Tuesday, August 6, 2013


by Kofi Natambu
The Panopticon Review

The history of sound and the conscious (re)organization and structural manipulation of its elemental dimensions (which we culturally and socially designate and define as "music") is nothing less than the history of our very existence on this planet and is thus an integral part of the physical and metaphysical DNA of what constitutes our lives and living in all its guises. Immersed in consciously wrestling with the creative demands and environmental terrain of this sonic forcefield are fearless and innovative musicians and composers who seek to not only actively engage and register these sounds at the level of the aural (and oral) aspects of absorbing and (re)producing its multivaried reality, but creatively and intellectually challenge our conventional perceptions and ideas of what the canonical histories and ritual traditions of music making means to us and our various conceptions and understandings of how we jointly experience and express this shared inheritance at both the quotidian and cosmic levels of our human engagement with this larger reality we call "nature."

It is in that broader and all encompassing context that we encounter and experience the varying sounds offered us by musicians and composers who have mastered the art of critically and/or joyfully examining intricate nuances of these histories and traditions in ways that simultaneously embrace and yet go beyond known artistic genres and expressive styles into a new realm of knowing and being that requires our sonic and textural connection to 'other aspects' of ourselves that we may have neglected or simply taken for granted in the past. It is this gateway to our experience via sound and its endless reverberations that such profound and deeply attentive musicians and composers as Roscoe Mitchell (b. 1940) have made possible while remaining both loyal to and openly challenging what we have been told about what constitutes various musics throughout our known world. This total commitment to the entire range of generic and stylistic traditions in this world (from "Jazz" to "classical", "blues", "rhythm and blues", "rock" and many other different "folk" and "spiritual" forms). Thus what we find in Mitchell is a man and an artist who has over the past 50 years(!) been and remains a major leading force in the creative rise and expansion and influence of what presently constitutes improvised and composed ensemble music on both a national and global scale. 

Roscoe Mitchell
(b. August 3, 1940)

Roscoe Mitchell, internationally renowned musician, composer, and innovator, began his distinguished career in the spirited 1960s of Chicago, Illinois. His role in the resurrection of long neglected woodwind instruments of extreme register, his innovation as a solo woodwind performer, his and his reassertion of the composer into what has traditionally been an improvisational form have placed him at the forefront of contemporary music for over four decades. A leader in the field of avant-garde jazz and contemporary music, Mr. Mitchell is a founding member of the world renowned Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and the Trio Space.

Mr. Mitchell has recorded 87 albums and has written over 250 compositions. His compositions range from classical to contemporary, from wild and forceful free jazz to ornate chamber music. His instrumental expertise includes the saxophone family, from the sopranino to the bass saxophone; the recorder family, from sopranino to great bass recorder; flute, piccolo, clarinet, and the transverse flute.

His teaching credits include the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the California Institute of the Arts, the AACM School of Music, the Creative Music Studio, The New England Conservatory Boston Masschusetts, University of Wisconsin Plattville, Wisconsin, Oberlin College Ohio and numerous workshops and artists-in-residence positions throughout the world. August 2007, Mr. Mitchell assumed the Darius Milhaud Chair at Mills College, Oakland, California.

Roscoe Mitchell
by Anthony Coleman
BOMB 91/Spring 2005


Roscoe Mitchell is one of the most important composer-improvisers of our time as well as a major musical thinker and conceptualist. His work has been important to my thinking since I became aware of it, over 30 years ago. He is certainly best known for his work with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but I have a special fascination for two of the records he has released under his own name: Sound (Delmark, 1966) and Nonaah (Nessa, 1978). In addition to his mastery of the saxophone, he is an innovator in the use of collage techniques, repetition, silence, noise, and the AEC’s specialty “little instruments”: recorder, harmonica, whistle, and a range of small percussives like gourds and bells. Mitchell, along with his colleagues in the Chicago-based AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) particularly Anthony Braxton and Leo Smith, took the next step from the innovations of first-generation Free Jazz (Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor. Albert Ayler). The paroxysm or “ecstatic moment” that one finds in so much of early Free Jazz is channeled into a music which follows the stream of consciousness through a vastly different arc, one which relies much more on peaks and valleys. Where and how did this group of composer-performers grasp the necessity of this step? Although it has global implications, the jazz mainstream has never truly embraced it. On the fringes, however, this work has been extremely influential and I was delighted to have the chance to ask Roscoe Mitchell some of the questions that his music has raised for me.

Anthony Coleman So, I just got to hear the rehearsal of your new piece, “The Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City.” Where does the title come from? The text is from Joseph Jarman, is that right?

Roscoe Mitchell Yes, that’s correct, it’s from a poem he wrote. I became interested in setting it to music after doing a performance with Joseph reciting it back in the ’60s, A recording and videotape of that performance was originally made by Channel Four, the English channel. The videotape was later reissued by DIW/Art Ensemble.

AC It’s been very good for me to go back and listen to your records. You use radically different languages depending on projects. Some pieces are almost minimalist, with phrase repetition, and other pieces come much more clearly out of the jazz tradition. I’m thinking of the the Moers Creative Orchestra . . .

PM Well, that is true. All of these different aspects of music are great and you don’t want to be excluded from any of them, so the best thing in your studies is to look at all of these things. Talking about the Moers Creative Orchestra music, one piece on that album is a swing piece, there’s another one that is rather minimalist but that comes out of a system of cards that I developed. I was doing a lot of workshops with improvisers and I noticed that there were some common problems that most of these ensembles would have. So I went about trying to create something that would help people with these problems. The cards have music written on them and each musician gets six cards that they can arrange in any way that they want, at their own tempo, to create their own improvisation. You actually score the improvisation, thereby eliminating the musician having to come up with the material to play, which is one of the problems I’ve had in playing with inexperienced improvisers.

AC I noticed on Song For My Sister, you also have a piece that talks about the cards.

RM Yeah, that piece was also generated from the card catalogue.

AC Would you talk a little bit more about the problems of inexperienced improvisers? I played for a long time in John Zorn’s project Cobra, that’s not about inexperienced improvisers, but about the kinds of things improvisers do by rote. For example, improvisers tend to show that they’re listening by imitating what the other person’s playing. That can get to be an enormous cliché and in fact you can really show that you’re listening to people by doing something radically different from what they’re doing. Cobra sets up both situations.

RM Well, you actually hit on one of the problems. You’re doing the phrase and then someone else is coming up and doing it. That means that they’re not really there in the moment. They’re waiting around to listen to see what you’re doing. I would describe it like being behind on a written piece of music—you really know your part, and I don’t really know mine, so I’m kind of following and listening to see what you’re doing and because of that I can’t really be with you. That was one of the problems I wanted to correct, getting people to function as individuals inside of the improvisation so that counterpoint is maintained, which is a very important element in music. I also addressed the issue of people leaving some space of rest in between what they’re doing. You wouldn’t compose a piece that was a run-on sentence, but this is what a lot of inexperienced improvisers do. I introduce complex rhythmic figures so that everybody’s not always hitting on one all the time. You know, I bring them in at different parts of the beat—all of these things that you would have in a written piece of music.

AC You mentioned silence, AACM brought the use of silence to the world of black music or jazz as a very strong parameter. It’s something you and [Anthony] Braxton and Leo [Smith] all share in your music. When I listen to your record Sound, Braxton’s For Alto, and early Leo, the connections are so obvious and very deep. You’ve mentioned the concerts that you did together. Did you all talk about theories of silence or was it just understood that you had arrived at this moment together?

RM See, this is the difference between Chicago and New York. Musicians really got together and rehearsed in Chicago, over a long period, on a consistent basis. So all of these questions came up, and we were constantly trying to figure out how the improvisation related to each piece in the song. And we spent a lot of time developing improvisation for a particular piece. If you were to write a piece of music, you might have these instruments leading for a minute and then these over here and so on, and then some silent, and some playing at one point and then those instruments silent. So, it’s all those kinds of things. I feel like if you want to be a good improviser you have to know how composition works. Music is 50 percent sound and 50 percent silence. If you sit down and listen to nothing but silence, it’s very intense. So, when you interrupt that silence with a sound, then they start to work together, depending on how you use the space. I’ve practiced it in lots of different ways. A lot of younger improvisers will get into this rhythm that doesn’t exist, that they feel somehow committed to, and just pound away at that. I’ve found that these different card strategies can move you out of that and move you into an area where things start to become a bit more open.

AC Were you at all influenced by Cage?

RM Oh, we used to have concerts with Cage. In the early days, Joseph Jarman and John Cage would do performances together. See, this is the thing that we’ve gotten away from. Back then, you’d have concerts with a very wide palate musically; you were always listening to all these different people. Now people get involved in these narrow fads and that has really cut off a lot of their options, when in fact most of our listeners are accustomed to being challenged on several levels.

AC This may be a side question, but when you look at Cage’s statements on black music or jazz, they’re very, very limited. Was he present at these concerts?

RM Yeah, they were performing there. Though I wouldn’t call what they were doing jazz, either.

AC Right, but still, it should have given him some sort of idea that there were other possibilities in that language.

RM The impression that I got was that they were meeting as improvisers, and they were exploring from that end. I mean, John Cage would be hooked up to different microphones on his throat and he’d drink something, and so on. It didn’t really have any elements of jazz or rhythm in it.

AC So much of what the AACM was about, and so much of what the Art Ensemble was about was the distinctness of the personalities involved, the counterpoint between the personalities. Do you feel any kind of stylistic difference between your own music and the music that you’ve done within the Art Ensemble?

RM No. The way I see it, the Art Ensemble is like what you just said. It was a band of individuals who would go out and explore different things and bring in new ideas to the collective. It was a unit that studied music all the time and was constantly exploring different ways of doing music. Over the years, you develop this vocabulary that you can expand and extend. I can go back now and look at some of those concepts in a whole other kind of way that I couldn’t have done back then because I didn’t have the knowledge or the language to be able to do that. For instance, in the ’60s I heard these long lines at a rapid pace that never stopped. I couldn’t put those lines together then because I couldn’t circular breathe. But once I was able to, I could practice and perfect them. With me, everything is a study. If I’ve done something this way tonight, I’m trying to do that a little bit differently the next night, because the element of music that interests me is the exploration. I think I’ve probably said this before, but we’re living in the era of the Super Musician now; this is what I’m trying to be.

AC So you want to be able to fit into all of these contexts equally, with equal strength, equal passion.

RM Oh, that would be great. I can’t stand to hear somebody doing something that I really like and then I don’t know how to do it. And that’s part of the motivation.

AC What’s the thing you want to find out how to do now?

RM So much, man. I need another life! I definitely want to go back to working with the earlier instruments after I get off the road this time. I’ve already set up a bunch of rehearsals. I was really starting to get into the whole concept and improvisational aspect of it, playing with recorders, the baroque flute . . .

AC Do you listen to a lot of Renaissance music?

RM Oh yeah, definitely, and play it. We did a big concert in Madison where I took some existing pieces that we had and brought Joe Kubera and Thomas Buckner. Like I said, there’s a lot of stuff out there to learn. My fascination with the instruments is that the sound is so incredible.

AC I’m interested in all the different musical languages that you access. But when I think about your music, there are certain patterns that really come to me as your thing. If you look at Noonah, for example, there’s an obsessiveness that you’re able to access that seems to be yours. You don’t use it all the time, of course, but it’s in a certain relation to early minimalism, you know, minimalism before it became fun. (laughter)

RM Right. You know, there are different types of minimalism too. There’s a minimalism that deals with things rhythmically, there’s another type that deals with very few notes. The piece I’m working on right now is like that. It’s for this thing in Munich called Symposium in Munich, two weeks of music, lectures, demonstrations with myself and Evan Parker as the composers. We have a 12-piece ensemble and our concerts will be recorded by ECM. What I’m interested in with this piece is that it’s limited to a few notes but then when you put all these different rhythms together, that makes things react in a very strange way, all of these different sounds come out.

