A few years ago I tried to play People In Sorrow (1969) by the Art Ensemble Of Chicago for a musician friend of mine. His comment was priceless, “It sounds like they all are playing different songs.” As funny as I thought the line was, it speaks to a larger truth. The music of that group, and of its individual members is about as uncompromising as anything one will hear.
The AEOC was originally called The Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble. He agreed to the name change in part to acknowledge the contributions of his fellow players. Be that as it may, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell (b. 1940) has lived his entire musical life on the leading edge of the avant-garde wing of jazz.
Far Side is credited to Roscoe Mitchell and The Note Factory, and has just been released by the ECM label. It is a concert recorded at the Burghausen Jazz Festival in Germany, 2007. The four lengthy tracks fully realize his original goal for the Note Factory, “The coming together of a dream I had many years ago of putting together an ensemble of improvising musicians with an orchestral range.”
All seven members of the Note Factory are much younger than Mitchell, but his elder statesman status is never overplayed. That is not to imply that Mitchell is coasting here however. It only means that this assemblage of musicians understand the give and take of improvisation perfectly, and all contribute equally.
The best example of this is the thirty-one minute opening suite “Far Side/ Cards/ Far Side.” The introductory segment is a study in slowly building tension. All eight performers weave in and around the subdued main theme for close to thirteen minutes. Then a bit of dissonance is initiated before the piano takes center stage. From here on the music becomes more and more frenzied, until the triumphant moment of Mitchell’s solo. As chaotic as things sound, nobody loses their place. At the 30:56 mark, all stop – leaving a stunned audience gasping at what they had just witnessed.
“Quintet 2007 A For Eight” (9:56) follows. Despite the somewhat cacophonic beginning, the tune settles into a pretty subdued (for Mitchell) series of solos. “Trio Four For Eight” begins very quietly, with no bass or drums until midway. Then the wild drumming of Tani Tabbal and Vincent Davis take over, and thoroughly fires things up.
Finally, we come to “Ex Flover Five” (12:24) which is almost a miniature of the “Far Side” suite. Muted, almost tentative lines from each player set up a comfortable tableau, which bursts forth suddenly into a freeform blast of improvisation.
While Roscoe Mitchell’s music may not be for everyone, those into serious free jazz improvisation should check out Far Side. It really does not get much better than this performance.