Propelling Personality: The Roscoe Mitchell Trio at UMASS

Lyn Horton By

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Though predominantly abstract, the music was adamant and clear-cut. Each performer played his instrument to reveal its essence.
Roscoe Mitchell Trio
University of Massachusetts
Amherst, Massachusetts
April 26, 2007

When Roscoe Mitchell joined with his fellow Chicago musicians in 1965 to create the AACM, his primary motivation was to unravel how music reflecting the integrity of sound-making from a set of individual instruments could best be expressed. Judging from the recent performance by his trio at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, it's clear that Mitchell's motivation has remained constant. With bassist-cellist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Vincent Davis complementing the leader on flute, alto and soprano saxophones, Mitchell spread his musical intelligence in a sparkling display of discovery. The music never became outlandish but radiated an ever-increasing brightness. Though predominantly abstract, the music was adamant and clear-cut. Each performer played his instrument to reveal its essence. And it was with this seeming intent that the musicians recognized, responded to, and created the two extended improvisations that comprised the evening's program.

The first set opened gently. While seated, Mitchell produced only air as he blew into the alto. Bankhead bowed quietly with one bow, then with two, as Davis struck the metal edge of the snare several times before he picked up his mallets. Mitchell pushed a single mid-range pitch into a crescendo that booted the improvisation into fullness. The music gradually showed its face in distinguishing features, ranging from melodic sax runs to glissandi on the bass to continuous rolling of the tom-toms with occasional swipes at the cymbals. Mitchell changed from alto to soprano and played from one high-pitched squeal to another. The lines were rich, containing frequent elongated notes. The silences that arose were notable; they were bridged by the deep tones of the bass coinciding with percussive resonance from the drums.

Mitchell seemed to be conversing with his horn as much as playing it, as though he were coaxing a melodic phrase from it. By this time, Mitchell had moved from his chair to standing at the front of the stage. Multiple arpeggio repetitions burst from his soprano, his fingers never ceasing to work the keys as the sound grew in volume and intensity. Nor did Bankhead's pizzicatos or Davis's dry sweeping of his snares disrupt the continuity of the music's flow. After Mitchell swooped from a low-pitched tone to a squealing peak, where a two-note repetition alluded to a musical good-bye, the horn stopped, the bass followed suit, and the drums took over in an artfully-driven rumble before subsiding into silence. Bankhead resumed on cello, bowing low-toned, Bach-like logical figures. Mitchell picked up his alto to progress toward a culmination of the set. Bankhead bowed slowly, matching the leader pitch for pitch. The cello and the drums seemed almost to assist Mitchell in drawing melodies from his horn. Finally, Mitchell sealed the performance, recollecting the opening theme that now concluded with a sustained, widening sound into which the cello disappeared. Davis marked the close with a snap of the drums.

In a radio interview before the concert, Mitchell had been asked about the variety of instruments he plays. The leader responded by saying he was fascinated by the sound of each one and emphasized that every instrument has a unique role to fulfill. He further explained that it was his purpose to reveal that role and examine the "personality of each instrument. In keeping with these ideas, the second set afforded a more diverse instrumentation and a more fervent interaction among the members of the trio than the first. The music proceeded with an audacity that, in effect, magnified what each musician was doing at any one point. In fact, both the musicians' and listener's attention to detail on each instrument was the only means to differentiate individual aspects of the continuous sound.

The thorough blending of the sound evidenced the ardor of the group's interaction. Mitchell began the set playing the alto, insistent on unveiling his instrument colors in bodies of rolling arpeggios interspersed with narrative melodic figures. A good portion of the way into the set, he changed to his flute, on which he was careful to introduce what was new, before unleashing it as a major player in the whole musical progression. After the flute, he changed instruments again, this time to the soprano sax, stretching the instrument to its sonic-emotive limits, from agitated fury to elegant finesse. When Mitchell switched back to the alto, a rhythmic groove suddenly rose out of the mixture. With this last instrument change, the attentive listener had experienced enough to be able to readily discern from the tonal properties of each horn a distinctive quality, or character, thus fully substantiating Mitchell's earlier claim that each instrument can be thought of as a "personality.

At the end of the set, while the bass and drums still played, Mitchell announced the names and instruments of his fellow musicians. His last words were: "...and yours truly, Roscoe Mitchell, on woodwinds. "Yours truly, for once, was no mere convention. This physically tiny man, this insightful artist, this humble, sincere human being, whose place in this music goes without saying, could have spoken no truer words.


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