eMusic Interview: Roscoe Mitchell
eMusic contributor Seth Colter Walls spoke with Roscoe Mitchell about his new release on Mutable Music, NOT YET.
Saxophonist and composer Roscoe Mitchell has been at the forefront of innovation in jazz — hell, in music in general — ever since his landmark 1966 recording Sound. With that debut, he helped usher in a less constantly frenetic avant-garde. Though Mitchell and his cohorts from Chicago’s South Side revolutionaries in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) could bust reeds and pound with the best experimental screamers, they also thrilled to the spare, austerely gentle classical modernism of Anton Webern (for example).
Sound, along with subsequent titles from the “Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble,” issued by the Delmark and Nessa labels, would be the proving ground for a band that would eventually take on a different, better-known name: The Art Ensemble of Chicago. While serving a year as the toasts of France in 1969-70, the band cut more than a dozen records — three of which were re-released this year in a box set (including the often rare “Reese and the Smooth Ones,” which makes the collection an extraordinarily good deal). By the time they rotated back to the U.S., the Chicago scene that had influenced Mitchell in his post-Army days had already made significant inroads in New York. Mitchell hasn’t looked back since, whether as a teacher at Mills College (where he currently has the Darius Milhaud chair in composition) or as a gigging and recording musician. This year has already seen two fantastic new albums from Mitchell: the classically-oriented Not Yet, on Mutable Music, and a record of duets with drummer-pianist Tyshawn Sorey. (Trumpeter Hugh Ragin appears on a few cuts, too.)
Ahead of his headlining appearance at the Vision Festival in New York this June, eMusic’s Seth Colter Walls caught up with the busy, 72-year-old Mitchell to talk about his early years in the company of Albert Ayler, his recent orchestral commissions, and what it’s like to listen to those first Art Ensemble records today.
This summer, you’ll be playing in a trio with the legendary bassist Henry Grimes. When did you first hear Grimes — and what role, if any, did it have in your development?
Well Henry, I mean he has a lot of knowledge about music. When I was first starting to change the direction of my music, I was listening to him on some of those ESP records.
Like The Call?
Yeah. So it was great to actually get a chance to play music with him. The first time we played, he was in California doing some concerts, so I had him come in to talk to my improv class…This will be the third performance together.
When you talk about the “change” in the direction of your music, I assume this was before Sound and your introduction to the AACM. What else was going on in that period for you?
You know, I had heard Ornette Coleman when I was in the Army and so on. And then I had the pleasure of being in the company of Albert Ayler, as he was in [France] then, and I was in Heidelberg, Germany.
And we would meet in Berlin and join with the Berlin band — and ah…Then it would be sessions going on. When I met Albert Ayler I didn’t really understand that much of what he was doing. But I did know that, as a saxophonist, he had an enormous sound on the instrument. Once we were playing the blues, and Albert played, you know, the first few chords in a conventional way. And then after that, he began to really stretch the materials. Somehow that made some kind of connection for me…Even then even when I got back to Chicago I wasn’t sold on it totally, at sessions I was still playing in a more conventional way.
But then it really wasn’t until I got out of the Army and I started listening to John Coltrane’s record, Coltrane. He was doing, like, “Out of This World.”
That was the first “classic quartet” title for Impulse, right?
That’s right. And using kind of a modal concept for improvisation. Then, from that point on, is when I started to open up and started really listening.
Let’s talk about the new album of classical compositions. The title piece “Not Yet,” for piano and saxophone, is really extraordinary: You can hear the influence of certain types of jazz improvisation in it, but it sounds completely written out, at least to my ear. Is that correct?
It is notated. It was commissioned by 10 saxophonists; a lot of times they’ll get together to pool their money for a commission. It was probably written — let’s see — back in 2004.
And there are two new arrangements on the album of an infamous piece of yours, “Nonaah” [pronounced no-NAY-ah], which started out as a solo piece, on the album of the same name. Not Yet has an edition for a saxophone quartet, and then a chamber orchestra version conducted by Petr Kotik. Why, three decades later, the continued engagement with “Nonaah”?
I can’t seem to get away from it right now! [laughs]…One of my students, Jacob Zimmerman, is organizing a concert in Seattle, and he wanted to do an evening of several types of versions for that piece, so I did another arrangement for his ensemble that has synthesizers and so on and all of that. And they’re doing a few of the versions of the piece on that concert. Next year I’m doing a version of that piece for four bass saxophones at the Other Minds festival, here in California. And now I’ve got an opportunity to have an orchestra piece done by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow.
Will they play the same arrangement as Peter Kotik’s ensemble, on the new album?
They’re perfectly willing to do it in the format that it’s in…And look: I thought they [the chamber orchestra] did a good job on [the new album]. Peter Kotik was out here for a like a week, for a week-long rehearsal, which helps putting this large of a project together. And then plus I had good musicians. But I think it would be nice with a full orchestra — with the brass and timpani, really there’s no percussion on the chamber orchestra piece, and it’s a very percussive piece, in the wind instruments…
Totally. Almost brutally repetitive. Pianist Ethan Iverson has called it, with much admiration, “hardcore.”
Yeah. So to add that extra thing on it like that: I think would be great. So here I am: Not following my advice, I always tell people, “Oh I don’t want to do an orchestra piece.” Because you know, “I’m never gonna get it performed if I finish writing it anyway.”
