Roscoe Mitchell is a revered name in improvised music circles, an out-jazz giant who is often spoken as if his great works come from so long-ago period. In truth, the seventy-three year old sax and flute giant had never left us, never faded. Last year he made Wide Hive Records his new home and the association revitalized him, beginning with an inspired pairing with rising star percussionist Tyshawn Sorey and guest spots by underrated trumpeter Hugh Ragin. As it turns out, Mitchell was just getting warmed up: his encounter with keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer/percussionist Kikanju Baku is as adventurous and fulfilling as anything’s he’s done is his fifty year career.
Conversations I, currently available for sale, is seventy-eight minutes of instantaneous explorations of jazz’s outer regions barely contained on a single shiny disc. One of the original AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) stars out of Chicago, Mitchell’s new album features many of the same innovations that were present on his Sound debut nearly fifty years ago: wide-open spaces among musicians, cadence that varies in such a way to mirror the rhythm of life, and solos so abstract, they aren’t even really solos; they’re speech through instruments.
Mitchell made this record with members of a younger generation, and as such, the album is probably more a revelation about them than their ringleader. Craig Taborn has been involved in plenty of avant-garde projects with plenty of avant-garde heavyweights, but the pianist is identified closely with the downtown NYC crowd, not the AACM bunch. Kikanju Baku is lesser known, but based on his sympathetic and unreserved drum and percussion work on this album, he damned well should be.
The three bring a child-like wonder in creating fundamental sonorities, putting aside everything they picked up in formal education. “Knock And Roll” is one of those “go with the flow” type of songs: Mitchell is firmly leading the way, making a reed-y skronk come out of his sax, resembling a manzello. He fills up more and more of the sonic space and the other two follow until a ruckus ensues. The trio collectively releases also on “Darse,” with Taborn’s dense piano lines recalling Muhal Richard Abrams classic small combo sessions.
More often than not, these performances are the sparse, dispersed ones, like “Ride the Wind,” where Mitchell makes his flute emulate the random electro noises from Taborn. Baku’s well-placed chimes and assorted minimal percussion provides punctuation to the leader’s saxophone sentences. Mitchell barely pushes notes past his reed during much of “Distant Radio Transmission,” but still randomly emits ear splitting tones. Eventually, his sax sounds like moving the radio dial rapidly up and down. Taborn’s piano and electro-noises don’t make their presence known until late into the song, as he eases himself in gradually and tentatively at first. “Rub” goes further still in its desolation: often, the next sound between Mitchell and Baku isn’t made until the prior one is done, and Taborn patiently finds his spots around them.
The use of synthesizer sounds does nothing to diminish Mitchell’s mission; in fact, he consistently finds ways to integrate with it. On “Who Dat,” Taborn cuts loose some spacey synth noises, sparking Baku’s restive snare and hit-hat. Mitchell goes down to the lower reaches of his sax then way up high, and the way his sax is miked, it’s nearly indistinguishable from Taborn’s electro whimpers and groans. Baku sits out of “Outpost Nine Calling,” during which Taborn makes creepy sounds from a keyboard that approximate the aching sounds coming from Mitchell’s saxophone. Baku does dominate on “Cracked Roses,” putting down funky start/stop rhythms with hi-hat and snare, and Mitchell manipulates his sax by squealing high and low notes nearly simultaneously.
Conversations I revels in its random, extemporaneous intonations, offering proof that ideas Roscoe Mitchell first put forth in the mid-60’s are nowhere near exhausted. It’s the kind of album that demands an encore, and wouldn’t you know there’s one coming: Conversations II is due out tomorrow (April 15, 2014).
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