Roscoe Mitchell: Opening Doors

Celeste Sunderland By

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The thing that is interesting about good improvisation and good composition is there are always options.
Our elders often pass on truths learned along the road of life, old adages that become mantras repeated continually. Roscoe Mitchell’s father gave him one piece of advice that he’ll always remember: “Time is very important. Use your time wisely.” Sure, it’s a universal truth, but for Mitchell, this advice is especially relevant, because the saxophonist, flutist, clarinetist, percussionist, composer has so much to offer, his only hope is to strike up a deal with Father Time. Or just hop out of bed at some ridiculous hour.

“I’ve been known to get up at three. That’s six hours before nine o’ clock!” he explained over the phone from his hotel room in Milan. “I like the mornings because when I first wake up I’m there. I’ve rested and my mind is going good and I can just go right to what it is I want to do. And I do know that for me to accomplish all I would like to accomplish in music, I would need more than one lifetime.”

So far in this lifetime, Mitchell has made astoundingly good use of his time. In 1965 he helped establish the Association For The Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective of composers and musicians dedicated to exposing their own work and nurturing the development of creative music. This led to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the extraordinarily prolific and profoundly influential group Mitchell founded in the late ‘60s with Malachi Favors, Joseph Jarman, Lester Bowie and, later, Don Moye. Their brilliant African costume and painted faces made for vastly entertaining performances and their avant-garde combinations of free improvisation, European compositional elements, African music, and jazz formed a compelling new style of sound.

Last year The Art Ensemble released two albums. The Meeting (Pi) incorporates small instruments, winding clock sounds and swatches of percussion, and marks the return of Jarman after a spiritual hiatus. And Tribute To Lester (ECM) honors the group’s trumpet player after his death in 1999. Last January, bassist Malachi Favors passed away. With the absence of two of its pivotal members, The Art Ensemble continues.

Last month the group returned from a 16-date tour with the Art Ensemble that started in London and continued through France and Italy, with a one-night stop back home in Chicago, at Mandel Hall where they recorded their legendary live album 32 years ago ( Live at Mandel Hall , Delmark 1972). This month his composition “Non-Cognitive Aspects Of The City”, based on the words of Jarman will be performed at Merkin Concert Hall. One week later he’ll be in Finland with his quintet. In early September he’ll travel to Munich for a Symposium on Improvised Music where a new work for a 12-piece ensemble will be recorded by ECM.

What propels him is constant learning and a succession of concerts equals constant development. “If I did a certain thing last night, I’m trying not to do that the next night exactly. If I’ve got something going on that seems like it might be working, then I want to explore that to see what options I have to expand it. What I’ve discovered about music is that when you get one area going, it opens up some doors to other things, and so on like that so it’s a constant thing, you can open up one door, and stay in that room for a while, and pretty soon you want to go to another room so you open up another door, and that gives you accessibility to those two rooms, now you have access to three, four, five, seven, eight, nine, ten...”

Inspired by his contemporaries, Mitchell recently caught a concert of his old college buddy Anthony Braxton and was impressed by Braxton’s new ability to sing while he plays. “It’s always great to go to his concerts because he’s always working on something. To watch Anthony play that solo concert and to see the amount of control he has in being able to bring that in and out of some particular thing that he’s playing. It’s very effective.”


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