MUHAL RICHARD ABRAMS / ROSCOE MITCHELL / Spectrum

Janácek Philharmonic; Petr Kotik (conductor); Thomas Buckner (baritone); 
Muhal Richard Abrams (piano); Roscoe Mitchell (saxophone)
 

"This is an important recording and it confirms my conviction as to the importance of these two composer-improvisers. It should expand the musical consciousness of all listeners, regardless of whether one comes out of the improviser camp, the orchestral camp, the all-music camp, or no camp at all." - Grego Edwards, Gapplegate Music

 

Spectrum features an improvised performance by Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell entitled Romu. This recording is also the first to feature Abrams's and Mitchell's work with orchestral forces. Mutable Music is very proud to be able to offer these premiere recordings. Abrams's Mergertone was commissioned by the Ostrava Center for New Music and premiered at the opening concert of the Ostrava Days 2007 festival by the Janåcek Philharmonic, Petr Kotik conductor. Mitchell's Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City was commissioned by Mutable Music for baritone Thomas Buckner, Petr Kotik and The Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble and was premiered at the Willow Place Auditorium in February 2003.

 

TRACK LIST

Roscoe Mitchell/Muhal Richard Abrams: Romu (for piano and saxophone) (11:51)

Roscoe Mitchell: Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City (for baritone and orchestra)

   Non-Cognitive I (6:33)

   Non-Cognitive II (2:03)

   Non-Cognitive III (8:21)

Muhal Richard Abrams: Mergertone (for orchestra) (17:15)

 

REVIEWS

Art Lange, Point of Departure

In his thoughtful program notes, George Lewis poses the question, “What might a new American classical music sound like in a post-colonial world?,” suggesting that there are no boundaries to limit the discourse of creative musicians like Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell. Composer and critic Virgil Thomson offered a similar answer, back in the mid-20th century, when asked about the inherent difficulties in developing an American classical music when confronted by the established European tradition. “It’s easy,” he said, “All you have to do is be American, and write any kind of music you want.”

 

That, in essence, is what Abrams and Mitchell have done in the orchestral works that fill two-thirds of this welcome release. The compositional choices they have made reflect separate solutions to the sound potential of the orchestral medium itself, each utilizing the full breadth of post-Schönberg harmonic procedures; an individual, intuitive sense of dramatic expression; and the expanded palette of colors and corresponding intensities available to them. Mitchell’s “Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City,” composed in 2002, is a dynamic context for Joseph Jarman’s poem of that name, sung by Thomas Buckner, exposing the spiritual and physical isolation, alienation, beauty, and pain symbolized by the city. Ranging from hymn-like melodies to sectional explosions, Mitchell’s music is in a continual state of flux, simultaneously supporting the poem’s stark imagery and seeking a resolution that the words do not provide. Abrams’ “Mergertone,” from 2007, is built upon a similar restless energy, transforming internal tensions into surging brass and percussion, yearning string suspensions of motion, and a heroic piano commentary.

 

As an introduction to the orchestral works, they offer an improvisation of rhapsodic mood and slowly expanding dimensions – Abrams’ piano a constellation of illuminating details, and Mitchell’s alto saxophone, like Robert Browning’s depiction of heaven, reaching for the unknown just beyond his grasp. After years of shared and similar experiences, they know how to control the variables of proposition and response to construct an environment of eloquent logic.

 

Grego Edwards, Gapplegate Music

I recently read that the New England Conservatory of Music had at some point changed the name of their "Third Stream" department to the "Department of Improvisation." I don't suppose that is surprising. The former term, coined by Gunther Schuller to mark out a musical form that combines "classical" and "jazz," has seemingly fallen out of favor, though important and interesting confluences of the two musics continue to be created today.

