Roscoe Mitchell’s Nessa 50th Anniversary Celebration Previewed in the Chicago Reader
By Bill Meyer, August 29th, 2017
Roscoe Mitchell is an elder of the African-American avant-garde. In 1965 he joined the brand-new Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, whose vast influence on black art-making is still felt today; within two years he launched the group that would become the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which transformed the future of improvised music. (Once the AACM’s flagship band, it’s recently risen again after a hiatus of several years.) As a composer, improviser, and educator, Mitchell integrates material from a broad array of sources, including free jazz, hard bop, Baroque music, and contemporary orchestral composition. He plays reeds and woodwinds from across the pitch spectrum, and he pioneered the use of percussion and found objects—collectively dubbed “little instruments”—in art music. His collection of little instruments, amassed over decades of practice, is not so little: in 2015 it filled a gallery at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art for the AACM-themed exhibit “The Freedom Principle.”
Now living in California and teaching at Mills College in Oakland, Mitchell was born in Chicago on August 3, 1940. How did he observe his 77th birthday? “I had a relaxing day,” he says. “I just kind of hung around and did some work in the garden. I finished writing the new orchestration for ‘Distant Radio Transmission’ and got it off to the musicians. The first rehearsal is this Sunday.”
Mitchell’s relaxing day sounds more productive than some people’s best weeks, in keeping with his ceaseless effort to continue learning and evolving. He’s already planning observations of the Art Ensemble’s 50th anniversary two years from now, and the orchestration he just finished is part of an ongoing project that connects his work as a solo improviser and teacher to small-group pieces and large-ensemble works, which have been or soon will be performed in New York and San Francisco as well as overseas in Bologna, Italy; Reykjavik, Iceland; and Ostrava in the Czech Republic. For this project Mitchell has recruited students and associates to transcribe improvisations he recorded in 2013 with keyboardist Craig Taborn and percussionist Kikanju Baku. Before the session, he instructed Taborn and Baku to listen to one of his solo concerts, and their transcribed improvisations have in turn been arranged for the likes of the Montreal-Toronto Art Orchestra, which recorded a few for a forthcoming album on Nessa Records. “This all falls into my line of study where I am trying to learn more about the relationship between composition and improvisation,” says Mitchell.
Mitchell’s set at the Chicago Jazz Festival celebrates the legacy of Nessa Records, which is inextricably linked to his own. Chuck Nessa was a clerk at the downtown Chicago location of Discount Records when he formed the label half a century ago to release music by Mitchell and AACM trumpeter Lester Bowie, a core member of the Art Ensemble. “This year is our 50th anniversary,” says Nessa, speaking from his home in Whitehall, Michigan. “The first recording we did was issued as Lester Bowie’s Numbers 1 & 2, and that was recorded in late August of 1967, so it’s almost exactly the anniversary. The music that is going to be performed is a re-creation of Roscoe’s first quartet.”
The first quartet Nessa refers to was an earlier group, which included Mitchell on alto saxophone with trumpeter Fred Berry, drummer Alvin Fielder, and bassist Malachi Favors. In 1965 it recorded some of Mitchell’s earliest compositions, which echo the exuberant melodicism and quick turnabouts of contemporaneous work by Ornette Coleman. Favors died in 2004, and Mitchell says his replacement here will be Detroit-born bassist Jaribu Shahid, a latter-day member of the Art Ensemble who first recorded with Mitchell in the 80s; the group may play some of those early tunes. Mitchell will also lead a second band, formed in 2015, which has likewise recorded for Nessa. “The other quartet is Celebrating Fred Anderson, with Tomeka Reid on cello, Junius Paul on bass, and Vincent Davis on drums,” he says. “I’ll be doing pieces with each one of those groups, and after that I will combine the groups for the final piece of the concert.”