Mitchell and company: simplicity in improvisation

By Eric Benson

The Roscoe Mitchell Quartet crafted an evening of complex, ethereal music last Friday at HotHouse. It would be impossible to pigeonhole the group into a specific genre; certainly it is heavily indebted to the jazz tradition, yet it often departs from the tenets of that tradition. It’s not the jazz of neo-traditionalists like Wynton Marsalis or Stanley Crouch to be sure. The quartet’s music is creative and improvised; the genre into which it is catalogued is incidental.

There was an aura of vast openness in the music on Friday night that facilitated collective improvisation. Listening was as important a contribution to the music as playing, and each musician was willing to set down his instrument for minutes on end to engage only in the silent art of absorbing and reflecting upon his fellow musicians’ ideas. This approach created group cohesion in improvisation that rarely produced a false note. Even the quartet’s less successful ideas were entrancing.

Roscoe Mitchell, the band’s leader and one of the founding members of the Arts Ensemble of Chicago, played an array of saxophones and bells with coiled intensity. Mitchell is a short, lean man with a gaunt face that speaks of a fire simmering in his soul. His playing was often almost silent, adding a fourth color to the group when other members of the band were taking the lead. But on a few occasions, the silence would give way to a tightly wound display of power; his calculated attacks on the alto saxophone were the night’s most striking musical moments.

Mitchell’s appearance and music are utterly devoid of excess. Even during his most intense solos he was audibly in control; no unneeded notes were allowed to slip out even amid torrential streams of ideas. These high-intensity solos were noteworthy not only in their precision but also in their brevity. Mitchell cropped his musical ideas to the minimal required length for coherent expression; embellishment was absent from his work. It is as if long ago Mitchell abandoned worldly showmanship for a life of solemn musical asceticism, vowing to play with a pious reverence for the liberation offered by improvised music.

Roscoe Mitchell’s austere intensity defined the band’s approach, but Thomas Buckner’s voice gave it a tangible character. In a band of multi-instrumentalists, Buckner was the most strikingly diverse musician in the group. It is rare to hear a non-verbal singer play such a prominent role in a jazz group, but at times Buckner utterly dominated the music. His voice was mesmerizing. It could resonate deeply from his core with an almost operatic gusto, then quickly shift to a weightless, breathy tone that seemed detached from his body. Occasionally, his voice departed entirely from tonality, arriving in a realm of growls and tongue clicks that could have easily have sounded forced, but under Buckner’s direction were in accord with both his singing and the playing of the other members of the band. Buckner certainly was not prone to excess, but his music was looser than Mitchell’s; their different approaches complemented each other beautifully.

The rhythm section was no less fascinating. Jerome Cooper played drums, wood blocks, and a synthesized keyboard, all with equal command. In his able hands, the three separate instruments were merely parts of one larger percussive voice. The synthesized keyboard especially added an entirely new dimension to the quartet. Most of the music the quartet played floated atop lightly etched open harmonies; the block chords Cooper played on the keyboard firmly rooted the music. The keyboard was played infrequently, but its tangible harmonies grounded music which often seemed close to taking flight into undecipherable abstraction.

Harrison Bankhead, the group’s bassist, provided the skeletal support which is so necessary in collective improvisation. Bankhead is an adventurous musician to be sure-he used two bows to play the bass at several points during the night-but his contribution was to anchor the music to a rhythmic core. Some of the more cohesive musical moments of the night were achieved when Bankhead latched onto riffs played by Mitchell or Buckner, bringing a group of diverging ideas into a period of unified collective playing.

The music played by the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet was intelligent and beautiful, but also demanding and, at times, frustratingly abstract. Part of the allure of collective improvisation is that it can produce great success and colossal failure in the same night, sometimes in the same musical statement. Mitchell’s austere approach limited the failures, but also gave the music a detached temperament. The music was unsentimental, untraditional, and constantly fascinating. In a musical culture dominated by conspicuous excess, Roscoe Mitchell’s subtle minimalism is refreshing and much needed.