Solo Saxophones: Roscoe Mitchell, Paul Flaherty & John Butcher

Kurt Gottschalk By

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Roscoe Mitchell

Paul Flaherty
Aria Nativa
Family Vineyard

John Butcher
Resonant Spaces

The solo horn concert was one of the landmarks of the early days of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. It wasn't without precedent (see Sonny Rollins on the Manhattan Bridge), but the Chicago collective of eclectic virtuosity made it repertory. AACM member Anthony Braxton was the first to release a solo saxophone record (For Alto, Delmark, 1968), but Roscoe Mitchell (who was the first person out of the AACM to release a record, with Sound, issued by Delmark two years earlier) has been no stranger to the call of the horn. He released Solo Saxophone Concerts on Sackville in 1974 and an expansive three-CD set, Solo [3], on Mutable in 2004. And in 1977, Mitchell put out Nonaah, a double album on Nessa and one of the most fascinating records in his long discography.

The album isn't entirely solo: It contains duos with Braxton and Mitchell's fellow Art Ensemble of Chicago member Malachi Favors, as well as a quartet with Henry Threadgill, Wallace McMillan and the Art Ensemble's Joseph Jarman and a trio with Muhal Richard Abrams and George Lewis (who reconvened for the excellent 2006 record Streaming). Central to the 1977 record is the title track, a fantastically knotty composition presented in solo and sax quartet versions. Mitchell isn't one to retrace his steps and "Nonaah" is one of the few pieces he's continued to revisit over the years. The two solo versions are variably brusque and hypnotic, whereas the quartet is perplexing in its open/composed structuring. Together, those would have been enough for an entirely satisfying LP, but the added solo and group pieces make the album a strong portrait of a restless artist. The new CD reissue adds a 35-minute solo concert from 1977, recorded in Berkeley, making for an indispensable document of Mitchell's '70s work outside the Art Ensemble.

The solo concert can be an interesting context for the most blustery of saxophonists. Freed of the drive of competing players, new sides often reveal themselves (witness David S. Ware's return to the stage last month at Abrons Arts Center). New Englander Paul Flaherty is a powerful voice in the Peter Brtzmann tradition, the kind of player that can turn an alto very nearly into a tenor. Aria Nativa, released on vinyl and as digital download, captures him in two 2007 concerts and is rather a revelation compared to the windstorm of his group projects. With such energetic playing, it's easy to miss the shapes of melody and shades of tradition that seep through. Aria Nativa serves as both a challenge from and a reintroduction to an underrated player. The download version includes a spoken poem, another aspect of Flaherty's unusual solo act.

The saxophone's lexicon arguably didn't get so serious a rethinking until the surge of minimalist improvisation in the last 10 years and chief among those practitioners is the Briton John Butcher, who has exploded his instrument to include the acoustic dynamics of the room and microphone feedback. Resonant Spaces is the best example yet put to record of what might be called not so much his extended as expanded technique. The locations for the nine site-specific recordings (made along the path of a tour of Scotland and the Orkney islands) included a stone cavern, an oil tank, a reservoir and a mausoleum and Butcher approaches each of them as he might a duet partner. The metal fuel tank, fittingly, inspires a harsher treatment, while elsewhere a distant waterfall inspires soft flutters. Butcher isn't dealing with songs, themes or melody here (rarely, in fact, is that his impetus), but with acoustic properties in a way that suggests something of a research endeavor, perhaps befitting his doctorate in theoretical physics. If it weren't such an anathema, the performances contained here could even be likened to a sort of environmental/new age project—more intellectualized and (at times, anyway) less soothing than such typical fare but, as the title suggests, the album resonates with sense of space.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: Nonaah; Erika; Off Five Dark Six; A1 TAL 2LA; Tahquemenon; Improvisation 1; Ballad; Nonaah; Sing; Improvisation 2; Sing; Chant; Off Five Dark Six.

Personnel: Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Joseph Jarman, Wallace McMillan, Henry Threadgill: reeds; Malachi Favors: bass; Muhal Richard Abrams: piano; George Lewis: trombone.

Aria Nativa

Tracks: Woman in the Polka-Dot Dress; I Don't Live Here Anymore; Weren't There Two of Them? Moving Through the Darkness; "No More America" by Ken DelPonte.

Personnel: Paul Flaherty: saxophone, voice.

Resonant Spaces

Tracks: Sympathetic Magic (stone); Calls From a Rusty Cage; Wind Piece; Floating Cult; Close by, a Waterfall; New Scapa Flow; Styptic; Frost Piece; Sympathetic Magic (metal).

Personnel: John Butcher: saxophones.


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