AC So the pitch field is set? How limited is it?

RM Three notes.

AC And then the rhythms are given? Or they are freely improvised?

RM No, I’m writing them down. There’ll be improvisation with the piece, but it’ll be on the improvisers to construct the improvisations according to what they have experienced in the piece. And I’ll probably suggest a few approaches for improvisation. There’ll be one section where each player has three notes. And then maybe I’ll work up a section where each player only has one note of the three, and then at the end of that, the selected player or players would be asked to do an improvisation with just that one note to see what they can really do with that one note.

AC I’m glad you still work in that way. It’s a part of your music that has always meant a lot to me. From the record Sound to Nonaah.

RM Well, it’s a constant study, what I find is that it just doesn’t stop. If you really want to develop yourself as an improviser, you have to do it that way. Sometimes you jump up there and can’t do any wrong, but most of the time music is work.

AC For sure. I was talking about the similarities between you and Leo and Braxton, how they never worked with those repetitive phrases. This is a kind of a personal question, but in the Art Ensemble did you ever find that your obsessive way of working was not well received? It’s very different from their music.

RM Well, see that’s the thing about the Art Ensemble. Nobody tried to tell anybody what to do. What I do is study extremes. So if you have the obsessive, you also have things that are not so obsessive.

AC But even in your bebop tunes, I’ve noticed sometimes, there’ll be a cycling of a couple of pitches, almost Monkish, or maybe even more connected to someone like Sonny Rollins’ playing, where a couple of notes are sort of worried or turned around, like in “Song for Atala.”

RM Oh, yeah, that’s the song I wrote for my daughter. That’s a little bit different format. Instead of being 8-8-8, and a bridge, it is an A-A-B-A but 16-16-8-16. A lot of my tunes have a twist in them like that. Like the “Ninth Room” is 9-9-9-9-9, it’s nine measures. It is, I guess, just trying to take something a little further or put a different twist on it. Actually, different forms for things are created, and so you either stick with that or you create yet another form.

AC There’s something I noticed around the end of the ’70s, where the Art Ensemble went from being more stream-of-consciousness, a big canvas where one kind of stylistic thing flowed into another, and became more like a catalogue. A Message to our Folks was a partitioned record from earlier, but as the late ’70s came along discrete pieces seemed to become the rule: the Roscoe piece, the Lester piece . . . How conscious was that?

RM I don’t know if it was a conscious thing. You know that as that era approached, everything was changing. The Art Ensemble was one of a very small number of groups that even survived the late ’70s. The music in general changed, in some ways it got a little more conservative, but thank God we’re coming to the end of that.

AC You think?

RM Yeah, I think we are, man.

AC I hope so. Do you see it from your touring?

RM In the touring, from students asking me different questions . . . A lot of them have gone to college, they come out and they’re disillusioned. A young trumpet player that I’m playing with now, Corey Wilkes, he goes out to sit in at a lot of jam sessions, the same thing that I used to do when I was young, and he’s getting tired of it. Everybody’s up there sounding the same or playing the same kind of a thing and it doesn’t have any meaning because they don’t really know what they’re doing. I mean it’s hard to think of a situation that doesn’t really exist anymore and try to relate that to something that’s really happening. But you can look at it in the sense of re-creation.

AC You think the idea of a jazz repertory orchestra is good thing?

RM Oh yeah, I think it is. But I don’t think it’s a good thing to say that they’re the only thing happening and nobody else is.

AC But the jazz repertory orchestra brings up a lot of questions. Like when you have the saxophone sound not being the right saxophone sound, then it’s not really—

RM —It’s not right.

AC But on the other hand, take an improviser, if they’re going to get themselves to be able to play with the saxophone sound of a Johnny Hodges, how creative can they be with it in terms of their own playing?

RM It’s hard, because if you look at the real-life stories, I mean, Bird used to listen to Lester Young. They don’t sound anything like each other. What I’ve noticed about the masters of the music is that it’s really music. It’s not mechanical in any sense of the word. They’re hearing ideas and bringing them about based on their lifestyles. This is what I think makes their music so important. I look at the saxophone as one of the most versatile instruments there is. There are so many people with so many different approaches to the saxophone; it’s a study. So you study these different styles. You think about the tenor, there are a lot of people to study there. It goes on and on. What I would say to a musician is this: That’s there for you to study, you take that, and then you bring your own thing to it, and that’s where your own message comes from.

AC Tell me a little about your approach to saxophone sound, especially on the tenor. You have a unique, very particular sound on the tenor. I could recognize you anywhere. Also on the alto, but on tenor you have this way of approaching articulation where you really put it in the face of the listener. I could say maybe it comes out of Rollins, but it’s still very much your own thing. Sometimes almost consciously not articulating. I know you’re a master of articulating. But sometimes you use the same articulation with a lot of notes in a row.

RM There I am at the extremes again. I’ll take a particular rhythm through all of its courses. That way you really do get familiar with it. But the tenor for me was problematic. I was always hearing it higher than what it is because I come from alto. And then with the alto I’d be trying to get a lower sound. But once I came to grips with what the sound of the tenor really was I think then I started to advance a little bit on it. If I’m playing the soprano, I’m trying to get it down low, so it doesn’t sound irritating. Those higher instruments, there’s a special skill in playing those to get them where they really sound warm. Now I’m starting to get a sound on the tenor that I can rely on. And that’s been a long time coming. What helped me with it was playing the bass saxophone because I could approach it the other way, and that helped put it in perspective.

AC Bass saxophone is really special.

RM Oh my God. I love it. It’s just so difficult to get around. And now, they make it so hard for you, like at the airports.

AC (laughter) What about this new piece that we just heard in rehearsal? It has a kind of tonal language that is surprising in a way. I guess I don’t know some of your other music that goes in that particular direction. It has something to do with the instruments, the way the voice is underscored. It’s a very attractive tonal language with a lot of diminished coloring. I’m curious about how you approached that. Having heard some of your earlier orchestral music, not particularly for symphony orchestra, but the Creative Orchestra music, it’s surprising.

RM What I’ve found working with text is to a certain degree the text dictates how the music should be. You can’t take a sad song and write a bunch of major stuff around it, so a lot of the time a text will inspire the way I approach it musically.

AC Have you written a lot of pieces that use musical language in this way?

RM For orchestra I have Variations and Sketches from the Bamboo Terrace and Fallen Heroes. Those are the largest works. But a lot of times the musical pieces develop over a long period. If you look at Variations and Sketches from the Bamboo Terrace, it started out as a piece for the trio space, Thomas Buckner, voice, Gerald Oshita, and myself on woodwinds. It eventually developed into a chamber orchestra piece that incorporated improvisation inside of it. A lot of my works start off with an initial idea that I may decide to continue later. After hearing the improvisation, I was inspired to extend and write some of it out. It has two parts for soloists in it, one for bass, which was inspired by an improvisational solo that Mel Graves played on this piece, and it also has a rather extended, written-out part for the violin. I wrote that after I wrote the bass solo, just in terms of the way I wanted to lay the piece out. It’s the voice, which is featured in “Variation Number 1” and then you move into the second part, which is “Sketches,” that features a solo for bass and a solo for violin, and then the last part is “Variations Number 2” which features the voice again.

AC I want to talk a little bit about the Note Factory. I’ve seen the Note Factory in concert a couple of times, I’ve heard the records, and its interesting, when you were talking about the Super Musician of today—people like Craig Taborn, Vijay Ayer, these are really the prime examples of what you’re describing.

RM Well, I would say that the Super Musician is concerned with the study of music, wherever it takes him. The Super Musician is someone that is able to move freely in and out of several musical genres. And that incorporates a lot. I see the Super Musician as someone who not only plays with an ensemble but who also does solo concerts. You have to know how to do that on your own and it helps you because it really teaches you how to function individually.

AC But if I think about the musicians of the ’70s, who were Super Musicians in their own way, but more quirky in a sense, they had one thing that they could do fantastically. Jarman is a genius, but I would never say that he was a Super Musician in the terms that you were talking about. His limitations, like some of the early greats such as Johnny Dodds or King Oliver, were so much a part of what made him who he was. If you listen to the early ’70s players, there was always a big edge on the sound. I find I’m not as drawn in by the Super Musician’s sound today as I have been by some people who maybe didn’t have as big a vocabulary.

RM Well, I think that’s what draws you in, the sound. I certainly get drawn in by the sound. If I hear Johnny Griffin, it’s the sound. If I hear Sonny Rollins, I’m drawn in. It’s the sound.

AC I’ve played with Gerald Cleaver, Craig Taborn. They have the ability to leap between the mainstream and the avant-garde with no trouble.

RM Yeah, I agree. But it’s still a long road. At some point I’m going to do a record of classical flute.

AC What repertoire would you want to play?

RM Well, I like all the great composers, like Bach and Beethoven. And I do concerts where I perform their music. I have a trio called the Nonaah trio for flute, bassoon, and piano that performs concerts regularly here in Madison.

AC Who’s the pianist?

RM Jim Erickson. And Willie Walters is the bassoonist. I’ve got a piece that I’m working on right now with a composer from Puerto Rico named William Ortiz for flute and guitar. Before I was on tour, Jaime Guiscafre and I were working on it rather consistently. William sent us the piece because he heard this recording of Jaime’s where I’m playing flute on some of the pieces, bossa novas, sambas and stuff like that, flute and guitar and so on. There’s a lot out there that I’m fascinated by. I figured the only way that you can really learn the flute is by taking it through the standard repertory to avoid becoming a saxophone player that just plays the flute on the side.

AC One of the most interesting things I’ve ever heard was when I asked John Zorn whether he considered himself a jazz musician. He said, “Listen, I play the classical music of the saxophone. And the classical music of the saxophone is Charlie Parker, Lester Young. If you learn the classical repertoire of the flute you have to learn Bach and so on, if you want to learn the classical music of the saxophone, it’s not going to be Jacques Ibert.” That’s not what has established the saxophone as a language.

RM But see, like, I’m interested also in Jacques Ibert. (laughter) I mean, all the tonguing and stuff in there, man.

AC Marcel Mule, you interested in Marcel Mule records?

RM Definitely. And Rudy Wiedoff.

AC Rudy Wiedoff is a very special case. Chicago also, right?

RM That’s right. Rudy Wiedoff had this tonguing thing happening. I have all his books. These pieces where he’s got the saxophone laughing. I love the saxophone, anybody that’s playing. I mean, I’m not crazy, I know whether or not somebody’s playing the saxophone!

AC Those guys were, definitely. I mean Lester Young adored Frankie Trumbauer. Whatever else you can say about them, they’re definitely playing the saxophone.

Roscoe Mitchell. Images: Roscoe Mitchell. Photos: Joseph Blough. Courtesy of the photographer.
Roscoe Mitchell Interview (3 of 3) - AACM


Not Yet:  Six Compositions

William Winant (percussion): Jacob Zimmerman (alto saxophone); Dan VanHassel (piano); Eclipse Quartet; James Fei Alto Quartet; Thomas Buckner (baritone); Petr Kotik (conductor)

A monumental recording of recent concert works by Roscoe Mitchell, for solo percussion, alto saxophone & piano, string quartet, alto saxophone quartet, baritone & chamber orchestra. Recorded live at Jeannik Méquet Littlefield Concert Hall, Mills College, Oakland, CA, March 31, 2012. Live recording and mixing by Robert Shumaker assisted by James Frazier.

Since the early 1960's composer Roscoe Mitchell has been a vital force in American music. An acclaimed saxophonist, Mitchell tours regularly throughout the United States and overseas. He is a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and a founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Recently he appeared to great critical acclaim with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and The Orchestra of the S.E.M Ensemble as soloist and composer on tours in the United States and Europe.

