Roscoe Mitchell – Bells for the South Side (2017)

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After a five-decade history of rattling the very foundations of jazz, Roscoe Mitchell returns to what’s become a symbol the jazz establishment to make a strong statement of his undying vitality. Now out from ECM Records, Bells For The South Side is a grand, late-career testimony that embodies much of a career rooted in the mid-sixties beginnings of both the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the Art Ensemble of Chicago…and a testimony of ECM itself, which in its own upstart days of the 70s regularly gave us such out-jazz classics such as Afric Pepperbird and Conference of the Birds.

Mitchell’s first ECM release in seven years came about to mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the AACM, of which Mitchell was a founding member, with a performance at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art back in 2015. The album is released in time of the fiftieth anniversary of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, also co-founded by Mitchell. But this isn’t merely Mitchell looking back, as this forward-thinking artist thrives in the present moment and at seventy-five (when these performance were recorded) still doesn’t shy away from taking on new challenges. At the time, Mitchell was leading four different trios, and he brought all of them together on stage.

Like a symphony conductor — because he is assuming that role — Mitchell tactfully chooses different parts of his aggregate ensemble to perform at certain spots, craftily mixing and matching the assembled talent on hand to make each of his pieces an entity unto itself.

There are times where he is settling in with one of his various trios. Kikanju Baku’s slowly building impulses on drums crest into a frenzy shared by Taborn (on piano) and Mitchell (on soprano sax) for “Dancing In The Canyon,” a piece composed by the three on the spot (the only piece presented here not composed by Mitchell alone). The formality of the chamber music score for the three horns “Prelude To A Rose” gives way to three-way free expressions among Mitchell (on sax) with another trio that features Hugh Ragin (trumpet) and Tyshawn Sorey (trombone). “Prelude To The Card Game, Cards For Drums, And The Final Hand” is a three-part suite of Mitchell cast in his trio with Jaribu Shahid’s basses and Tani Tabbal’s drums and percussion, mostly dominated by a drums tour de force from Tabbal. And “Six Gongs And Two Woodblocks” is a trio with reedman James Fei and percussionist William Winant; in it, Mitchell and Fei are chirping like exotic birds.

Further intrigue comes when Mitchell creates new small ensembles from his stable of eight top-flight performers. For instance, “Spatial Aspects of the Sound” is a plainspoken way to describe what Mitchell does on this piece. With Craig Taborn and Tyshawn Sorey — who is best known as a progressive-minded drummer — are both on pianos. Much of the music is silence, but Mitchell makes the lack of notes mean as much as the notes themselves, and Mitchell himself doesn’t appear until about a minute left on this twelve-minute solemn affair, making his piccolo more noticeable in its late arrival. “EP 7849” goes subterrestrial electric with Taborn’s circuit-bent noises and Jaribu Shahid’s bass guitar while Baku and Tabbal are there to add the punctuation. “Bells For The South Side” begins much as John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space did: with sleigh bells. But instead of the relentless rumble of Rashied Ali’s drums, we behold the serenity of tubular bells (Winant) and the solemn trumpet of Ragin. After Ragin falls silent, an ambient hum takes its place and barely-heard low-toned blows from James Fei’s contra-alto clarinet. Ragin returns, but with increased vigor as the chimes tumble down like a gentle shower, building up to a near-storm while Fei’s clarinet blares gain altitude.

Finally, the collective force of all nine musicians forms the climax at the end of this event. Beginning meekly, “Red Moon In The Sky” is marked by electronic zings from Taborn in a sparse, barren sonicscape until gradually, all nine musicians unite for a free-jazz Armageddon. Seventeen minutes in, “Red” dissipates away for a graceful, orchestral reading of Mitchell’s old Art Ensemble theme tune “Odwalla.”

It’s an ending which typifies the graceful, durable Mitchell himself, a founding father of a movement that flowered half a century ago. Bells for the South Side tells us that this movement and this feeling is going as strong as ever.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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