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Roscoe Mitchell
DOTS: Pieces for Percussion and Woodwinds
Wide Hive Records WH-0359

Roscoe Mitchell + Sandy Ewen + Damon Smith + Weasel Walter
A Railroad Spike Forms the Voice
ugEXPLODE UG 82/Balance Point Acoustics BPALTD 13013

Roscoe Mitchell + Mike Reed
The Ritual and the Dance
Astral Spirits AS145

It would be easy to brand A Railroad Spike Forms the Voice as “Roscoe Mitchell meets the rhythm section.” Easy, yes. Correct, sort of. A way to accidentally diminish the album’s scope and significance? Definitely. Recorded live in Oakland in April, 2014, this expansive improvised set, which approaches 80 minutes, documents Mitchell’s linking up with the trio of guitarist Sandy Ewen, bassist Damon Smith, and drummer Weasel Walter. Mitchell’s respect for his peers is such that he played one of their first albums for his students at Mills College as a shining example of improvised music. The music heard here is about change and evolution that exhibits a restless wanderlust that can’t be quenched, a compulsion to hear and explore every sound and texture – often as quickly as possible. It can be hard for the listener to keep up with the unceasing introduction of new short little scenes and set pieces. As the set moves on, however, the scenes get longer, the group becomes more patient. At the heart of this change are the shifting configurations, from duos to trios to solos to quartets in any possible combination. Over the course of a scene a trio may consist of the same three players, but the relationship between them shifts, with players moving from foreground to background or changing their entire voice and approach. One Mitchell-Smith duo begins as an exercise in contrast between the very high saxophone and heavy bass; it ends with Smith playing nimble pizzicato in the upper reaches of his bass, as if to tell Mitchell, “See, I can do that too.” Ewen plays the cracks, the in between spaces, peering through the gaps in the floorboards. Her guitar scrapes, gurgles, and rings in piercing tones. It’s percussive, there are bips and bops and taps, electronic glitches, the sound of scurrying feet rushing for the shadows, errant twangs, the sound of a metal rod, bending in the heat. Walter often displays a light touch, rarely taking a lead role or displacing a bandmember. When he does announce his presence with authority, as he does with a concussive snare thwack near the end, it comes as a satisfying smack to the face. Mitchell is typically relentlessly creative, from circular breathing enabled multiphonic long tones to diving down rabbit holes with wild abandon to conjuring a clown horn by playing two saxophones at once. Smith is just as dynamic, reaching for the limits of the sounds, figures, and depth of tone the bass is capable of. At the set’s end I’m left wondering: what’s left? What else can the foursome do, where else can they go? The only satisfying answer may be: everything and anything and everywhere. Quite simply, A Railroad Spike Forms the Voice is a towering and monumental album from a quartet that will hopefully meet again.

Like A Railroad Spike, Mitchell and Mike Reed’s The Ritual and the Dance is a single improvisation captured live. Recorded in October, 2015 in Antwerp, The Ritual and the Dance is a tight, 36-minute cardio burn that evolves into a roughly tripartite structure. It opens with Mitchell’s throaty and fractured soprano chirps and Reed’s sparse percussion. As Mitchell stretches his lines, Reed becomes busier behind the kit, and it’s not long before Mitchell is in full flight. Endless cascades of phrases tumble out of his horn, which are at times splintered, angular, or linear, or, improbably, all three at once. Lines that pause, partially snap off, turn on themselves, and begin again. Reed pushes his counterpart with snare rolls and cymbals in rhythmic unison with the kick drum. Reed and Mitchell come together, with the former preternaturally anticipating the apex of the latter’s phrases with kick bombs. A pattern emerges, out of which Reed builds a pulsing groove that serves as the launching point for a soon to follow drum solo, which closes out the set’s opening half. The album’s second part begins with Mitchell’s move to alto, on which he plays one and two-note gestures with a spread tone and wavering pitch, briefly sounding like a young student. He soon turns to long tone multiphonics over Reed’s churning, tom-centric triple meter-ish pattern that is a distant cousin to burlesque va-va-voom drums. The final act finds Mitchell returning to the freewheeling, stream of consciousness soprano of the first half. At one point his horn seems unable to take him further, no longer quick enough to keep up with his imagination. Pushing with purpose and drive, Reed yanks Mitchell back into the flow. Upon Mitchell’s final notes Reed takes over with a two against three pattern that he doubles up on a bell and toms, which serves as a brief coda for the set. This final flourish is infectious and bright, and like the album itself, over too soon. The Ritual and the Dance is that rare improvised performance in which there is not a single empty moment or gesture, no breaks to tread water, no holding patterns or cliches to fill up the silence; this fact stands as a testament to Mitchell and Reed’s artistry and commitment, courage, and trust to go all in.

Roscoe Mitchell, © Joseph Blough

Recorded earlier this year, DOTS is a solo album of Mitchell on overdubbed saxophones and percussion. While the subtitle “Works for Percussion and Woodwinds” suggests a collection of discrete pieces, the album flows together as a single cohesive piece. The nineteen relatively short tracks (the longest is 4:08) largely segue into each other, and without looking at my CD player, I’d have a tough time deciphering where individual tracks end and begin. DOTS, however, could not be a more apt title. The music is highly pointillistic, with solitary ringing chimes reacting to altissimo saxophone chirps and pips, overlapping brittle saxophone tones punctuating moments of silence. Stillness and interruption, contemplation and event. There is no meter or pulse, and Mitchell’s rhythmic sense is organic in the same way a wind chime’s rhythm is attuned to the physics of nature rather than being constricted by the dictates of Western music theory. DOTS is less a construction of phrases or melodies or themes than it is a constellation of individual gestures that flash and fade, the significance of which only grows as time passes. As the music progresses, Mitchell thickens the texture, colors become richer and expand across the spectrum, space is less spacious. He blows longer saxophone notes, adds an occasional jagged line, and slowly ventures below the horn’s upper reaches. Percussion moves beyond chimes and bells to incorporate more percussive drum sounds and mallets – a mix of metallic, woody, hard, bright, dry, and thudding tones. It is as if Mitchell is slowly bringing someone or something to life. About midway through the album, the music – and the gestation it hints at – reaches a plateau. Where one might have expected the piece to continue to grow in density, activity, and timbral range before reaching some sort of climax, Mitchell chooses not to follow such a predictable narrative formula. The overall aesthetic does not change, but Mitchell takes the music in an unexpected direction that I will not spoil here. DOTS is a provocative album that leaves me thinking about form and expectations while pondering Mitchell’s choices. It brings to mind chance and chaos theory, intention and contingency, and the unpredictable patterns of water burbling over rocks or wind moving through a stand of trees. Both spacious and intimate, DOTS is as challenging as it is natural.
–Chris Robinson

Intakt Records

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