Recent compositions include Variations and Sketches From The Bamboo Terrace for chamber orchestra (1988), Contacts, Turbulents (1986), Memoirs of A Dying Parachutist for chamber orchestra with poetry by Daniel Moore (1995), Fallen Heroes for baritone and orchestra (1998), The Bells of Fifty Ninth Street for alto saxophone and Gamelan Orchestra (2000), 59A for solo soprano saxophone (2000), and Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City (2002) with text by Joseph Jarman.


Bells for New Orleans for tubular bells and orchestra bells (8:18)
Not Yet for alto saxophone and piano (13:16)
9/9/99 with Cards for string quartet (10:23)
Nonaah for alto saxophone quartet (11:37)
Would You Wear My Eyes? for baritone and chamber orchestra (9:44)
Nonaah for chamber orchestra (11:36)


This is Roscoe Mitchell’s finest classical album yet. And, interestingly, it’s one on which his own horn playing is absent; he’s intent on fully inhabiting the role of composer. It’s no secret how a modern conceptualist gets good performances of fiercely difficult, experimental works: you get a chair in composition at a major music school, draw interested students to your side, and present concerts. Mitchell has done that as a chair of composition studies at Mills College. And his student Jacob Zimmerman does the teacher proud in the skittering, sheets-of-sound atonality of the title track (for saxophone and piano), as well as in the sax-quartet arrangement of the infamous Mitchell piece “Nonaah.” Some more senior eminences drop by to tackle a chamber orchestra version of “Nonaah,” also. When paired with the finest recorded example we have of Mitchell’s writing for string quartet (“9/9/99 with Cards”), this album becomes an essential document of a portion of the composer’s legacy. -Seth Colter Walls, eMusic


Roscoe Mitchell, as. ts. ss. fl.
Joseph Jarman, ss. ts. fl.
Malachi Favors, b.
Don Moye, dr. perc.
Lester Bowie, tp.

Recorded Willisau (Switzerland) Jazz Festival in 1978

"Jo Jar" by Roscoe Mitchell
Roscoe Mitchell Sound Ensemble
From recording: "3X4 EYE"
Recorded December 28, 1981
Black Saint Records (Italy)

Roscoe Mitchell:  Composer, alto and tenor saxophones
Hugh Ragin:  Trumpet & Piccolo trumpet
Jaribu Shahid:  Bass
Tani Tabbal:  Drums and percussion


Roscoe Mitchell: tenor, alto, baritone, and soprano saxophones, flute, percussion)
Joseph Jarman: tenor, alto, sopranino, and soprano saxophones, flute, percussion)
Lester Bowie: Trumpet, percussion)
Don Moye: Drums, percussion
Malachi Favors: Acoustic and electric bass, percussion)

"Theme De YoYo" (composition by AEC, 1970):
Composed for the film:   LES STANCES A SOPHIE

Recorded July 22, 1970 in Boulogne, France

'Theme De Yoyo"
(Music & Lyrics by the Art Ensemble of Chicago--the singer is FONTELLA BASS)

Your head is like a yoyo
your neck is like a string
Your body's like camembert
oozing from its skin.

Your fanny's like two sperm whales
floating down the Seine
Your voice is like a long fork
that's music to your brain.

Your eyes are two blind eagles
that kill what they can't see
Your hands are like two shovels
digging in me.

And your love is like an oil-well
Dig, dig, dig, dig it,
On the Champs-Elysees.

Adventurous composer, jazz improviser, and iconoclastic saxophone don: Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Roscoe Mitchell looks back at his career.

When again did we start expecting art to be fluffy, calm and easy to digest, building a comfort zone for our weary heads to rest in? Well, that must’ve been a world before Roscoe Mitchell. Mitchell is one of the top saxophonists to emerge from the creative melting pot of 1960s Chicago. A key member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Mitchell gained notoriety as a particularly strong and adventurous improviser, pushing the boundaries of what was imaginable in the fields of jazz and Neue Musik. Take his seminal Sound (1966), an experimental behemoth of an album that incorporated toys, horns and random objects into the traditional sound palette. A prolific composer and performer, Mitchell’s charisma translates on record and stage, whether as part of a large ensemble, alongside the likes of Sun Ra and Pauline Oliveros, or in unaccompanied solo performances. Much celebrated is Mitchell’s rare ability to move, with apparent ease, from free and formal jazz into the realms of contemporary classical music and beyond. Some critics have chosen to award him the akward nimbus of the super musician – a hypothetical construct reserved for the type of genius that reigns over various styles, as s/he has deciphered the very DNA of a musical genre. But maybe they just didn’t get the humour.

Chicago, United States


The Art Ensemble Of Chicago
1 Thème De Yoyo
Art Ensemble Of Chicago

Pathé Marconi
2 One Little Suite
Roscoe Mitchell Sextet

3 A Jackson In Your House
Art Ensemble Of Chicago

4 Thème De Yoyo
Art Ensemble Of Chicago

Pathé Marconi
5 Toro
Art Ensemble Of Chicago

6 Tutankhamun
Art Ensemble Of Chicago

7 Nice Guys
Art Ensemble Of Chicago

8 Ancient To The Future
Art Ensemble Of Chicago

9 Zombie
Art Ensemble Of Chicago

10 Strawberry Mango
Art Ensemble Of Chicago

11 Hail We Now Sing Joy
Art Ensemble Of Chicago

Pi Recordings


"Odwalla"  (composition by Roscoe Mitchell, 1972)



(Originally posted on February 25, 2008):

Monday, February 25, 2008


Roscoe Mitchell--Master Musician/Composer in Residence
Roscoe Mitchell, Musician/Composer


My wife and I attended Mr. Mitchell's talk and musical performance at 'The Marsh' in San Francisco last wednesday evening (February 20). Extraordinary lecture, exquisite music, and very informative question-and-answer session with a rapt and deeply appreciative audience. It was everything I had hoped for and expected and more. Roscoe is one of the most creative, important, and influential American musician/composers in the world over the past 40 years and as always it was a great pleasure to experience him and his music live. I have just about every single album and CD the man has led and appeared on since 1966 I'm very proud to say and it's absolutely thrilling that he will be here in the Bay Area for the next three years as the prestigious Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition at Oakland's Mills College. We are indeed very fortunate to have such a great artist in our midst.


NOTE: For still more information about Mitchell and his music see article by New York Times critic Adam Shatz from 1999 directly following the new SF Chronicle article below. I will also soon be providing a discography of Mitchell's work on this site.


Roscoe Mitchell brings jazz history to Mills
David Rubien, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, February 18, 2008

The building that houses the music department at Mills College is undergoing rehabilitation, so Roscoe Mitchell, the saxophonist who was hired last fall as the Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition, has been given a temporary office in another hall down the road that winds through the leafy Oakland campus.


The room is large but barely furnished, with a scratched-up '60s-vintage desk, an empty bookshelf and two grand pianos abutting each other. The wooden chair Mitchell is sitting in seems incommensurate with his status as perhaps the most prestigious instructor at one of the most prestigious graduate music schools in the country. Not that this seems to bother him.

"Yes, it is prestigious," he acknowledges nonchalantly. "A lot of great people have been in this chair" - not meaning the one he's sitting on. Previous occupants of the position, named after the French composer who taught at Mills from 1941 to 1971, include Lou Harrison, Iannis Xenakis, Pauline Oliveros and Anthony Braxton.

Talking to Mitchell, you get the sense that sitting in an old wooden chair and being an exalted professor are about equivalent in the grand scheme of things - at least at this particular moment, when he is concentrating on an interviewer with that uncanny focus jazz musicians have when they're listening to each other on the bandstand.

In fact, a cheap chair and a fancy professorship represent the twin poles of what Mitchell, 67, could have become, as a budding jazz artist blazing trails in sonic realms neither understood nor respected by many people - unless they happened to observe the music being performed, in which case they'd likely be tweaked for life.

Mitchell, who teaches composition and improvisation at Mills, is best known as one of the founding members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a quintet that existed with its original personnel for 30 years, and continues with some fresh blood now that two of its members, trumpeter Lester Bowie and bassist Malachi Favors, have passed away. One of the great groups in all of jazz history, the Art Ensemble had the misfortune of doing its key work from the late '60s through the early '80s, something of a lost era in jazz. You didn't hear much about this incredibly fruitful period in the otherwise excellent documentary "Jazz," a shameful omission on director Ken Burns' part.

"I was lucky to be around people who were so committed to what they were doing, and that's what kept us going for so long," Mitchell says.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago grew out of two bands Mitchell formed in the early '60s, the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet and the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble. As did many important bands in jazz history - Charlie Parker's and John Coltrane's pioneering groups, for instance - the Art Ensemble embodied exactly the point that jazz had evolved to at the time of the band's existence. The Art Ensemble made and still makes astonishing, joyful, swinging, sometimes difficult music based not only on the revolutions of the '60s, but on bebop, big band swing, kitschy vaudeville, 20th century classical and African percussion.

When Mitchell's sextet released "Sound" on Delmark Records in 1966, it was the birth of a new approach to improvised music, one based on an examination of music almost at the level of wavelength, where the saxophonist set about dissecting individual notes in order to unlock their mysteries. In performance, Mitchell often showed off this approach in hypnotic solo saxophone playing with a remarkable circular breathing technique.

In the few dozen albums he's made as a leader outside the Art Ensemble, he's pursued this from-the-ground-up approach, erecting suites and sheets of sound with various combinations of musicians.

Larry Ochs, a founding member of the Rova Saxophone Quartet who organized the Improv: 21 "informance" series where Mitchell is talking Wednesday, says Mitchell has influenced countless musicians even if they don't realize it.

"When I was a young man, Roscoe's electrifying tenor solos on the Art Ensemble's live recording from a concert in Ann Arbor ("Bap-Tizum") was crucial to my own playing, and the band's recording 'Les Stances a Sophie,' which is probably still in my top 10 albums of all time, showed one critical way to combine forms and feelings that spoke to me," Ochs says. "And certainly the Art Ensemble pointed the way for Rova to see the value of keeping a band together for a long time."

The commitment factor emerged early on in Chicago when Mitchell, along with several other musicians who were rehearsing with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams' big band, decided to form an organization that would teach artists to become self-sufficient. That's when, in 1961, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music was born.

"We were able to establish a unit of people who gave us a foundation, where we really didn't have to be dependent on things that were outside of us," Mitchell says.

The association still exists today, and has spawned such artists as former Darius Milhaud Chair Braxton, reed player Henry Threadgill, trombonist George Lewis, keyboardist Amina Claudine Myers, violinist Leroy Jenkins, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and dozens more.

Mitchell says that when he was a kid, all kinds of music were everywhere in Chicago. "If you went to a movie, after the movie there'd be Count Basie's big band. Duke Ellington. Ella Fitzgerald. Lester Young. On and on like that."

Mitchell took up the clarinet while attending Inglewood High School on Chicago's South Side. "Back then, it was kind of a normal rule that if you wanted to play saxophone, you had to start with clarinet."

In the Army, he says, he started "functioning 24 hours a day as a musician." While stationed in Orleans, France, Mitchell first saw a performance by another Army player, tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler. "He had an enormous sound on his instrument. And though I didn't quite understand what it was that he was doing ... he made a big impression on me - but not enough to deter me from studying a more straight-ahead form.

"It wasn't until I got out of the Army and I heard Coltrane's record 'Coltrane,' when he was doing 'Inch Worm' and 'Out of This World,' that I thought, 'Oh my god, you can do that?' And then I thought, 'OK, I better go back and listen to Eric Dolphy a bit.' And then I said, 'Hmm, I better pull out these Ornette Coleman records.' And then it all started to make sense to me."

Mitchell is much too earnest and self-possessed to indulge in hero worship, but when recalling his early infatuation with the mighty 'Trane, his eyes fog up a bit.

"Man, I used to go around and think: Oh my god, what must it be like to be going down the street, and someone asks you, 'What's your name?' and the reply would be, 'John Coltrane.' I couldn't imagine what that would be like."

