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Artist Profiles

Roscoe Mitchell: Opening Doors

By Published: June 13, 2004
A technique Mitchell uses in his own personal development is to revisit things from the past. Recently he gave Jackson In You’re House /Message To Our Folks a spin. Varese Records reissued the combination of the Art Ensemble’s earliest two studio recordings in 2001. He thought about how the ideas he had then could be made better with the knowledge he has now. “When you learn something it gives you accessibility to something else. You’ve got lines that you can go on and on and on and on for. I want to play music that is constantly engaging and exciting.” He explained how he wasn’t able to play long lines until he learned circular breathing. And he wasn’t able to truly improvise until he learned the elements of composition. “Improvisation is spontaneous composition,” he said. “You have to know how composition works because if you don’t, you won’t know that if someone was playing eighth notes that you could play triplets and have counterpoint. The thing that is interesting about good improvisation and good composition is there are always options. If you’re improvising with someone and there are no options something’s wrong with the improvisation.”

In addition to knowledge, atmospheric balance also plays a large part in Mitchell’s playing. “You don’t want to go up there because you had a good night last night and try to recapture it,” he explained. “Every day is different, and this is the thing that’s exciting about improvisation. If I go to a festival and hear some people playing, and I can tell the evening is low key, what do I do at that point? I can go up there and try to make things different than what they are, and that might not work out, but if I go with the flow of the low key evening, I usually fair much better.”

On this past tour Mitchell met with enthusiastic audiences, and his optimism for the future of music is high. “I would say that this is the best time for music,” he said. “Most people when they come up to me they don’t say they’ve enjoyed the music or something like that, they say ‘they need it.’ They need the music. I think it’s very important to be involved in a music that reflects your own life and your own time, and if I go back and look at people I really love, this is what they were doing. What I’m seeing now is a lot of people really want to come back to that and the music itself has gained such a broader audience, a lot of young people, they’ve been looking for a music that relates to their lives. That’s what I find really exiting about this period.”

He said that the truly successful musicians incorporate their personalities into their music, and make progressions beyond what others have done before them. He counts Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Muhal Richard Abrams, Leroy Jenkins and Wadada Leo Smith in this group. “You have to keep working on what you’re doing, you can not be influenced by what’s going on because what I found is that music will weed out whatever is weak.”

Recommended Listening: – Roscoe Mitchell - Sound (Delmark, 1966)

– Roscoe Mitchell - Quartet (Sackville, 1975)

– Roscoe Mitchell - Nonaah (Nessa, 1977)

– Art Ensemble of Chicago - Nice Guys (ECM, 1978)

– Roscoe Mitchell & The Note Factory - Song for My Sister (Pi, 2002)

– Roscoe Mitchell - Solo [3] (Mutable Music, 2003)

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