no wrong notes, you know? His philosophy is, you play one note, you make a mistake, and then say something right. Then make another mistake. Say something wrong. He hears the song like that. 'Play something wrong! Now play something right! Now play something wrong!' I just let Marshall do his thing. Everybody else had special things they had to play, arrangements to follow, but Marshall, I just let him do what he does. I really had no instructions for him except to direct us. We do a lot of free stuff, and use a lot of space chords and all that. I need him to direct us. Other than that, I just want him to fill in all the right places, and put his signature on it.”

And on the album Allen does precisely that. He fills the spaces, where needed, he adds delicacy where it is right and he blasts freely where it is fitting to do so. The final product is the perfect synthesis of freedom and constraint, hard bop and sonic texture. The listener is never lulled into complacency. And this goes for Mitchell himself: “Each song's got a different vibe,” he says, “and I still listen to the music. I usually don't like to listen to what I've done. I don't like to keep hearing myself. But this particular record really holds my attention.”

‘A Call for All Demons’ is a beautiful thing – a combination of steadfast rhythms, Mitchell told me, “this is one of my favorites. I was inspired by the constant repetition played by the horns section, while Marshall solos”. The solos from Allen are indeed awesome, soaring out across the top.

‘Angels and Demons’ is definitely out there; a lot of atmosphere, spacey, warping electronic echoes and gentle, eased back melodies on the horns. Written by Sun Ra, Allen and bassist Ronny Boykins, it is weird, wonderful and very Ra in its essence. Mitchell says, “This song inspired me because of the buzzy bass line, in 5/4 time, and the laid-back melody gives it a very floating feeling.” In the third section, the timpanic sound of the percussion adds power and contrast to the track.

‘Care Free’, a Ra number, is presented here with an emphasis on Allen’s wailing, and his screech of a melody which cuts like a knife across the melodies sustained underneath. An extraordinary track, this is a perfect vehicle for free and arranged playing to successfully unite.

‘Dancing Shadows’ has no chord lines and is a freely explored episode during which the drums lay down ferocious, fast flowing lines for the sax to slice across – which it does admirably, and along with the bass, works a web of wonder with the tenor, bass and soaring alto conspiring to produce seemingly anarchic sounds, yet which have such control it is inspiring.

‘Enlightenment’ holds a place in Mitchell’s heart because Sun Ra wrote the bass line for him to learn decades back. He says, “This is a song that Sun Ra wrote the bass line for me to learn. I thought I would at least have one song on which I bowed the melody. I did this for Sun Ra”. The bass line is lovely and the sax solos are a delight on the ear. They are underpinned by steady, slightly swung drums. The track travels several musical roads, from swingy, melodic jazz to free, perfectly disharmonic purity, Allen making the alto speak pearls of visceral musical wisdom across the top of the rhythm patterns. The ensemble combines swing and free jazz in a manner which is completely engaging.

‘Interstellar Low Ways’ has a call and response in the melody and is a tribute to Sun Ra, (whose album of the same name was released on Saturn in 1966). Allen delivers a different version of his playing here and for almost seven and half minutes, the melody is re-arranged and explored with the musicians coming together at times and supporting at others to create a memorable track. It is seriously a track for lying back, closing your eyes and simply listening to a master or two playing.

‘Marshalls The Deputy’ is introduced by the bass, with the saxes and drums responding before the sax and percussion interact with fierce statements, interruptions and retorts, all of which combine to create a madcap and enjoyable escapade.

Nico revisited is a version of the following track ‘Nico’ which was written for Nicoletta Manzini because Mitchell wanted to showcase her ear for harmonies. Here, the band do a take two (before take one in the order on the album) and the softness of the harmonies are gentle and almost tentative, showing another side to the sax playing of Allen and Manzini together and in harmony. There is a sense of historical elements being brought into this modern composition.

‘Nico’ was, as I said above, written for Manzini. Mitchell explains ,“I wrote ‘Nico’ for the alto saxophonist Nicoletta Manzini , she has such a ear for harmonies , which inspired me to write this ballad. The harmonies from the saxophones replace the piano chords.”

Here, the melody is pure, beautifully simple and played with emotion and variation to create a sensual and evocative moment – or several. There is a thoughtfulness to this track which is beautifully simple.

‘Skippy’, says Mitchell “has always being a most challenging of the compositions by Thelonious Monk. I thought it would be a good idea to mix a funky James Brown groove on Monk, with avant-garde improvisation from Marshall Allen” and it works a treat. The syncopation contained in the different lines create a contrast with the harmonic interludes from the horns and the track has an attractive and well worked theme which is varied and sounds as if it could have been played in a club during the 1950s as easily as it is today.

‘Space travellers’ is barmy, chaotic yet centres itself around a key and theme. It was written, according to Mitchell, because it is how Manzini imagines outer space to be like.

Frankly if it sounds like this, there is nothing to fear.

‘Spaced Out’ was written by Manzini, and, Mitchell told me it was inspired by free improvisation around Manzini’s obscure melody and Marshall’s electric horn (evi). The evi adds very surreal overarching sounds to the bells, stilted melodies and slightly overworked harmonies in this track but it works because the musicians involved know exactly how to draw it back to the key and central theme.

This album is everything you could want in a jazz album. There is a distinctive lean to the past, but the past is brought forward rather then yearned for, there is improvisation and completely free playing, yet there is a tying together, a return which is so important and happens in nearly every track, grounding the listener back to the keys and themes dictated by the players. Individuals yet working together so well, led by Mitchell, inspired by combined experiences and enhanced by the playing of one absolute master alto saxophonist.