Roscoe Mitchell: Three Compositions (2012)
On Three Compositions, veteran Chicago saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell's scores are interpreted by an established grouping with an AACM lineage, namesake flautist Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble, unlike his previous album of written material, Numbers (Rogue Art, 2011), which featured a varied cast of contemporary players. It makes all the difference. This performance was one of three by the flautist's band at the 2009 edition of Sardinia's Sant' Anna Arresi jazz festival, and is captured here in sparkling clarity. Mitchell's subtle but richly detailed charts, often involving subsets of musicians, are brought vibrantly into focus by the Black Earth Ensemble, both collectively and as individuals.
The first and third pieces on the album are transcriptions for the 11-strong band of the saxophonist's Quintet series, providing sequences of scored parts as well as spaces for improvisation which are assigned to specific players. On "Quintet #1 for Eleven," that manifests as a series of duets interpolated into slow-moving orchestral constructs. In the first, pianist Myra Melford's performance is a reminder of her talent for drama and adventure, at first sparring with Greg Ward's fluent alto saxophone, but then partaking in a playful dash, before spraying the keys far and wide as the orchestra returns. Later, in another free form duet, violinist Renee Baker and cellist Tomeka Reid pitch plucking against bowing, high against low and sustained against staccato, while in the final "interlude" it is initially hard even to ascertain the source of the vocalized yelps, which gradually reveal their sources as David Boykin's burnished tenor saxophone and Robert Griffin's acerbic trumpet.
Harpist Maia takes a prominent role in "Cards for Orchestra," standing proud from the pointillist outbursts. While Mitchell's compositional method, which involves giving each musician six cards containing written material which can be played in any order, suggests a recipe for random juxtapositions, in the hands of the Black Earth Ensemble it becomes triumphantly cohesive despite minimal rehearsal time. The leader's dancing flute and Marcus Evans' rolling drums briefly pass by as part of the overlapping orchestral textures, but at the heart of the piece lies Mankwe Ndosi's theatrical recitation of Daniel Moore's poem "Memoirs of a Dying Parachutist," a rendition which stands up to repeated listening more successfully than many marriages of text and music.
By way of contrast to the opener, the related "Quintet #9 for Eleven" accentuates the swinging sections, and by doing so plays to one of the band's strengths. That's especially the case in the loping vamp which emerges part way through, most notably as the backdrop to Nicole Mitchell's piccolo which fizzes, swoops and soars, its range expanded by her judicious use of multiphonics. It works as an energizing set-closer, with audible approval from the audience. Kudos should go to the Paris-based Rogue Art label, long a supporter of both Mitchells, for ensuring that this fine music reaches the wider public it deserves.
Track Listing: Quintet #1 for Eleven; Cards for Orchestra; Quintet #9 for Eleven.
Personnel: Roscoe Mitchell: compositions, conduction; Nicole Mitchell: flutes, piccolo; David Boykin: tenor saxophone; Greg Ward: alto saxophone; Robert Griffin: trumpet; Mankwe Ndosi: vocal; Renee Baker: violin; Tomeka Reid: cello; Myra Melford: piano; Maia: harp; Joshua Abrams: double bass; Marcus Evans: drums.