Mitchell got to sit in with Coltrane, too. Drummer Jack DeJohnette - who was a friend of Mitchell's when they both played in that nascent Abrams big band - had a brief gig with Coltrane after Elvin Jones left the group. The band came through Chicago, and "Jack told Coltrane you should ask this guy to play. And I was like, 'Wait a minute, Jack, man.' But Coltrane did ask me to come up and play. ... It was a remarkable experience for me. I mean (drummer) Roy Haynes came in that night and sat in, and it ended up with the club owner putting us out of the club because we played so late."

As a scientist of sound, Mitchell seems uniquely suited to teaching. One approach he uses involves a scored-improvisational system he developed decades ago that he calls the "card catalog." It's a series of cards that contain different kinds of cues to help students with improvisation.

"I noticed that when it came time to improvise, my students would often make mistakes. So I derived this system to help them discover some different options."

The big picture for Mitchell as a teacher, though, is to help his students figure out their own paths.

"I think the best thing you can teach a person is how to learn," he says. "And once they discover their own individual approach to that - which is inside all of us - then all of a sudden they've opened up a door of endless resources."

Roscoe Mitchell: "Informance" conversation with Derk Richardson. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets: $10. Call (415) 826-5750 or go to themarsh.org/rising.html.

Roscoe Mitchell with the Stanford Jazz Orchestra: 8 p.m. Feb. 27. Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University. Tickets: $10 general public; $5 students; free for Stanford students. Call (650) 723-2720 or go to music.stanford.edu.

To hear music by Roscoe Mitchell, go to sfgate.com/eguide.To see a video of Mitchell performing, go to youtube.com/watch?v=Tbfd8_U4Ac.

E-mail David Rubien at drubien@sfchronicle.com.


This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

MUSIC: A Maestro Of Esoteric Invention Becomes Accessible
Published: March 28, 1999

IN 1937 John Cage inaugurated a musical revolution in three sentences of typically Zenlike simplicity: ''Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.'' In the future, he declared, music would be replaced by a broader field of creativity, which he called ''the organization of sound.''

In 1966 Roscoe Mitchell, then a 26-year-old saxophonist living on the South Side of Chicago, released a stunning album called ''Sound.'' Mr. Mitchell's band looked like a jazz sextet, but it didn't play like one. For starters, the music had no fixed pulse: the drums were used atmospherically, not rhythmically. The solos were explorations of timbre and noise punctuated by long silences; the overall effect was a trippy suspension of time. ''Sound'' belonged as much to the future Cage envisioned as to the jazz tradition.

Any similarities to Cage, however, were serendipitous. Unlike Cage, a privileged insider who delighted in mischief, Mr. Mitchell was a purposeful outsider, intent on claiming new rights for himself and his peers. ''Sound'' was no mere esthetic experiment. It was a pointed challenge to what Mr. Mitchell's fellow Chicagoan Anthony Braxton has called ''the myth of the sweating brow'' -- the notion that black music is an expression of native grace rather than introspection. And in 1966, the year Stokely Carmichael raised the cry of black power, ''Sound'' had the force of a manifesto.

Roscoe Mitchell, whose album ''Nine to Get Ready'' has just appeared, is a leading member of jazz's forgotten avant-garde. Once hailed as an heir to Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, Mr. Mitchell found himself pushed to the margins in the 1980's by Wynton Marsalis and his traditionalist followers, who viewed free jazz as an evil second only to fusion. Since the early 90's, Mr. Mitchell has been staging a comeback, recording and performing at a furious clip. He might not be welcome at Lincoln Center, where musicians are expected to adhere to blues-derived forms and steer clear of European dissonances. But among younger jazz players who chafe at such restrictions, Mr. Mitchell is increasingly recognized as an elder statesman.

''Jazz,'' he said recently, ''is a part of the whole picture, but the communication lines are all over the place now. If you're truly in love with music, you can't help being affected by that fact.''

A small, wiry man with close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair, Mr. Mitchell, 59, is best known as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, one of the most important free-jazz groups since Mr. Coleman's 1960's quartet. But it is in Mr. Mitchell's work as a solo performer and as a leader that he has expressed his vision most rigorously.

A saxophonist and flutist with a hard, acerbic sound reminiscent of Eric Dolphy, Mr. Mitchell has a predilection for unusual effects like circular breathing, a technique of simultaneously inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth that allows a musician to blow for marathon stretches. His compositions have been performed by a wide array of ensembles, ranging from his own experimental jazz bands to contemporary classical groups like the S.E.M. Ensemble.

Although he has been accused of making self-consciously cerebral music, he said: ''It does not bother me to hear my music described that way. I am a scientist involved in the study of music, and it may well be that my work possesses some of those qualities.''

On ''Nine to Get Ready,'' the scientist has unbuttoned his lab coat and delivered some of the most lyrically accessible music of his career. Half the album is devoted to Mr. Mitchell's thorny, stylishly polytonal chamber music. But the jazzier half blazes with feelings that Mr. Mitchell once seemed bent on renouncing in his pursuit of sonic invention.

The unusual nine-piece band on ''Nine to Get Ready'' is composed of Mr. Mitchell on reeds, his longtime associate George Lewis on trombone and Hugh Ragin on trumpet, simultaneously backed by two full rhythm sections: the pianists Craig Taborn and Matthew Shipp, the bassists Jaribu Shahid and William Parker and the drummers Tani Tabbal and Gerald Cleaver. As Mr. Mitchell pointed out, the rhythm sections ''can function together or separately.''

Although most of the music on ''Nine to Get Ready'' is notated, Mr. Mitchell's composing methods blur the line between written and improvised music. To preserve the spontaneity of improvised music, he uses written instructions and graphic symbols as well as notes in his sheet music. (In one concert, Mr. Mitchell divided a stage into squares, each containing suggestions for the performers, who would move from one to the next.) At the same time, Mr. Mitchell abhors off-the-cuff expressiveness; he expects musicians to shape each improvisation as if it were composed. As he put it, ''You've got to know your part in improvised music, too.''

MR. MITCHELL, who was born and reared in Chicago, reached musical maturity at a time when the South Side nearly surpassed New York as a center of jazz innovation. In the early 60's, Mr. Mitchell began playing in the pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams's Experimental Band, which gave birth to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (now better known as simply A.A.C.M.). Drawing inspiration from the music of Mr. Coleman and from the politics of Malcolm X, the collective staged concerts and provided music lessons to inner-city children. ''We knew what happened to people who were out there on their own, and we didn't want to end up like that,'' Mr. Mitchell recalled. ''We wanted to have a scene that we controlled.''

The collective nurtured some of the most significant composers of the 70's and 80's, including Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Braxton and Henry Threadgill. ''There was a feeling of not waiting around for someone to say you're O.K.'' said Mr. Mitchell. ''You'd go to someone's concert, get really inspired and go back home to prepare for your own concert.'' A distinctive regional sound arose, one that valued shadings of color and structural experiments over rhythmic motion and soloing. If New York loft musicians were the action painters of free jazz, these Chicagoans were its constructivists, working through appropriation and collage.

In 1968, Mr. Mitchell founded the collective's flagship band, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, with the bassist Malachi Favors, the trumpeter Lester Bowie and the saxophonist Joseph Jarman. While traveling in France the next year, the Art Ensemble added the drummer Don Moye. Its motto was ''Great Black Music: Past, Present and Future.'' (Early album titles like ''Certain Blacks Do What They Wanna! -- Join Them!'' gave the band a certain radical chic cachet.) The Art Ensemble produced sophisticated pastiches of advanced jazz, big band music, blues, African percussion and reggae that honored -- and sent up -- the black musical tradition.

Mr. Mitchell was the band's intellectual-in-residence. (Mr. Bowie was its jester, Mr. Jarman its mystic.) He was also the only member to appear on stage in street clothes. Since Mr. Moye, Mr. Favors and Mr. Jarman covered their faces with tribal paint and Mr. Bowie wore a physician's suit, Mr. Mitchell's appearance was a symbolic rejection of ornament. It reflected the lean, analytic style he was cultivating as a composer.

Although Mr. Mitchell still performs with the Art Ensemble, since the late 70's he has focused on his work as a composer and leader. In 1976, he moved with his family to a big farm in Wisconsin, where he could finally hear, he said, ''silence and the way things move in nature.'' As he explained: ''When you're in the city you're always being influenced by what's going on around you. I needed to get out of the city to find myself, though I admit when I first looked in the mirror I didn't see all that much. I found that I wasn't all that great and I kept working, from morning to night.''

On his records, Mr. Mitchell has painstakingly documented this process of self-examination. Although he has produced marvels like the 1981 album ''Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancin' Shoes,'' some of his records demonstrated that avant-garde jazz could be as arid as academic serialism. With ''Nine to Get Ready'' -- his best record since ''Snurdy'' -- Mr. Mitchell has succeeded in fusing his scientific investigations of sound with the humanism of his Art Ensemble work. The chamber pieces have an unusual suppleness; the ballads are almost voluptuous. The opening track, ''Leola,'' is a breathtaking requiem for the composer's stepmother. In ''Jamaican Farewell,'' a beautiful, cloud-like formation, Mr. Ragin's trumpeting sounds virtually Coplandesque.

Mr. Mitchell, who now lives in Madison, Wis., leads a fairly ascetic life for a jazz musician. He often wakes up early to run through Bach's flute sonatas with Joan Wildman, a pianist on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, where he occasionally teaches. He spends most of the day composing, studying and practicing. Baroque music is his latest obsession, and he has been transcribing some of his compositions for a recorder orchestra. ''Berkeley Fudge, a saxophonist, gave me my recorder, and it felt so natural, just the one key and the six holes,'' he said. ''And of course the sound is just incredible. I've been in a lot of halls in Italy that were just built for that sound.''

If all of this seems a long way from his Chicago jazz roots, Mr. Mitchell continues to uphold what he calls ''A.A.C.M. philosophy.'' His dream, he said, is to set up a collective of his own -- in the country, of course: ''I'd love to have a school and a big performance space. And I'd love to have a state of the art video studio because the only example we have is MTV.'' He paused, then added: ''I'd never have to leave the house. Can you think of a hipper life than that?''

Adam Shatz's most recent article for Arts and Leisure was on DJ interpretations of Steve Reich's music.

Posted by Kofi Natambu at 6:13 AM

Published on May 6, 2013


New-Music record label Table & Chairs is proud to present a performance dedicated to Roscoe Mitchell's renowned composition, "Nonaah" [noh-NAY-uh], at Benaroya Hall's Nordstrom Recital Hall on June 7th at 8:00 PM. The performance will feature Mitchell giving a rare, extended solo saxophone performance and the world premier of a new arrangement of "Nonaah" for the Table & Chairs group, Lawson. Bad Luck will also present a contemporary piece rooted in the melodic themes of "Nonaah." The rest of the program will comprise of different arrangements of "Nonaah."

Table & Chairs Presents: Roscoe Mitchell performs Nonaah


Published on May 13, 2013

New-Music record label Table & Chairs is proud to present a performance dedicated to Roscoe Mitchell's renowned composition, "Nonaah" [noh-NAY-uh], at Benaroya Hall's Nordstrom Recital Hall on June 7th at 8:00 PM. The performance will feature Mitchell giving a rare, extended solo saxophone performance and the world premier of a new arrangement of "Nonaah" for the Table & Chairs group, Lawson. Bad Luck will also present a contemporary piece rooted in the melodic themes of "Nonaah." The rest of the program will comprise of different arrangements of "Nonaah."


