While esteemed reedman Roscoe Mitchell has appeared in any number of challenging settings, this marks his first documented encounter with electronics. Not that this is a recent move, more that the fruits of his collaboration with David Wessel have not seen the light of day until now. They first met back in 1968 when Mitchell, along with other members of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, moved into the house next door to Wessel's California home. Over the years projects included a piece for the 1986 International Computer Music Conference, the 2002 sessions presented here on CD following Wessel's invitation to the saxophonist for a two week residency at the University of California Berkley, as well as the 2004 performance from IRCAM in Paris, captured here on DVD.
Over time, computer technology has developed to the point that Wessel no longer needs a stage full of equipment, but uses a touchpad interface which he plays sitting in a way that is reminiscent of a keyboard player. Mitchell confines himself to alto and soprano saxophones, with all music apparently improvised in the moment. Paradoxically the strangest sounds emanate from Mitchell's saxophone, not the electronics, with circular breathing utilized to an extreme degree, resulting in sound forms alienated from human warmth even at the same time being comprised of breath.
Some of the strongest passages come when Wessel's electronics evoke conventional instruments. "For Oliver Johnson, part 1" starts as a slow paced thoughtful shimmer of austere beauty lit by Mitchell's ethereal saxophone. A lovely moment transpires when the saxophonist's spiraling yelps and multiphonics blend with Wessel's muffled burbling and indeterminate organ and bell tinkling sounds, as if from a single multi-textured instrument.
There is no break before "part 2" where Wessel hits on a lurching rhythm with textures like tabla, sitar, and percussion which approximate an out of focus raga. Against this Mitchell pitches an unrelenting stream of saxophone consciousness in a hypnotic coruscating tour de force. "Moving" merges with "Schreeds," which similarly contains another astonishing saxophone exposition with bitten off phrases linked together into an emphatic unbroken flow, bearing witness to some of Mitchell's most explosive work on disc in years, irrespective of backing.
But it's not all thunder and lightning. On "Orange Sky" Wessel's high pitched pure tones intermingle with Mitchell's capricious swooping flute like an electronic chorus in a hall of mirrors, while the DVD captures a persistently intense but understated performance. Small bubbling susurrations whimper from the bell of the reedman's circular breathed alto with almost imperceptible variations, accompanied by ambient washes and exhalations from Wessel's electronics. It's all very minimalist with even the slightest elevations assuming great significance in such level terrain. Shot from a fixed position, head on, by a lone camera, both seated musicians are not the most visually dynamic tableau. Strangely there are several unexplained fades in and out, but as the single piece develops and changes very slowly fortunately this isn't too much of a disruption.
CD: For Oliver Johnson, part 1; For Oliver Johnson, part 2; Orange Sky; Moving; Schreeds; Jakarta; The Call. DVD: Contact: Sound & Music.
Roscoe Mitchell: alto and soprano saxophones, flute; David Wessel: electronics
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