But I’m here now, wanting to have something that really addresses the full-size orchestra. So I’ve started to set down notes to see what it would be to develop that piece into a full orchestra version. I don’t know why I’m so wrapped up in this piece. I guess if I did that, at least I will have taken this piece from solo all the way to full-size orchestra. I suppose that’s something.
Absolutely. Why do you think people are so taken with this jagged, atonal composition, though?
Now, that’s a good question. Because I remember writing that piece, it was at a time when I moved out of Chicago and moved out into the country. Because I just wanted to get out of the city, you know, to have more time to work on stuff. And I got there, I looked in the mirror and I didn’t see anything. But what did come out of that period was the “Nonaah” piece, because I had set down to write a projected solo for the saxophone. And the idea I had going in with this piece was I wanted to have solo pieces for saxophone that would give the illusion of sounding like it was being played on more than one instrument. So I thought to exploit different registers of the saxophone — with these wide interval leaps — to take advantage of how the saxophone sounds from one register to the next register. And, I dunno! People seemed to like that piece. Eddie Harris always told me: don’t ever get a hit. I was talking to one of my students about that and he said, “Well man, maybe this is your hit.”
Ah, you’ve got lots of hits. What does that history feel like to you now, looking back?
Certainly I feel good, you know, if I go put on a piece of music that was recorded a long time ago and if it still sounds good and sounds fresh. It’s also the relationships that you build. People in the AACM: It’s comforting to know that if you have a concert, you can get people that you have a history with and go right back at it, the same way we did in the early days, with the rehearsals and so on, and [present] something that’s successful.
How long has it been since you’ve played with Anthony Braxton?
I think it’s been three or four years ago. In Rome, we did a duo concert together.
You have to bring that act to New York. People would be into it.
Yeah, that would be great.
Do you have a favorite Art Ensemble recording?
Ah I don’t know. I was doing a lecture [recently] on the AACM and the early days of the Art Ensemble and I just went to the shelf and pulled out A Jackson in Your House. I was really getting into that man! So in hearing that…I have to make sure that I’m not out here cattin’ out on the past. [laughs] Because some of these things I’m listening to, these things are like, really happenin’! I’ve got to try to make sure I’m there, the way I was!
How do you prepare?
For me it’s always [about] trying to have a language. Working on those kinds of things. Before some recent solo concerts I was [looking at] a Michael Jordan interview, about he prepared for games. So I’m basically looking at my schedule, I see that I’ve got a concert where I’m doing two 50-minute sets. And so, when I’m turning on my timer, I’m playing for that amount of time. So I’m accustomed to being in that kind of state. Similar to what he’s saying: practicing every scenario that might actually happen in a game. I’m just a mere student of music. There’s so much to learn about music, it certainly would take me more than one lifetime.
Inventory Reduction Sale
We are having a March into April madness inventory reduction sale. Many Mutable titles are now 50% off during this sale. Scoop up your missing Mutable releases now!!!
Roscoe Mitchell on tour
Roscoe Mitchell will be on tour in Europe in late January/early February tour. He will be perfoming in venues in Rome, London, Vienna, Ferrara, Prato, Ljubljana, Copenhagen, and Biel-Bienne.
Fred Ho Tribute Concert
FRED HO AND THE GREEN MONSTER BIG BAND
You are invited to First of a Series of special concert tributes. This special concert event is given by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson of The Red Rooster restaurant, 310 Lenox Avenue between 125th and 126th Street, Harlem (#2 and #3 train to 125thStreet) on Saturday, February 9, 2013. There will be two sets.
This special performance will feature Fred Ho leading his extraordinary 18-piece GREEN MONSTER BIG BAND and will present world premiere works composed by Ho:
IRON MAN MEETS THE BLACK DOG MEETS DAVID TAYLOR (A TRIBUTE TO BLACK SABBATH, LED ZEPPELIN AND VETERAN VIRTUOSO BASS TROMBONIST DAVID TAYLOR) and ROMPIN', RUMPIN' AND ROASTIN' AT THE RED ROOSTER (Afro Asia Fantasia #1).
Also featured is vocalist Youn Jung Kim and guest conductor Marie Incontrera.
Fred Ho releases added to HDtracks
Just in time for 2013, all four Fred Ho releases available on Mutable have been made available as Audiophile 44.1kHz/24 bit downloads on HDtracks. And more titles are coming soon.
Al Margolis/If, Bwana Sights and Sounds
Mutable artist Al Margolis (If, Bwana) has been busy with both new and some reissue material. It is all currently on line at the following sites.
These are works from 2010 and 2012 in Topolo, Italy:http://archive.org/details/oz062
Video of Experimenta 4 performance:with Leslie Ross on bassoon: https://vimeo.com/51538359
The following 3 links is a reissue with bonus material of Organ Life cassette (SOP 166):
HD Tracks Adds Titles
Just in time for Thanksgiving, HD Tracks has added four more Mutable Music titles for download: Tom Hamilton's Local Customs, "Blue" Gene Tyranny's The Somewhere Songs, Mari Kimura's The World Below G and Beyond, and Dan Joseph's Tonalization (for the Afterlife).
On November 24, 2012 composer Pauline Oliveros will receive the GigaHertz Award from ZKM (Center for Art and Media), in Karlsruhe Germany. Oliveros has recorded for Mutable Music as a member of Timeless Pulse.