Roscoe Mitchell and the Sound Ensemble
Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancin’ Shoes
Nessa Records 1981
Music Review
by Kofi Natambu
Sco Knows

In 1961 Roscoe Edward Mitchell left the U.S. Army after a three- year hitch and returned to his native city of Chicago, Illinois. He was 21 years old. During that same year the legendary John Coltrane left the Miles Davis band and recorded his first album on a brand new label called Impulse! This seminal recording was called Africa/Brass, and marked the real beginning of the famcd Coltrane quartet (Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Trane). Coltrane was 35, and even though he had recorded 25 albums as a “leader” of various groups before 1961, this was the year that he clearly emerged as a dominant force in American music. It was also in 1961 that his Atlantic recording “My Favorite Things” was released. The record was so popular that it made the charts in many areas of the country, and sold over 50,000 copies its first year—a phenomenal total for a “jazz” record. This classic Coltrane record received very heavy airplay throughout the country and turned an entire generation of musicians around with its sound. One of those musicians was Roscoe E. Mitchell, who was just beginning to, in his words, “take music seriously.”

1961 also marked the year that an ex-Ford assembly line worker and blues songwriter by the name of Berry Gordy, Jr., first made it big with a black owned recording company that he founded called Motown. The first major hit of this struggling new enterprise was a record called “Shop Around” by a 20-year-old singer/songwriter by the name of William “Smokey” Robinson and The Miracles had sold over one million records, and popular music in the U.S. would never be the same again. Back in Chicago, Mitchell and his fellow musicians and friends listened closely and played. Clearly an exciting new era had begun. But the creative and spiritual influences didn’t end there. There were other voices and sounds to contend with as well. These new sounds exploded on the consciousness of young, dynamic artists, who, like Mitchell, were searching for new ideas and values. Also like Mitchell they were unknown “local cats” learning their craft in bars, nightclubs, churches, community centers, basements and living rooms all over the black community. These young turks became the nucleus of a revolution in black creative music. This group of musicians: Joseph Jarman, Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Malachi Favors, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jack DeJohnette, Steve McCall, Scotty Holt, Fred Anderson, Billy Brimfield, etc., all later became renowned as innovative forces in contemporary music. But in 1961 everyone listened carefully to such masters as Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, the Temptations,James Brown and B. B. King. SOUND was everyone and everywhere, and the intensity of the period swept everything before it--including Roscoe Mitchell. It was becoming increasingly clear with each new extraordinary voice that only those artists who continued to study and grow and LISTEN would ultimately be HEARD. And Roscoe had real BIG EARS.

Throughout the fiery 1960s, Mitchell and his colleagues absorbed and became an integral part of the newest developments in world music. An incredible period of activity and gestation of ideas and procedures took place. An extremely wide range of methodologies and systems were used, refined, manipulated, extended and abandoned. Formal elements introduced by artists as seemingly disparate in taste, sensibility and philosophy as Kartheinz Stockhausen, Jimi Hendrix, John Cage, Jackie McLean, Cecil Taylor, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Terry Riley, Ornette Coleman and Lamont Young were all considered grist in the creative mill of these visionaries.
In 1965 this group of black musicians decided to take the next step in their cultural and social evolution. In March of that year over 300 musicians came together to implement the move toward artistic independence and political self-determination. The name of the organization that was formed was the Association for the Ad¬vancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). The members of this grouping included the core of the original Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble that in 1967 metamorphosized into the now world-famous Art Ensemble of Chicago.

From the very beginning all of the philosophical and technical values that currently characterizes Mitchell’s music were present. There was a deeply felt appreciation and understanding of the entire history of creative music, especially its rich swing, blues and bebop traditions. There’s an intellectually rigorous attention to structural detail and a telepathic perception of the intricate relationship between style and content in modern art. Mitchell is a painter of sound who uses his broad strokes to evoke a bright kaleidoscope of melodic and rhythmic colors. The canvas can be informed by collagistic elements or a severely minimalist pointillism. Mitchell also works as a sculptor of organized “harmonic” areas that create a lush landscape that is often juxtaposed to a cartoon-like whimsicality of improvised imagery. These images are derived from Mitchell’s encyclopedic knowledge of formal, stylistic and technical devices drawn from many different traditions in 20th century World Music. But the ironic thing is that he is not merely eclectic. All of these ideas and methods are subsumed under Mitchell’s uniquely prophetic vision. The fact that Mitchell, who has influenced the direction and activity of an entire generation of new musicians throughout the globe, is almost completely ignored by reviewers and “critics” in the United States shows how backward and uninformed the established critical community really is.

In Mitchell’s latest opus entitled Snurdy McGurdy and herDancin’ Shoes (dedicated to his two daughters Lisa and Atala), we witness a true giant of contemporary music fuse these concerns into a wide palette ofsound that is stunning in its conceptual depth and creative execution. The musicians who Mitchell recruited for this awesome task are especially suited for his purposes because they are not tied to any particular stylistic idiom. In fact, these musicians share Mitchell’s vision of an independently expressive music that embraces and extends thy myriad cultural and intellectual traditions that makes use of.

This flexibility and extensive experience in the many musics that have characterized American culture in the post-World War I period serves as both the metaphorical and literal focus for the work in Snurdy McGurdy For in this suite-like opus we find Mitchell still, in the highly perceptive words of Lawrence Kart, “jitterbugging with the artifacts in the imaginary museum.”’ That is, Mitchell has appropriated the “languages” of other distinct artistic idioms and played (improvised) with them in order to reveal the essences of his own conceptual and spiritual philosophies. In Mitchell’s world irony leads to clarity.

Thus, in composition like “Sing/Song,” “The Stomp and Far East Blues” and the title track, we find Roscoe calling on musical devices and resources from Bo Diddley and Louis Jordan, Traditional Japanese forms like the Kabuki, Igor Stravinsky, Charlie Parker, Albert Ayler, and lyricist-composers from the American popular song genre. But the fascinating feature of these compositional frameworks for improvisational communication is that the contexts that the ensemble has chosen for itself only serve to complement and enhance their own vision of the music. This is achieved with a high level of wit, dramatic force and instrumental virtuosity--three ever-present qualities in Mitchell’s art.

Elsewhere in this recording, particularly in pieces like “Round” and “March” (by Anthony Braxton), the ensemble draws on Mitchell’s highly original approaches to well-known “western” music forms. By accentuat¬ing the rhythmic contrasts peculiar to these rather conventional frameworks, and then overlaying them with broad melodic and tonal variations that leap and glide away (then thru) the fading form itself, Mitchell redefines the nature of the form. The result is what all innovators in the arts create: the foundation for a new aesthetic.

With Snurdy McCurdy, as in his brilliant work as a solo performer, and as an integral member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Roscoe reminds us that the function and responsibility of all true “art” is to get us to see, feel and experience more than we are “accustomed” to perceiving and knowing. That it’s not enough to interpret and intellectualize about the possibilities of creative development, but to express them as well. In Mitchell’s music CHANGE is the password. Ask Snurdy McCurdy. Her dancin’ shoes will show you the way...

Solid Ground: A New World Journal
Spring, 1982



1.    Lawrence Kart. (Liner Notes). Old/Quartet. Nessa Records, Chicago, Illinois, 1975.

Roscoe Mitchell

1.    The Roscoe Mitchell Quartet (w/Muhal Richard Abrams, George Lewis, and Spencer Barefied). Sackville 2009, Toronto, 1976.
2.    Roscoe Mitchell Sextet (w/Lester Bowie, Lester Lashley, Maurice Mcintyre, Malachi Favors and Alvin Fielder). Delmark Records, DS-408, Chicago, 1967.
3.    Sound. Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble. Delmark Records, 1966
4.    4.Congliptious. Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble (w/Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors and Robert Crowder). Nessa Records, Chicago, 1968.
5.    The Roscoe Mitchell Solo Saxophone Concerts. Sackville 2006, Toronto, 1975.
6.    Nonaah (w/Anthony Braxton, Malachi Favors, Henry Threadgill. Wallace McMillan, Muhal Richard Abrams.JosephJarman and George Lewis). Nessa Records N-9/10, Chicago, 1977.

7.    Numbers 1 & 2. Lester Bowie. (w/Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors). Nessa Records N-l, Chicago, 1968.

8.    The Maze. (w/Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Thurman Barker, George Lewis.JosephJarman, Don Moye, Malachi Favors). Nessa Records, Chicago, 1978.

And over 20 albums with the Art Ensemble of Chicago on the following record labels: Nessa, Delmark, BYG (France), ECM, Atlantic, Prestige and Affinity (England).


Interview: Roscoe Mitchell

Ahead of his headlining appearance at the Vision Festival in New York this June, eMusic’s Seth Colter Walls caught up with the busy, 72-year-old Mitchell to talk about his early years in the company of Albert Ayler, his recent orchestral commissions, and what it’s like to listen to those first Art Ensemble records today.

[Read our list of Five Essential Roscoe Mitchell recordings.]

This summer, you’ll be playing in a trio with the legendary bassist Henry Grimes. When did you first hear Grimes — and what role, if any, did it have in your development?

Well Henry, I mean he has a lot of knowledge about music. When I was first starting to change the direction of my music, I was listening to him on some of those ESP records.

Like The Call?

Yeah. So it was great to actually get a chance to play music with him. The first time we played, he was in California doing some concerts, so I had him come in to talk to my improv class…This will be the third performance together.

When you talk about the “change” in the direction of your music, I assume this was before Sound and your introduction to the AACM. What else was going on in that period for you?

You know, I had heard Ornette Coleman when I was in the Army and so on. And then I had the pleasure of being in the company of Albert Ayler, as he was in [France] then, and I was in Heidelberg, Germany.

And we would meet in Berlin and join with the Berlin band — and ah…Then it would be sessions going on. When I met Albert Ayler I didn’t really understand that much of what he was doing. But I did know that, as a saxophonist, he had an enormous sound on the instrument. Once we were playing the blues, and Albert played, you know, the first few chords in a conventional way. And then after that, he began to really stretch the materials. Somehow that made some kind of connection for me…Even then even when I got back to Chicago I wasn’t sold on it totally, at sessions I was still playing in a more conventional way.

But then it really wasn’t until I got out of the Army and I started listening to John Coltrane’s record, Coltrane. He was doing, like, “Out of This World.”

That was the first “classic quartet” title for Impulse, right?

That’s right. And using kind of a modal concept for improvisation. Then, from that point on, is when I started to open up and started really listening.

Let’s talk about the new album of classical compositions. The title piece “Not Yet,” for piano and saxophone, is really extraordinary: You can hear the influence of certain types of jazz improvisation in it, but it sounds completely written out, at least to my ear. Is that correct?

It is notated. It was commissioned by 10 saxophonists; a lot of times they’ll get together to pool their money for a commission. It was probably written — let’s see — back in 2004.

And there are two new arrangements on the album of an infamous piece of yours, “Nonaah” [pronounced no-NAY-ah], which started out as a solo piece, on the album of the same name. Not Yet has an edition for a saxophone quartet, and then a chamber orchestra version conducted by Petr Kotik. Why, three decades later, the continued engagement with “Nonaah”?

I can’t seem to get away from it right now! [laughs]…One of my students, Jacob Zimmerman, is organizing a concert in Seattle, and he wanted to do an evening of several types of versions for that piece, so I did another arrangement for his ensemble that has synthesizers and so on and all of that. And they’re doing a few of the versions of the piece on that concert. Next year I’m doing a version of that piece for four bass saxophones at the Other Minds festival, here in California. And now I’ve got an opportunity to have an orchestra piece done by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow.

Will they play the same arrangement as Peter Kotik’s ensemble, on the new album?

They’re perfectly willing to do it in the format that it’s in…And look: I thought they [the chamber orchestra] did a good job on [the new album]. Peter Kotik was out here for a like a week, for a week-long rehearsal, which helps putting this large of a project together. And then plus I had good musicians. But I think it would be nice with a full orchestra — with the brass and timpani, really there’s no percussion on the chamber orchestra piece, and it’s a very percussive piece, in the wind instruments…

Totally. Almost brutally repetitive. Pianist Ethan Iverson has called it, with much admiration, “hardcore.”

Yeah. So to add that extra thing on it like that: I think would be great. So here I am: Not following my advice, I always tell people, “Oh I don’t want to do an orchestra piece.” Because you know, “I’m never gonna get it performed if I finish writing it anyway.”