 

Before listening to the new release Spectrum (Mutablemusic), which includes two substantial orchestral works, one each by Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams, you might think that you were going to be exposed to music of a "Third Stream" sort. Well, yes and no. One of the factors to keep in mind is that "jazz" as we know it has been changed radically since 1960 by such innovators as Mitchell and Abrams. They've constructed new forms, new sound universes, with new freedom and new discipline. At the same time the world of modern "classical" has become so stylistically diverse as to embrace an almost infinite number of approaches. Classical orchestral music, in the bottom line of today, is music played by an orchestra. "Jazz" is music played by musicians who improvise, in whatever way they see fit, and usually does not include an orchestra.

 

Whichever way you look at it though, the distinction between composition and improvisation is meaningless on one level. The complete musician composes improvisations and improvises compositions, on whatever level and style the music exists within. Abrams and Mitchell happen to be two musical masters who do both in ways that we all will be exploring and discussing for many years to come, I think.

 

Spectrum in the end is simply music that has been composed by maestros Abrams and Mitchell. "Romu" starts out the program, a seemingly freely improvised duet by Roscoe Mitchell on the alto sax and Richard Abrams on piano. It presents part of their musical vision, and perhaps helps the uninitiated listener get a grasp of where they are coming from, which boils down to their own musical conception of melody, color and harmony. Rhythm too of course, though this piece starts with a freely rubato meditativeness and evolves into a turbulent maelstrom of tones that is non-rhythmic in a conventional periodic sense.

 

From there, we hear two orchestral works, well performed by the Janacek Philharmonic under conductor Petr Kotik. The first is Mitchell's "Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City," with baritone Thomas Buckner taking a prominent vocal role. The text is a poem by Mitchell's fellow Art Ensemble member Joseph Jarman. It was first heard in an early Jarman album on Delmark. The music from that recording is replaced by Roscoe Mitchell's score.

 

It starts with a pregnant quietude, which is almost immediately replaced by somber yet lyrical melodic invention. It's most certainly music that has the lyrical thrust of post-Ives, post-Ornettian music. It also most certainly bears the stamp of Mitchell's musical universe. The presentation of the poem, alternately spoken and sung by Buckner (and I might add he is quite convincing in his role here) is punctuated by richly layered orchestral writing, turbulent, declamatory and reflective in turn. The poem and the music express the difficulties of urban existence for those who cannot afford to live in the penthouse. There's an angst, a kind of refusal to accept the status quo, from a physical but also intellectual standpoint, and it all translates into very moving and very captivating music. Roscoe's handling of the orchestra, his orchestration, is complex, three-dimensional and quite masterful. It most certainly makes me want to hear more of his work in this configuration.

 

Muhal Richard Abrams' "Mergertone" concludes the program, and it too is captivating. The piece has a kind of concerted orchestra feel to it, without directly referencing traditional forms. The piece begins with some celestial synthesizer utterances, which quite rapidly are conjoined with suspended, mysterious and then somewhat agitated orchestral passages. Again, the orchestration is quite impressive and the thematic material is filled with invention and eloquent continuity. There is a syntax of endless variation that puts this music into the free expressiveness of Mr. Abrams' music as a whole. Not surprisingly, there is a prominent piano part in the composition, and it has an Abramian thoughtful density. Most of all though, this is excellently conceived music with sound-color mastery well in evidence. It flows, it builds and it moves the listener to a better place than ordinary life normally finds us.

 

Before I listened to this recording, I had great expectations, since to my mind maestros Mitchell and Abrams have created some of the most important American music of the past 50 years. I wondered if their many gifts would translate into an orchestral medium. They most certainly do. This is an important recording and it confirms my conviction as to the importance of these two composer-improvisers. It should expand the musical consciousness of all listeners, regardless of whether one comes out of the improviser camp, the orchestral camp, the all-music camp, or no camp at all.

 

Kurt Gottschalk, All About Jazz

Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell are arguably the two figures most central to the birth and rearing of the seminal '60s collective the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). The organization was borne out of Abrams' Experimental Band and the first standing group to emerge from it was the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble (later rechristened the Art Ensemble of Chicago). It seems a bit strange, then, that their careers have run such separate, while nearly parallel, paths. Both have worked deeply in the particular form of exploratory jazz that came out of the AACM through various instrumentations and structures for composing and improvising; however they've rarely done so together. Abrams plays on an early Art Ensemble record, Mitchell in some of Abrams' early ensembles. They recorded together (and apart) on the 1993 Black Saint release Duets and Solos, an album that didn't quite seem to gel into the meeting it should have been, and then with far more satisfactory results on Streaming (Pi Recordings, 2006), in trio with George Lewis. In short, their separately illustrious careers have overlapped only occasionally and with mixed results.

