+ Hugh Ragin, George Lewis, Matthew Shipp, Craig
Fifteen years after the Art Ensemble of Chicago's Third Decade, master saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell returns to ECM with his extraordinary Note Factory group, an ensemble brimming over with improvising soloists of the highest calibre. It is a band that builds on long-standing musical relationships between players who have done much to shape the history of post-free creative music in America and its reach is at least as broad as that of the Art Ensemble. In fact the organization of the music, the variety of its conceptual bases, confirms the identity of the AEC's prime structuralist.
"Everything has structure," Mitchell insisted to Down Beat's John Corbett. "You've got to look at improvisation as paralleling composition. It's basically the same process... In order to do it really spontaneously you have to control many things. When you're writing something, you have options, many ways you can go... Musicians used to say 'Let's just play in the moment.'" Mitchell was never convinced. "Play what in the moment' The same old personality over and over again'".
In his book In The Moment, Francis Davis described Mitchell as "A cogent soloist and distinctive ensemble colourist on all of the numerous reeds and woodwinds he plays, making more telling use of accent and space than any saxophonist since Sonny Rollins." If true, this is only part of the story.
Roscoe Mitchell's approach to sound, space and texture brought new impulses to the music of Chicago (where Mitchell was born in 1940). Initially a hard bop player inspired by the sound of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Roscoe had his musical priorities turned around while serving in the American Armed Forces in Germany, experiencing a kind of awakening when he met the then-unknown Albert Ayler in Berlin in 1959. As Mitchell told it to Coda magazine long ago: "He was getting a tremendous sound out of his instrument. At first the things he was playing sounded harsh to me, but one day we had a session and Albert played a couple of choruses of the blues and then just went into another world. That opened my ears up to another level." Back in Chicago, Mitchell launched - with bassist Malachi Favors - a rehearsal and research band that studied the music of Ayler, Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins and began to make experiments in collective improvisation. This group gradually evolved into, first, the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet (which recorded the epochal Sound album for Delmark in 1966), then the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, and finally the Art Ensemble of Chicago. As one AACM spokesperson put it, "they broke new ground, tracing jazz's roots in early tent shows, churches, theatre and dance bands, through its development as a sophisticated, virtuosic, serious and popular concert music with the ability to create the sound of the world as it is right now and might yet become." By the reckoning of most critics (and indeed of the Art Ensemble members themselves) the four albums they recorded for ECM between 1978 and 1984 - Nice Guys, Full Force, Urban Bushmen, and The Third Decade - have been their most satisfying to date, the group's detailed and multi-directional sound finding the production clarity it had long merited.
Even the Art Ensemble's large sonic canvas, however, has not been sufficient to contain all of Roscoe Mitchell's musical ideas. He is one of the very few players of "jazz" background also recognised as a contemporary music composer. He has received the support of cultural institutions including IRCAM and the National Endowment for the Arts and his works have often been heard alongside those of Cage, Tudor, Gordon Mumma, Robert Ashley et cetera. Mitchell has also recorded critically-acclaimed solo improvisations for saxophone exploring extreme register, contributed to albums by fellow AACM musicians of the first hour Leo Smith and Jodie Christian, toured and recorded with pianist Borah Bergman and with singer Thomas Buckner, and led his own groups of which the best-known are the Sound Ensemble, the New Chamber Ensemble and the Note Factory.
The Note Factory debuted as a sextet in 1992, and is currently a nine-piece group. Roscoe Mitchell says, "Nine To Get Ready is the coming together of a dream I had many years ago of putting together an ensemble of improvising musicians with an orchestral range."
On trumpet is Hugh Ragin, also David Murray's first-choice frontline partner for many years. Ragin has been playing improvised and composed music with Mitchell regularly since 1980. Trombonist George Lewis tends to be sighted on ECM records roughly once a decade: Sam Rivers' Contrasts of 1978, the Heiner Goebbels / Heiner Müller project of 1988, Der Mann im Farhstuhl...He has continued to be, arguably, the most important voice on his instrument in improvised music, as likely to be heard in Europe (with Steve Lacy, Evan Parker, Han Bennink or Alex Schlippenbach, for instance) as in America (with Fred Anderson, Ray Anderson, David Murray and more). Lewis has also pioneered new developments in electro-acoustic music and intermedia, his work for trombone and inter-active computer recognised as especially significant for developments of the future. He and Roscoe Mitchell first played on each other's albums in the late 1970s.
At the heart of the music two pianists trade ideas, each of them heralded by the media as men-of-the-moment. Matthew Shipp has been building a reputation with a steady stream of albums as a leader, 12 in the last seven years, plus another nine with the rapidly-rising David S. Ware Quartet; he has also recorded in duet with Roscoe (for Henry Rollins' label) and been a member of many Mitchell ensembles. Shipp has unusual perspectives and once authored an intriguing article on parallels between boxing and jazz ("blue notes and blood - the sensations - that dance brings and the rhythmic firing of cells in the brain"). Craig Taborn made his recording debut on James Carter's JC On The Set and immediately drew reviewers' attention, Taborn claims inspiration from the jazz tradition and new composition, equally enthusiastic about Elliott Carter and Cecil Taylor.
The bass and percussion sections of the Note Factory are formidable. Detroit tag team Jaribu Shahid and Tanni Tabbal have been commuting between Roscoe's bands and James Carter's for many years. Tabbal has also worked extensively with David Murray and with Cassandra Wilson. William Parker has been described as "the Henry Grimes of his generation, the fulcrum around which the New York avant-garde revolves". He has powered innumerable bands including those of Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, Peter Brötzmann, David Ware, Charles Gayle, Bill Dixon, Billy Bang, Jerome Cooper and Joe Morris. Parker also heads his own big band the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra and the ensemble aptly called In Order To Survive. Gerald Cleaver has performed with amongst others Henry Threadgill, Eddie Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Reggie Workman, Don Byron and Kenny Burrell.
What kind of music does this distinguished collective make together' Impossible to attempt a summary. The album eases in like a floodtide with the rippling, glowing "Leola", its waves of sound lapping the shore, and storms out with the humorous rock / funk singalong "Big Red Peaches" which, in its brief trajectory, recalls the vintage Art Ensemble of Certain Blacks as well as Parliament / Funkadelic and, perhaps, a touch of Louis Jordan by way of early Zappa. En route miscellaneous pleasures include: a beautiful ballad dedicated to Lester Bowie ("For Lester B") with miraculously tender trumpet from Hugh Ragin; a raging streams-of-sound piece "Hop Hip Bip Bir Rip" with Roscoe's circular-breathing-powered soprano sax skimming over the tremendous impetus generated by double drums and basses; the boiling title track with extraordinary three way interaction between Lewis, Ragin and Mitchell; "Fallen Heroes", a fine piece of modern composition inspired by a Martha Stahl poem and graced by exemplary Mitchell flute work; the pointillistic "Move Towards The Light" which has echoes both of Mitchell's classic Sound album and later works like L-R-G... In all an exceptionally wide-ranging programme, even by Roscoe Mitchell's standards, yet unified in its authoritative execution and its fiery spirit.