But I’m here now, wanting to have something that really addresses the full-size orchestra. So I’ve started to set down notes to see what it would be to develop that piece into a full orchestra version. I don’t know why I’m so wrapped up in this piece. I guess if I did that, at least I will have taken this piece from solo all the way to full-size orchestra. I suppose that’s something.

Absolutely. Why do you think people are so taken with this jagged, atonal composition, though?

Now, that’s a good question. Because I remember writing that piece, it was at a time when I moved out of Chicago and moved out into the country. Because I just wanted to get out of the city, you know, to have more time to work on stuff. And I got there, I looked in the mirror and I didn’t see anything. But what did come out of that period was the “Nonaah” piece, because I had set down to write a projected solo for the saxophone. And the idea I had going in with this piece was I wanted to have solo pieces for saxophone that would give the illusion of sounding like it was being played on more than one instrument. So I thought to exploit different registers of the saxophone — with these wide interval leaps — to take advantage of how the saxophone sounds from one register to the next register. And, I dunno! People seemed to like that piece. Eddie Harris always told me: don’t ever get a hit. I was talking to one of my students about that and he said, “Well man, maybe this is your hit.”

Ah, you’ve got lots of hits. What does that history feel like to you now, looking back?

Certainly I feel good, you know, if I go put on a piece of music that was recorded a long time ago and if it still sounds good and sounds fresh. It’s also the relationships that you build. People in the AACM: It’s comforting to know that if you have a concert, you can get people that you have a history with and go right back at it, the same way we did in the early days, with the rehearsals and so on, and [present] something that’s successful.

How long has it been since you’ve played with Anthony Braxton?

I think it’s been three or four years ago. In Rome, we did a duo concert together.

You have to bring that act to New York. People would be into it.

Yeah, that would be great.

Do you have a favorite Art Ensemble recording?

Ah I don’t know. I was doing a lecture [recently] on the AACM and the early days of the Art Ensemble and I just went to the shelf and pulled out A Jackson in Your House. I was really getting into that man! So in hearing that…I have to make sure that I’m not out here cattin’ out on the past. [laughs] Because some of these things I’m listening to, these things are like, really happenin’! I’ve got to try to make sure I’m there, the way I was!

How do you prepare?

For me it’s always [about] trying to have a language. Working on those kinds of things. Before some recent solo concerts I was [looking at] a Michael Jordan interview, about he prepared for games. So I’m basically looking at my schedule, I see that I’ve got a concert where I’m doing two 50-minute sets. And so, when I’m turning on my timer, I’m playing for that amount of time. So I’m accustomed to being in that kind of state. Similar to what he’s saying: practicing every scenario that might actually happen in a game. I’m just a mere student of music. There’s so much to learn about music, it certainly would take me more than one lifetime.


Roscoe Mitchell, as. ts. ss. fl.
Joseph Jarman, ss. ts. fl.
Malachi Favors, b.
Don Moye, dr. perc.
Lester Bowie, tp.

Recorded Willisau (Switzerland) Jazz Festival in 1978

Roscoe Mitchell in August, 1987 with the Art Ensemble of Chicago

The Nu-Art Series Presents
The Mitchell/Bowie Quartet at the St. Louis Art Museum
Saturday, October 8, 1994

Lester Bowie Trumpet
Roscoe Mitchell Reeds
Malachi Favors Bass
Tayammum Falah Drum






Roscoe Mitchell in 1966:


(all compositions by Roscoe Mitchell)
Delmark Records



The Roscoe Mitchell Sextet 
"Ornette" (composition by Roscoe Mitchell)

Sound (1966) 



Five Essential Roscoe Mitchell Recordings

Saxophonist and composer Roscoe Mitchell has been at the forefront of innovation in jazz — hell, in music in general — ever since his landmark 1966 recording Sound. With that debut, he helped usher in a less constantly frenetic avant-garde. Though Mitchell and his cohorts from Chicago’s South Side revolutionaries in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) could bust reeds and pound with the best experimental screamers, they also thrilled to the spare, austerely gentle classical modernism of Anton Webern (for example).

Sound, along with subsequent titles from the “Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble,” issued by the Delmark label, would the proving ground for a band that would eventually take on a different, better-known name: The Art Ensemble of Chicago. While serving a year as the toasts of France in 1969-70, the band cut more than a dozen records. By the time they rotated back to the U.S., the Chicago scene that had influenced Mitchell in his post-Army days had already made significant inroads in New York. Mitchell hasn’t looked back since, whether as a teacher at Mills College (where he currently has the Darius Milhaud chair in composition) or as a gigging and recording musician. This year has already seen two fantastic new albums from Mitchell: the classically-oriented Not Yet, on Mutable Music, and a record of duets with drummer-pianist Tyshawn Sorey. (Trumpeter Hugh Ragin appears on a few cuts, too.)

Here are five of Mitchell’s essential recordings:

A Jackson in Your House / Message to Our Folks / Reese and the Smooth Ones

Three hugely important 1969 albums — some of them infrequently available digitally — by Roscoe Mitchell's breakout project, the Art Ensemble of Chicago are collected here in a high-value, no-duh purchase. (Look at that price point!) The title track of Jackson reveals the band's postmodern mashup strategy: after the opening, jump-cut switches between free playing and modern composition, the band transitions to a New Orleans-flavored outro (one that is sincerely soulful, not... more »

Roscoe Mitchell And The Sound & Space Ensembles

In which the polymath Mitchell embraces the emergent sounds of hip-hop as well as those of late 20th-century chamber music styles — on the same album. Four of the six tracks here are austere, small ensemble compositions (some of them featuring modern-opera singer Tom Buckner). But two uptempo groovers, "You Wastin' My Tyme" and "Linefine Lyon Seven" show that, some 15 years after the Art Ensemble created R&B-inflected avant-jazz jams like "Rock... more »

Solo [3]

This is a late-period tour de force: three different "solo" albums, packaged together. The opening "album," subtitled Tech Ritter and the Megabytes, opens with a multi-tracked Mitchell (on different horns), blasting through a staccato composition called "The Little Big Horn 2." Two long, proper solo improvisations follow (featuring various extended techniques, circular breathing, the works); while the "Tech Ritter"-titled pieces bring the multi-tracked intensity back. The more familiar, purely alto-saxophone album starts... more »

Far Side
2010 | ECM

How influential and well-respected is Roscoe Mitchell, at this point? Well, on this live date for ECM, the two pianists in his octet are Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn (arguably the two biggest names in contemporary jazz piano). The rumbling, droning opening suite of three pieces takes its time winding up — but explodes in a gratifying way at the midway point. (Hearing Taborn going nuts behind Mitchell's soprano playing is a... more »

Not Yet

This is Roscoe Mitchell's finest classical album yet. And, interestingly, it's one on which his own horn playing is absent; he's intent on fully inhabiting the role of composer. It's no secret how a modern conceptualist gets good performances of fiercely difficult, experimental works: you get a chair in composition at a major music school, draw interested students to your side, and present concerts. Mitchell has done that as a chair of composition studies at Mills College. And his student Jacob Zimmerman does the teacher proud in the skittering, sheets-of-sound atonality of the title track (for saxophone and piano), as well as in the sax-quartet arrangement of the infamous Mitchell piece "Nonaah." Some more senior eminences drop by to tackle a chamber orchestra version of "Nonaah," also. When paired with the finest recorded example we have of Mitchell's writing for string quartet ("9/9/99 with Cards"), this album becomes an essential document of a portion of the composer's legacy.

Mitchell in 1977


Originally published Friday, June 7, 2013

Avant-garde jazz legend Roscoe Mitchell to perform classic work
Seattle Times

Saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, 72, is a legend in the world of avant-garde jazz, having held down one of the two reed chairs in the Art Ensemble of Chicago for more than three decades. A rationally severe formalist with an unadorned sound on alto saxophone that plunges straight to the gut, Mitchell is also known for dizzyingly transcendent spins into interstellar space on soprano sax. His concert in Seattle celebrates his piece “Nonaah,” which began as a melodic line in a 1973 AEC album, was eventually headlined on Mitchell’s brilliant, groundbreaking 1977 album of the same name and has continued to undergo transformations.

This performance features Mitchell in a world premiere of a new arrangement of “Nonaah” for the group Lawson, part of the Seattle new music collective Table & Chairs. The group Bad Luck also presents a new work based on the melodic themes of “Nonaah.” Other arrangements of the piece will be presented, as well.

8 p.m. Friday at Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $20-$30

(www.tableandchairsmusic.com). Preconcert talk and Q&A at 7:15 p.m.

Paul de Barros, Seattle Times jazz critic


Roscoe Mitchell
(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi

A Roscoe Mitchell discography

A History of Jazz Music

One of the original members of Muhal Richard Abrams' Experimental Band, Chicago's saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell (1940) released the very first album of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Before There Was Sound (1965) documents an early recording, dating from the very first meeting of the AACM.
Sound (August 1966), mainly taken up by the 21-minute Sound, truly set the standard for the rest of Chicago's creative music. The sextet (with trumpeter Lester Bowie, tenor saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, trombonist/cellist Lester Lashley, bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut, drummer Alvin Fiedler) challenged the dogmas of jazz improvisation and composition, venturing into dissonance and unusual timbres (even toy instruments). The instruments just did not sound like themselves: they were mere vehicles to produce abstract sounds. These sounds derived from the extended (and mostly dissonant) ranges of the instruments were made to interact and overlap. Sound explored the timbres of percussion instruments, and the ten-minute Little Suite focused on the subtleties of "little instruments". But the real breakthrough was the very notion of how to play: this was highly intellectual music, meant to be used by a brain, not by a heart, unlike New York's free jazz that was meant to be emphatic and frantic. These musicians were European scientists, not African shamans. They were scientists of the subtle. Thus the effect was that they were more interested in "silence" and in microtones than in "music". Silence was indeed the "space" in which music happened: silence was a key ingredient in the musical event.

Old/ Quartet (may 1967), mainly taken up by the 38-minute Quartet (november) and released only in 1975, showed further progress/regress towards a music of minimal and primitive gestures. The live shows, that included pantomimes and clownish acts, besides the arsenal of "odd" instruments, increased the feeling that Mitchell's music was a form of theater. Free-jazz musicians, no matter how radical their experiments, had performed using bebop instrumentation and behaving like bebop performers, but the Art Ensemble showed no respect for these conventions. In 1967 the renamed Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble was paired down to a quartet with Bowie, Favors and a drummer. Early Combinations contains the 21-minute A To Ericka (september 1967) and the 23-minute Quintet (november 1967). And perhaps the real manifesto of Mitchell's revolution was Congliptious (march 1968), an album that first redefined the jazz solo with three solos for bass (Tutankhamen), alto saxophone (Tkhke) and trumpet (Jazz Death?), and then resumed the project of redefining harmony with the 19-minute Congliptious/Old.

As the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEOC), without a drummer and with the addition of saxophonist Joseph Jarman, took on an identity of its own, Mitchell's austere, highbrow experiment was somewhat modified to interpret a more humane, populist and even playful concept of music. Instead of a futuristic revolution, the AEOC embodied a synthesis of classical jazz, African music, American folk music and European classical music. It also embodied a strong sense of humour (unheard of in jazz since the heydays of New Orleans) and a political message. It even emphasized a circus-like theatrical element that harked back to the plantations and to Africa itself. This group was extremely prolific during its stay in Europe. Much of the music that they recorded was trivial and redundant, but some pieces do stand out: A Jackson in Your House (june 1969), dominated by Mitchell's 17-minute Song For Charles, Tutankhamun (june 1969), with Mitchell's 15-minute The Ninth Room (and a tedious version of the title-track), The Spiritual (june 1969), with Mitchell's 20-minute The Spiritual, People in Sorrow (july 1969), that contained just one 40-minute piece, perhaps their masterpiece, A Message to Our Folks (august 1969), with the 20-minute A Brain For The Seine and the eight-minute Rock Out (Jarman on guitar, Favors on bass, Mitchell and Bowie on percussion), Reese and the Smooth Ones (august 1969), another 40-minute piece, Eda Wobu (october 1969), an even longer (but far less engaging) live jam, Certain Blacks (february 1970), another minor album, with a 24-minute cover of Chicago Beau's Certain Blacks, Go Home (april 1970), with the 15-minute Dance. There were elements that acknowledged the innovations of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, but reinterpreted according to the quartet's unique aesthetic, that had little patience for musical dogmas.

