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Roscoe Mitchell: In Search of the Super Musician

By Published: January 8, 2004

AAJ: So when you went over to Europe that was like a quartet.

RM: A quartet, that's right. Don Moye was already living in Europe. We had known him before; we had met him in Detroit. It was a guy back there, John Sinclair, who had the Detroit Artists Workshop. They had several concerts that would go on there. They had a whole city block of buildings so when the musicians went there they had some place to stay in and they had the performance spaces. Everybody was in and out of there, you know, back then.

AAJ: Aside from the fact that Don Moye was in Europe, what made you decide to add a drummer, versus staying with the miscellaneous percussion?

RM: Well, we had a drummer before. We had Phillip Wilson, and he left to go with Paul Butterfield's band. He's on that record The Old Quartet, also on some of Lester's recordings. With the Art Ensemble we never really went out looking for people, so after he left we stepped up our percussion set-ups.

AAJ: About your approach to music, when you conceptualize musically are you drawing from a background in free improvisation or do you think in terms of musical structure, like classical music structure?

RM: Everything, you know. Our goal has always been just to study music. I'm a very strong believer to be really a good improvisor you have to understand how composition works also. So, you have to be able to write, you have to be able to play, you have to be able to improvise as a soloist, you have to be able to improvise in a larger ensemble, and so on and so forth like that.

AAJ: And what would you say is your approach to composition?

RM: Oh, I mean, I've got a lot of approaches. I study it, and I like a lot of different people. I was just in the Czech Republic having a piece for orchestra and baritone done. It's a poem that Joseph Jarmon wrote in the '60s, Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City. That was one thing that Muhal did for all of us. He got us really involved in the composition right away. And then we had our own experimental band that we rehearsed every week so different guys would write for the band and come and get a chance to hear their pieces.

AAJ: I read an article where you mentioned the idea of super musicianship. Can you talk about that a little bit?

RM: Well, I believe that the super musician...this is what I would like to be, you know. The super musician, as close as I can figure it out, is someone that moves freely in music. But, of course, that's with a well established background behind you. The way I see it is everything is evolving. Of course we are a band with a lot of instruments but if you look back before the be bop era, if you looked at a big band, it was amazing what the woodwind players were playing, and what the percussionists had, okay? So, the super musician has a big task in front of them because they have to know something about all the music that went down because we are approaching this age of spontaneous composition. And that's what it is. Really good improvisation is spontaneous composition. The thing that you have to do is get yourself to the level where you can do it spontaneously. If you are sitting at home composing, you've got time. You can say, "Oh, maybe I'll try it this way, or maybe I'll try it that way." But you want to get yourself to the point to where you can make these decisions spontaneously.

AAJ: So, at what point would you say that you happened on this idea of the super musician?

RM: Well, I mean, if I look at the way the music has evolved, I figure it takes a long time to be what I'd like to be, probably more than one lifetime because I'm interested in all kinds of music and I want to play it. I have always been the type that if I hear somebody doing something that's really good, I'm challenged by that. You know, I want to do that. Some of my fondest memories are back in Chicago going to different guys' concerts and seeing what they were doing and then going home and preparing your next concert for the next time. And now you've got a lot of people around that have been honing their craft for like a long time, you know. You don't see them but they never stopped. You've got a lot of people out there on a very high level now, very high level musically.

AAJ: Would you say that your music is rooted in jazz or blues versus, say, European avant-garde music?

RM: Everything, everything that I can hear, you know? Also, I mean, I'm very interested in sounds that are, you know, putting sounds together that go where you may not expect them to go through the use of regular instruments and not regular instruments. And, I've been fortunate. I've worked with all kinds of musicians. David Wessel out there in Berkely, he was one of the first guys to start the Computer Music Conference in the States; I was back there with him. That evolved into where we do concerts with computers. Of course, George Lewis also does that. I mean, I've worked with electronic musicians because it was interesting to me to develop a vocabulary that works with that. And every time I go back to the computer, I'm always looking to be challenged to see how that all works.

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