One thing that Fred Anderson had shown us in his last years was that the original AACM guys can still make vital, risk-taking music of real consequence; these guys who were at the forefront of jazz in the 60’s never retreated from their forward positions. Another bright example is Roscoe Mitchell, whose 1966 Sound LP introduced the whole Chicago-based free jazz movement on record. This iconoclastic saxophone legend continues to make record that earn praise and teach younger generations about avant-garde music by example (and he currently teaches by classroom at Mills College in Oakland, CA).
Mitchell continues his disposition for working with younger musicians on his next release, Duets With Tyshawn Sorey & Special Guest Hugh Ragin. As the title makes evident, Mitchell is going one-on-one with one of the brightest rising stars in multi-instrumentalist and drumming specialist Tyshawn Sorey, a master not only of rhythm but of percussive tones, something that Mitchell himself knows about firsthand. Hugh Ragin is a trumpeter whose stature falls too far below his achievements, but the recognized leaders in improvised music know full well he’s legit. Ragin’s association with Mitchell goes back to when he was a student of the older master in the late 70s and soon afterwards joined Mitchell’s ensemble before playing more extensively in David Murray’s, and he’s also toured with Anthony Braxton around that time. He’s since gone on to make some highly praised records of his own that somehow fell under the radar.
Thus, this is a tri-generational summit meeting of significant proportions.
Mitchell, as always, is as prone to great restraint as he is to unchecked impulsiveness, but in either mood there’s a great deal of emotion to be found. “The Way Home” is one of a couple of piano/sax duets with Sorey (who, incidentally, is an incredibly astute pianist). Mitchell’s expressions are so sad, he nearly makes his alto sax cry. Sorey, starting off with dispersed notes, gets choppy and fractured and Mitchell accordingly gets frisky. Eventually, there are no gaps between notes for either, and the gentle whimpers turn into full on wailing in an outpouring of raw sentiment.
“Scrunch” is a tour-de-force for all three: Ragin strains to blow notes out of trumpet as Sorey patters on a large hand drum. Ragin eventually does get out the notes in quick succession. Mitchell’s baritone lumbers through its notes slowly until stopping on a single note, creating a drone. Then the song breaks out, with Sorey rumbling around on kit and both horns make cacophony contrasted by the staccato of Ragin and the involved legato of Mitchell.
Ragin’s perfectly clean-toned trumpet sets the table for “Bells In The Air”‘s barren soundscape. Although Mitchell briefly joins him on wood flute to contemplate over Sorey’s discreet drums and Mitchell bell-toned percussion, it’s mostly Ragin’s show. His trumpet rations drawn out — sometimes weeping — notes over Sorey’s odd timbres. Expressive, but in an understated way.
Mitchell alone plays three short intermission pieces on chimes (“The Horn,” “Meadows,” “Windows with A View”), some contemplative moments that underscore the introspective frame of mind of the entire sessions, serving as a window into the complex but peaceful mind of its performer.
It’s a mind that has never stopped churning in about fifty years of a career of making creative music in his own way. Roscoe Mitchell is very much alive, very much relevant, well into the 21st century.
Duets With Tyshawn Sorey & Special Guest Hugh Ragin drops on March 26, courtesy of Wide Hive Records.
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