The AEOC became a quintet with the addition of drummer Don Moye, whose devilish polyrhythms added a new dimension to the band's sound on Chi Congo (june 1970), with the 11-minute tribal maelstrom Chi-Congo, the 14-minute free-jazz work-out Enlorfe and the ten-minute orgy of Hipparippp, the film soundtrack Les Stances a Sophie (july 1970), with Fontella Bass on vocals and piano (Theme de Yoyo, a pioneering fusion of funk, soul and jazz), With Fontella Bass (august 1970), mainly divided between the 18-minute Ole Jed and the 19-minute Horn Web, and Phase One (february 1971), divided into two side-long jams, Ohnedaruth and Lebert Aaly.

The AEOC returned to Chicago in january 1972 and recorded Live at Mandel Hall (january 1972), the politicized Bap-Tizum (september 1972), including Unanka and Ohnedaruth, and Fanfare for the Warriors (september 1973), with Muhal Richard Abrams on piano, containing Mitchell's Nonaah, Favors' Illistrum and Jarman's Fanfare For The Warriors. Despite the publicity, the quintet had lost much of its charm. On the other hand, its music had become much more accessible.

In the meantime, Mitchell had recorded some more milestones of the creative music. The live Solo Saxophone Concerts (july 1974) focused on Mitchell's playing, alternating on soprano, alto, tenor and bass saxophones. Quartet (october 1975), featuring guitarist Spencer Barefield, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and trombonist George Lewis, offered a summary of Mitchell's ideas, from the emotional Tnoona to the unemotional duet of Music for Trombone and B Flat Soprano, from the cerebral group piece Cards to the lyrical trombone solo of Olobo.

Nonaah (february 1977), featuring an all-star cast of improvisers in different combinations, delivered two expanded versions of Mitchell's most famous composition, Nonaah (a 22-minute solo and especially a 17-minute version for the alto saxophone quartet of Mitchell, Jarman, Threadgill and Wallace McMillan) and assorted experiments, notably Tahquemenon in trio with Abrams and Lewis, A1 TAL 2LA in duo with Favors and the 13-minute solo Improvisation 1.

Sketches from Bamboo (june 1979) tackled the large-ensemble format (which he called Creative Orchestra). Mitchell's chamber music reached a zenith with the double LP LRG/ The Maze/ S2 Examples (july 1978), that contained three of his most austere, complex and difficult compositions: the 17-minute soprano saxophone solo S2 Examples, the 36-minute LRG (which stands for Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis), and the 21-minute The Maze for nonet, mostly on percussion (even Braxton, Threadgill, Favors and Jarman, besides Moye and Douglas Ewart) except Mitchell (saxes), Leo Smith (trumpet) and George Lewis (trombone). Not only were they fantastically disjointed, but they were more composed than they looked, being kept together by a cold logic of sound. The Maze ranked among the most sophisticated compositions for percussion ever.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago was still alive. They released Nice Guys (may 1978), with Bowie's Ja, Moye's Folkus and Jarman's Dreaming Of The Master, Full Force (january 1980), mainly taken up by Favors' Magg Zelma, the live Urban Bushmen (june 1980), perhaps the best of the later albums, with the 15-minute four-movement suite Urban Magic, Mitchell's Uncle and Moye's 22-minute Sun Precondition Two. The Third Decade (june 1984), and Naked (july 1986), the commercial sell-out.

Mitchell's career continued with his new creatures, the Sound Ensemble (trumpeter Hugh Ragin, guitarist Spencer Barefield, bassist Jaribu Shahid and percussionist Tani Tabal) and the Space Ensemble, that adopted a friendlier, more spontaneous and even hummable sound: Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancin' Shoes (december 1980), 3X4 Eye (february 1981), with Cutouts for Quintet and 3x4 Eye, The Sound and Space Ensembles (june 1983), that added vocalist Thomas Buckner, trumpeter Michael-Philip Mossman and saxophonist Gerald Oshita,

Out of collaborations with members of these ensembles came Mitchell's most experimental recordings of the period: More Cutouts (february 1981), with Hugh Ragin and Tani Tabbal; New Music for Woodwinds and Voice (january 1981), with Buckner and Oshita; An Interesting Breakfast Conversation (1984), again with Buckner and Oshita; First Meeting (december 1994), with pianist Borah Bergman and Buckner; and 8 O'Clock (december 2000), the third trio recording with Oshita and Buckner. Buckner's voice was a challenging factor for most of this phase.

A new quartet (Mitchell, Favors, pianist Jodie Christian, drummer Steve McCall) recorded The Flow of Things (september 1986). The Note Factory (Matthew Shipp on piano, Jaribu Shahid and William Parker on basses, and two percussionists) recorded This Dance is for Steve McCall (may 1992), that contained mostly tributes to dead friends. These ensemble works became less and less interesting, although at least the nonet of Nine To Get Ready (may 1997), with Hugh Ragin on trumpet, George Lewis on trombone, Matthew Shipp on piano, Craig Taborn on piano, Jaribu Shahid on bass, William Parker on double-bass, and two percussionists, the quartet of In Walked Buckner (february 1999), With Jodie Christian on piano, Reggie Workman on bass and Albert Heath on drums, and the nonet of Song For My Sister (february 2002) displayed sections of brilliant counterpoint.

Mitchell's career was now clearly split between jazz and classical music. Some of his classical compositions fared a lot better than his jazz combos: Prelude for vocals (Buckner), bass saxophone (Mitchell), contrabass sarrusophone (Gerald Oshita) and triple contrabass violin (Brian Smith) on Four Compositions (1988); some of the pieces for solo woodwinds and overdubbed woodwinds and little percussion of Sound Songs (october 1994), entirely played by himself; O the Sun Comes up up up in the Opening on Pilgrimage (1994), credited to the New Chamber Ensemble (violinist Vartan Manoogian, pianist Joseph Kubera and especially baritone Thomas Buckner); and especially Solo 3 (2004), three discs of solo improvisations.

Mitchell also composed Variations and Sketches From The Bamboo Terrace for chamber orchestra (1988), Contacts Turbulents (1986), Memoirs of A Dying Parachutist for chamber orchestra (1995), Fallen Heroes for baritone and orchestra (1998), The Bells of FiftyNinth Street for alto saxophone and gamelan orchestra (2000), 59A for solo soprano saxophone (2000), Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City (2002), etc.

Streaming (january 2005) documents a session by Muhal Richard Abrams (on piano, percussion, flute), George Lewis (on trombone and laptop) and Roscoe Mitchell (on saxophones).

Contact (october 2002) documents a live performance.

Numbers (2011) collects solos and duets recorded from 2002 to 2010.

Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble performed some of Roscoe Mitchell's classical composition on Live At Sant'Anna Arresi (august 2009), including Quintet #1 for Eleven and Quintet #9 for Eleven, as well as Cards for Orchestra.

Not Yet (march 2012) contains live performances of six compositions by Roscoe Mitchell, including a chamber orchestra: Bells For New Orleans for tubular bells and orchestra, the title-track for alto sax and piano, 9/9/99 With Cards for string quartet, Nonaah for alto sax quartet, Would You Wear My Eyes? for baritone (Thomas Buckner) and chamber orchestra, and Nonaah again for orchestra.

FRIDAY, JULY 5, 2013

Delmark salvages a classic album from Roscoe Mitchell

Posted by Peter Margasak on 07.05.13

In 2010 Chicago's venerable Delmark Records purchased the avant-garde catalog of the moribund Canadian jazz imprint Sackville Records, which was formed in 1968 by Bill Smith and John Norris. In general, the former, who also edited and published the jazz magazine Coda, was responsible for the label's free-jazz offerings, while the latter focused on more traditional sounds. Delmark ended up buying that part of the catalog last year. By 2011 Delmark was distributing the remaining Sackville avant-garde catalog, promising to eventually issue previously unreleased material. That promise came true last month when Delmark released Live at "A Space" 1975, a fantastic live recording by the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet. That title has been previously issued both on vinyl and CD, but the new Delmark release adds on four previously unreleased tracks from that concert, adding another 20 or so minutes to the album.

It's tempting to say that Mitchell, a founding member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, was at the height of his creative peak when this album was made, but few improvisers and composers have maintained the creative drive for as long as Mitchell, who proved that he's still an indefatigable force when he played a duet concert with Mike Reed at Constellation in April. For this date Detroit guitarist Spencer Barefield and AACM cohorts in pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and trombonist George Lewis joined him. There's a brief, intimate reading of John Coltrane's classic "Naima" and an austere solo piece by Lewis called "Olobo," but otherwise the material is all by Mitchell at his most bracing. Aside from a strong emphasis on group improvisation, the music is decidedly abstract, following on conceptual structures devised by the leader. Below you can hear one such example on the pointillistic, spartan "Cards," for which he passes out cards to each musician. As he explained to Anthony Coleman in a great interview published by Bomb Magazine in 2005, "The cards have music written on them and each musician gets six cards that they can arrange in any way that they want, at their own tempo, to create their own improvisation."

But this particular performance stands out, in part, because someone in the group occasionally guns an electric drill—not as pioneering as Tom Zé, who incorporated power tools in his music a few years earlier, but well ahead of Einstürzende Neubauten.

Roscoe Mitchell Quartet, "Cards"

Delmark salvages a classic album from Roscoe Mitchell

Delmark Records' acquisition of the Sackville label begins to bear fruit with the reissue of a classic Roscoe Mitchell album.
Roscoe Mitchell

By Andrew Dansby

March 28, 2013

Roscoe Mitchell has for half a century composed and performed music without boundaries. He's commonly associated with jazz, which is where he got his start, but Mitchell's music has consistently proven too far-reaching to be tethered to any word or phrase used as shorthand for a type of music. He's a musical idiom unto himself, having made music that swings like jazz as well as music informed by non-Western classical music that has no ties to jazz at all. Since the 1966 release of "Sound" - an audacious debut album of thrilling variety and intrigue - Mitchell has committed himself to studying the greatest scope of music possible, from composition to improvisation. His study has informed his concept of the "super musician," which he described in an interview as "someone that moves freely in music. But, of course, that's with a well-established background behind you."

Having grown up in Chicago, Mitchell in the 1960s was a key figure in the city's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an influential organization committed to performing and promoting thoughtful experimental music and freer forms of jazz. "Sound" featured core players in what would become the influential Art Ensemble of Chicago. In the years since, Mitchell has made numerous recordings with the Art Ensemble, as well as his various groups and as a solo artist. His discography includes dozens of titles with music best described as bold, exploratory and expansive.

Now 72, Mitchell hasn't slowed his pace, having made more than a dozen new recordings in the past decade alone.

Wednesday night Mitchell performed with percussionist Alvin Fielder, who played on "Sound." Thursday, Nameless Sound, the Houston-based creative music organization, will present Mitchell with its Resounding Vision Award at its annual event. And on Friday, the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet will perform at the Eldorado Ballroom. The appearances are a rare opportunity to see an innovative master at work.

