While perhaps best known for his ground-breaking improvisational work with The Art Ensemble of Chicago and assorted personal projects, woodwind multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell has also been exploring, over the past four decades, contemporary classical music and the integration of written form with exploratory improvisation. Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3
is Mitchell's most successful example of scored improvisation, and may well turn out to be his magnum opus: an ambitious and sprawling eighty-minute suite that finds him paired with the equally intrepid saxophonist Evan Parker, who together with Mitchell assembled the fourteen-piece Transatlantic Art Ensemble.
For an ensemble this large, and with duplication at the bottom endbassists Jaribu Shahid and Barry Guy alongside percussionists Tani Tabal and Paul Lyttonwhat's most remarkable is how much Mitchell's music breathes. There are periods of greater chaos, most notably during the eighteen-minute "III," where an opening arrangement finds an uncanny middle ground between the swing of traditional jazz and the abstruse harmonic development and counterpoint of classical music. This ultimately dissolves into a maelstrom of collective improvisation that is clearly still operating under Mitchell's direction. But equally there are passages of dark and ethereal beauty, where a single clarinet leads a string section through a series of gently waxing and waning dynamics.
While completely different in complexion, Mitchell's work bears some comparison to that of another innovative woodwind multi-instrumentalist/composer, Anthony Braxton. Stretching the very definition of improvisation by creating a diverse series of contexts for the ensembleone piece, for example, based on a limited number of notes that define specific improvisational boundariesMitchell also relies on cues to shape the fifteen-minute "VIII."
With improvisers as strong as Mitchell, Parker, pianist Craig Taborn, trumpeter Corey Wilkes and violinist Philipp Wachsmann (amongst others), there's no shortage of intuitive interaction. But it's the ability of this exceedingly strong line-up of musicians in successfully blurring the line between form and freedom, (and working within Mitchell's imaginative structural constructs) that elevates Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 into the all-too-rare realm of classic.
Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 is not without significant challenge for the listener. But in its seamless blend of classical constructs and improvisation more commonly associated with the world of jazz, Mitchell demonstrates the universal and borderless nature of music that exists when freed from preconception and assumption. It's a compelling message that's equal parts light and dark, tranquility and tumultuousness, sparseness and density. A masterpiece.
Personnel: Roscoe Mitchell: soprano saxophone; Evan Parker: soprano and tenor saxophones; Anders Svanoe: alto and baritone saxophones; John Rangecroft: clarinet; Neil Metcalfe: flute; Corey Wilkes: trumpet, flugelhorn; Nils Bultmann: viola; Philipp Wachsmann: violin; Marcio Mattos: cello; Craig Taborn: piano; Jaribu Shahid: double-bass; Barry Guy: double-bass; Tani Tabbal: drums, percussion, Paul Lytton: drums, percussion.