Multi-instrumentalist, composer and improviser Roscoe Mitchell contrasts and – for the first time – combines the sounds and distinctive characters of his four trios in a very special recording made at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Mitchell had been invited to premiere new music at the museum, in the context of the exhibition The Freedom Principle, which celebrated the directions in music and art set in motion by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians on Chicago’s South Side.
In this recording, Roscoe Mitchell offers what amounts to a composer self-portrait in continually changing colours and textures, reflecting on his own history while looking toward the future. Two pieces – including the title composition – draw upon the full percussion instrumentarium of the Art Ensemble of Chicago – a panorama of gongs, bells, rattles, sirens, hand drums and more. Recorded in 2015 on the occasion of the AACM’s 50th anniversary, Bells for the South Side is released half a century after the founding of the Art Ensemble - the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, as it was originally called.
The double album opens with “Spatial Aspects of the Sound”, the inventiveness of Mitchell’s writing immediately striking. Craig Taborn and Tyshawn Sorey are both on pianos here and William Winant on tubular bells, the austere character of the music counterbalanced by Kikanju Baku’s sprite-like entry with ankle bells and sleigh bells. The piece is capped by Mitchell’s melody for piccolo. After this anything can happen – and there are many highlights along the way to “Odwalla”, the famous Mitchell-composed theme song of the Art Ensemble, played here by all nine musicians, which concludes the programme. These highlights include Roscoe’s own performances on his many woodwinds, from sopranino to bass saxophone.
In the trio music Mitchell is heard with Hugh Ragin and Tyshawn Sorey on “Prelude to a Rose”, with Craig Taborn and Kikanju Baku on the freely improvised “Dancing in the Canyon”, with Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal on “Prelude to the Card Game”, “Cards for Drums” (with an outstanding performance by Tabbal), and “The Final Hand”, and with James Fei and William Winant on “Six Gongs and Two Woodblocks” and “R509A Twenty B”. It’s a highly gifted cast of players. Craig Taborn, Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal have appeared on previous Mitchell recordings including Nine to Get Ready, Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 and 3, and Far Side, while Tyshawn Sorey, Hugh Ragin, William Winant, James Fei and Kikanju Baku, all significant voices in creative music, make ECM debuts here. Fei and Winant are fellow professors, with Mitchell, at Mills College in Oakland, California. Winant has collaborated with composers including Cage, Xenakis, Boulez and Terry Riley as well as improvisers across the genres. Fei, also active as a composer and known for his association with Anthony Braxton, explores extreme regions of sound on woodwinds and electronics; his electronics playing, together with Taborn, on “Red Moon In The Sky” provides some exhilarating moments. Kikanju Baku, youngest of the musicians here, was invited by Mitchell to join him for a set at London’s Café Oto: this has led to spirited work in an ongoing trio with Roscoe and Craig Taborn. Tyshawn Sorey’s remarkable threefold accomplishment as drummer, pianist and trombonist is well displayed throughout the project, and on the title track he plays inside the ‘percussion cage’ originally created by Roscoe Mitchell for Art Ensemble performances.
The music was recorded both in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s theatre and in the exhibition space itself, where the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s percussion instruments were on display and artworks by AACM members hung on the walls – including Roscoe Mitchell’s painting Panoply (reproduced in the CD booklet). The compositions “EP7849” and “Bells for the South Side” were recorded in the exhibition space. The dramaturgy of “EP7849” includes features for Taborn’s electronics and Jaribu Shahid’s bass guitar. On “Bells for the South Side”, James Fei offers subterranean tones on contra-alto clarinet, and Hugh Ragin – a Mitchell collaborator since the 1970s (and currently a member of the revamped Art Ensemble of Chicago) – builds a vaulting piccolo trumpet solo from pitches suggested by the pealing of multiple bells.