Roscoe Mitchell Quartet

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Eldorado Ballroom, 2310 ElginResounding Vision Awards

Honoring Roscoe Mitchell and Susan and Sanford Criner; music by Curley Cormier and the Gladiators

When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Eldorado Ballroom, 2310 Elgin


Roscoe Mitchell
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Background information
Born     August 3, 1940 (age 73)
Origin    Chicago, Illinois, US
Genres    Jazz


Alto, tenor, soprano, sopranino saxophones
Years active    1960s–present
Associated acts    Art Ensemble of Chicago
The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians

Roscoe Mitchell (born August 3, 1940 in Chicago, Illinois) is an African-American composer, jazz instrumentalist and educator, mostly known for being "a technically superb — if idiosyncratic — saxophonist."[1] He has been called "one of the key figures" in avant-garde jazz who has been "at the forefront of modern music" for the past thirty years.[2][3] He continues "to be a major figure."[1] He has even been called a "super musician"[3][4] and the New York Times has mentioned that he "qualifies as an iconoclast."[5]

Early life

Mitchell grew up in the Chicago, Illinois area where he played saxophone and clarinet at around age twelve. His family was always involved in music with many different styles playing in the house when he was a child as well as having a secular music background. His brother, Norman, in particular was the one who introduced Mitchell to jazz.[6] While attending Englewood High School in Chicago, he furthered his study of the clarinet.[7] In the 1950s, he joined the United States Army, during which time he was stationed in Heidelberg, Germany and played in a band with fellow saxophonists Albert Ayler and Rubin Cooper, the latter of which Mitchell commented "took me under his wing and taught me a lot of stuff."[6] He also studied under the first clarinetist of the Heidelberg Symphony while in Germany.[6] Mitchell returned to the United States in the early 1960s, relocated to the Chicago area, and performed in a band with Wilson Junior College undergraduates Malachi Favors (bass), Joseph Jarman, Henry Threadgill, and Anthony Braxton (all saxophonists). Mitchell also studied with Muhal Richard Abrams and played in his band, the Muhal Richard Abrams' Experimental Band, starting in 1961.

AACM and the Art Ensemble of Chicago:

In 1965, Mitchell was one of the first members of the non-profit organization Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) along with Jodie Christian (piano), Steve McCall (drums), and Phil Cohran (composer). The following year Mitchell, Lester Bowie (trumpet), Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre (tenor saxophone), Favors, Lester Lashley (trombone), and Alvin Fielder (drums), recorded their first studio album, Sound. The album was "a departure from the more extroverted work of the New York-based free jazz players" due in part to the band recording with "unorthodox devices" such as toys and bicycle horns.[1]
From 1967 Mitchell, Bowie, Favors and, on occasion, Jarman performed as the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, then the Art Ensemble, and finally in 1969 were billed as the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The group included Phillip Wilson on drums for short span before he joined Paul Butterfield's band. The group lived and performed in Europe from 1969 to 1971, though they arrived without any percussionist after Wilson left. To fill the void, Mitchell commented that they "evolved into doing percussion ourselves."[6] The band did eventually get a percussionist, Don Moye, who Mitchell had played with before and was living in Europe at that time. For performances, the band often wore brilliant African costumes and painted their faces.[8] The Art Ensemble of Chicago have been described as becoming "possibly the most highly acclaimed jazz band" in the 1970s and 1980s.[1]

Creative Arts Collective and beyond
Mitchell and the others returned to the States in 1971. After having been back in Chicago for three years, Mitchell then established the Creative Arts Collective (CAC) in 1974 that had a similar musical aesthetic to the AACM.[3] The group was based in East Lansing, Michigan and frequently used the facilities at Michigan State University. Mitchell also formed the Sound Ensemble in the early 1970s, an "outgrowth of the CAC" in his words, that consisted mainly of Mitchell, Hugh Ragin, Jaribu Shahid, Tani Tabbal, and Spencer Barefield.[3]

In the 1990s, Mitchell started to experiment in classical music with such composers/artists such as Pauline Oliveros, Thomas Buckner, and Borah Bergman, the latter two of which formed a popular trio with Mitchell called Trio Space. Buckner was also part of another group with Mitchell and Gerald Oshita called Space in the late 1990s. He then conceived the Note Factory in 1992 with various old and new collaborators as another evolution of the Sound Ensemble.

He lived in the area of Madison, Wisconsin[4] and performed with a re-assembled Art Ensemble of Chicago. In 1999, the band was hit hard with the death of Bowie, but Mitchell fought off the urge to recast his position in the group, stating simply "You can't do that" in an interview with Allaboutjazz.com editor-in-chief Fred Jung.[6] The band continued on despite the loss.

Mitchell has made a point of working with younger musicians in various ensembles and combinations, many of whom weren't yet born when the first Art Ensemble recordings were made. Mainly from Chicago, these players include trumpeter Corey Wilkes, bassist Karl E. H. Seigfried, and drummer Isaiah Spencer.

In 2007, Mitchell was named Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition at Mills College in Oakland, California, where he currently lives.[9] Mitchell was chosen by Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel to perform at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in March 2012 in Minehead, England.[10]


The following are referenced from Mitchell's biography at the official AACM website.[11]


The International Jazz Critics Poll
Down Beat Magazine
"Talent Deserving Wider Recognition"
Best Jazz Group (Established) - Art Ensemble of Chicago
Record of the Year – Nonaah
Jazz Personality of the Year, City of Madison, Wisconsin
"Madison Music Legend" ("Madison" magazine)
Certificate of Appreciation (St. Louis Public Schools Role Model Experiences Program)
Honorary Citizen of Atlanta, Georgia
Outstanding Service to Jazz Education Award (National Association of Jazz Educators)
Certificate of Appreciation, Art Ensemble of Chicago (Smithsonian Institution)
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Image Award


National Endowment for the Arts
Arts Midwest Jazz Masters
John Cage Award for Music-Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, Inc.
Michigan State University matching grant
Minnesota Composer's Forum
Meet the Composer, Cultural Series Grant, Center for International Performance and Exhibition, Chicago IL
Comnicut Foundation
Wisconsin Arts Board
Institut de Recherche at Coordination Acoustique Musique, Paris, France
Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission Project Grant, Madison Committee for the Arts
Madison Festival of the Lakes Grant.


Mitchell has taught at various institutions throughout the United States, including the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the California Institute of the Arts.[11] He currently teaches at Mills College in Oakland, California.[12]


with Art Ensemble of Chicago[edit]
Title     Year     Label
Sound - Roscoe Mitchell Sextet     1966     Delmark
Old/Quartet - Roscoe Mitchell     1967     Nessa
Numbers 1 & 2 - Lester Bowie     1967     Nessa
Congliptious - Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble     1968     Nessa
A Jackson in Your House     1969     Actuel
Tutankhamun     1969     Freedom
The Spiritual     1969     Freedom
People in Sorrow     1969     Pathé-Marconi
Message to Our Folks     1969     Actuel
Reese and the Smooth Ones     1969     Actuel
Eda Wobu     1969     JMY
Certain Blacks     1970     America
Go Home     1970     Galloway
Chi-Congo     1970     Paula
Les Stances a Sophie     1970     Pathé-Marconi
Live in Paris     1970     Freedom
Art Ensemble of Chicago with Fontella Bass     1970     America
Phase One     1971     America
Live at Mandell Hall     1972     Delmark
Bap-Tizum     1972     Atlantic
Fanfare for the Warriors     1973     Atlantic
Kabalaba     1974     AECO
Nice Guys     1978     ECM
Live in Berlin     1979     West Wind
Full Force     1980     ECM
Urban Bushmen     1980     ECM
Among the People     1980     Praxis
The Complete Live in Japan     1984     DIW
The Third Decade     1984     ECM
Naked     1986     DIW
Ancient to the Future     1987     DIW
The Alternate Express     1989     DIW
Art Ensemble of Soweto     1990     DIW
America - South Africa     1990     DIW
Thelonious Sphere Monk with Cecil Taylor     1990     DIW
Dreaming of the Masters Suite     1990     DIW
Live at the 6th Tokyo Music Joy with Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy     1991     DIW
Fundamental Destiny with Don Pullen     1991     AECO
Salutes the Chicago Blues Tradition     1993     AECO
Coming Home Jamaica     1996     Atlantic
Urban Magic     1997     Musica Jazz
Tribute to Lester     2001     ECM
Reunion     2003     Around Jazz
The Meeting     2003     Pi
Sirius Calling     2004     Pi
Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City     2006     Pi
Solo works and other ensembles
1973 Solo Saxophone Concerts — Sackville
1975 Quartet — Sackville
1976 Nonaah — Nessa
1977 Duets with Anthony Braxton — Sackville
1979 Sketches From Bamboo — Moers
1980 Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancin' Shoes — Nessa
1981 3 x 4 Eye — Black Saint
1983 Roscoe Mitchell and the Sound and Space Ensembles — Black Saint
1984 An Interesting Breakfast Conversation — 1750 Arch
1986 The Flow of Things — Black Saint
1986 Live at the Muhle Hunziken — Cecma Records
1987 Live at the Knitting Factory — Black Saint
1988 Live in Detroit — Cecma
1989 After Fallen Leaves — Silkheart Records
1990 Duets & Solos — Black Saint
1990 Songs in the Wind — Victo Records
1992 This Dance Is for Steve McCall — Black Saint
1992 Four Compositions — Lovely Music
1994 Hey Donald — Delmark
1994 Sound Songs — Delmark
1994 First Meeting — Knitting Factory
1994 Pilgrimage — Lovely Music
1996 Day and the Night — Dizim
1998 More Cutouts — Cecma
1999 Nine to Get Ready — ECM
1999 In Walked Buckner — Delmark
2001 8 O'Clock: Two Improvisations — Mutable Music
2002 Song for My Sister — Pi Recordings
2004 Solo 3 — Mutable
2005 Chicago Duos — First Look/Southport
2005 Turn — RogueArt
2006 No Side Effects — RogueArt
2006 The Bad Guys — Around Jazz
2007 Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 with Evan Parker (ECM)
2009 The Solo Concert - AECO [composed of solo performances from many concerts performed in the 1970s.]
2009 Contact - RogueArt
2010 Spectrum - Mutablemusic
2010 Far Side - with The Note Factory (ECM)
2011 Numbers - RogueArt..
2013 Duets with Tyshawn Sorey and Special Guest Hugh Ragin[13]
As sideman[edit]
With Anthony Braxton
Creative Orchestra Music 1976 (Arista, 1976)
With Evan Parker
Boustrophedon (ECM, 2004)

^ a b c d Chris Kelsey. "Roscoe Mitchell at Allmusic". Retrieved 2006-12-29.
^ The Penguin Guide to Jazz by Richard Cook, Brian Morton, et al. p. 916, eighth edition
^ a b c d Jack Gold (January 8, 2004). "Roscoe Mitchell: In Search of the Super Musician". Retrieved 2006-12-29.
^ a b Lazaro Vega (August 25, 2005). "A conversation with Roscoe Mitchell". Archived from the original on 2006-08-13. Retrieved 2006-12-29.
^ Jazz: Roscoe Mitchell by Jon Pareles, New York Times, August 25, 1983
^ a b c d e Fred Jung. "A Fireside Chat with Roscoe Mitchell (second)". Retrieved 2006-12-29.
^ Roscoe Mitchell: In Search of the Super Musician by Jack Gold, Allaboutjazz.com, October 23, 2003
^ Celeste Sunderland. "Roscoe Mitchell: Opening Doors". Retrieved 2006-12-29.
^ "Roscoe Mitchell Named Darius Milhaud Chair In Composition At Mills College". Retrieved 2008-03-31.
^ ATP curated by Jeff Mangum
^ a b "Roscoe Mitchell..... Composer, Multi-Instrumentalist, Educator". Archived from the original on 2007-07-30. Retrieved 2006-12-29.
^ http://www.mills.edu/academics/faculty/mus/rmitchell/rmitchell.php
^ Duets with Tyshawn Sorey and Special Guest Hugh Ragin
External links[edit]

All About Jazz: Roscoe Mitchell: In Search of the Super Musician Posted: 2004-01-08
Roscoe Mitchell interview by Jason Gross (May 1998)
Lovely Music Artist: Roscoe Mitchell
AACM: Roscoe Mitchell