 

Spectrum continues this unusual association (coincidentally, it includes some thoughtful liner notes by Lewis, reuniting the Streaming trio in a very different way). The album opens with a beautiful 12-minute duet that realizes the promise the meeting of these two improvisers holds. "Romu" is just plain lovely, a beautiful, unhurried interaction building slowly to a relative frenzy but never losing its center. The rest of the album will no doubt meet with varied reactions, but the duo piece alone sells it.

 

The remainder of the album puts the Janácek Philharmonic (with Petr Kotik conducting) at each of their disposal and shows an interest on both their parts in mixing mid-20th Century orchestral vocabulary with romantic flourish. Mitchell's "Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City" is a tone poem using text by Art Ensemble band mate Joseph Jarman (the poem also provided the title for a 2006 Art Ensemble album, although Mitchell's score doesn't appear there). The text is delivered in broad, operatic strokes by Thomas Buckner, whose improv outings can seem rather straying but who has always worked well with Mitchell. The string-heavy ensemble plays a support role here, making a bed for the round syllables of the verse. It's an accomplished piece, even if it doesn't measure up to Mitchell's horn-driven work.

 

Abrams' "Mergertone" covers a remarkable lot of ground over its 17 minutes. Opening with a spacey synthesizer (presumably it's Abrams playing) the piece works through so many ideas, from suggestions of Varèse percussion rhythms to simple, layered harmonies to pastoral, tonal passages. It all seems to move a little too quickly—the piece could be twice as long and have more breathing room—but it reveals a surprising new angle of the enigmatic composer.

 

Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes

Many people don’t seem to accept the fact that artists whose development is rooted in jazz can also show competence within a classic ambit. Instead, as George Lewis aptly underlines in his notes to this album, already in 1930 William Grant Still had talked about the feasibility, for those performers, of tackling “academic” music without excessive problem due to “their training in the jazz world” that would “enhance their virtuosity”, as opposed to rigidly trained instrumentalists deprived of the mental elasticity that African-American composers were gifted with according to the “dean”, the erstwhile advocator of a “Negro Symphony Orchestra”.

 

This CD joins the artistic personalities of pianist Abrams – a founder of AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) and saxophonist Mitchell (a founding member of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago). Except for the first, splendid track – the improvised “Romu”, which pairs the respective tendencies to contemplative quietness minus the honey – the material is performed by the Janácek Philarmonic directed by Petr Kotik.

 

Mitchell’s “Non-Cognitive Aspects Of The City” revolves around a poem by Joseph Jarman (here characterized by the inimitable baritone accent of Thomas Buckner). Its three movements sound both austere and pensive, depending on the moment. Massive counterpoints transport the listener towards expressionist realms, but are often broken into fragments where single instruments – a bell, a flute – gleam or sing in solitude before the next scene appears. The general mood is reasonably dissonant, the atmosphere somewhat epic at times, the whole ending in a sort of overhanging mystery. Educated audiences should have no difficulty in considering this an excellent sample of Mitchell’s compositional skill.

 

“Mergertone”, by Abrams, meshes neoclassicism and abstraction in qualitatively adequate fashion, alternating passages where the instrumental linearity becomes intelligently angular to clusters and chordal stabs reminiscent of early XX century’s celebrated names, with curious involuntary similarities – in certain sections – to Italian composer Ottorino Respighi’s work. As in the preceding episode, the orchestra packs a solid punch when necessary. Yet the real magic lies in the ability to interpret the music’s morphing dynamics and shades, displacing the addressees in style while escaping any limitation determined by the rigidity of a “category”.