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Muhal Richard Abrams / Roscoe Mitchell: Spectrum

Kurt Gottschalk By

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Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell are arguably the two figures most central to the birth and rearing of the seminal '60s collective the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). The organization was borne out of Abrams' Experimental Band and the first standing group to emerge from it was the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble (later rechristened the Art Ensemble Of Chicago). It seems a bit strange, then, that their careers have run such separate, while nearly parallel, paths. Both have worked deeply in the particular form of exploratory jazz that came out of the AACM through various instrumentations and structures for composing and improvising; however they've rarely done so together. Abrams plays on an early Art Ensemble record, Mitchell in some of Abrams' early ensembles. They recorded together (and apart) on the 1993 Black Saint release Duets and Solos, an album that didn't quite seem to gel into the meeting it should have been, and then with far more satisfactory results on Streaming (Pi Recordings, 2006), in trio with George Lewis. In short, their separately illustrious careers have overlapped only occasionally and with mixed results.

Spectrum continues this unusual association (coincidentally, it includes some thoughtful liner notes by Lewis, reuniting the Streaming trio in a very different way). The album opens with a beautiful 12-minute duet that realizes the promise the meeting of these two improvisers holds. "Romu" is just plain lovely, a beautiful, unhurried interaction building slowly to a relative frenzy but never losing its center. The rest of the album will no doubt meet with varied reactions, but the duo piece alone sells it.

The remainder of the album puts the Janácek Philharmonic (with Petr Kotik conducting) at each of their disposal and shows an interest on both their parts in mixing mid-20th Century orchestral vocabulary with romantic flourish. Mitchell's "Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City" is a tone poem using text by Art Ensemble band mate Joseph Jarman (the poem also provided the title for a 2006 Art Ensemble album, although Mitchell's score doesn't appear there). The text is delivered in broad, operatic strokes by Thomas Buckner, whose improv outings can seem rather straying but who has always worked well with Mitchell. The string-heavy ensemble plays a support role here, making a bed for the round syllables of the verse. It's an accomplished piece, even if it doesn't measure up to Mitchell's horn-driven work.

Abrams' "Mergertone" covers a remarkable lot of ground over its 17 minutes. Opening with a spacey synthesizer (presumably it's Abrams playing) the piece works through so many ideas, from suggestions of Varèse percussion rhythms to simple, layered harmonies to pastoral, tonal passages. It all seems to move a little too quickly—the piece could be twice as long and have more breathing room—but it reveals a surprising new angle of the enigmatic composer.

Track Listing: Romu; Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City; Mergertone.

Personnel: Muhal Richard Abrams: piano; Roscoe Mitchell: saxophones; Thomas Buckner: baritone; Petr Kotik: conductor; Janáček Philharmonic.

Title: Spectrum | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Mutable Music


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