Song for My Sister
Some jazz-related composers are noteworthy for their original vocabulary; some are lionized for their ability to give a variety of existing styles their personal imprint. Among the first wave of AACM composer-instrumentalists, Roscoe Mitchell has perhaps created the most seamless persona doing both.
Given the wide temperamental range of Mitchell's work-his chamber works are often adamantly astringent and his jazz tunes frequently have an affable, if ultimately double-edged humor-this is no small feat. For many long-time Mitchell listeners, the apex of this achievement is his first Sound Ensemble LP, Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancin' Shoes (1980, Nessa), against which all subsequent work is measured. Several recordings have come close, the most recent being Nine to Get Ready (1999, ECM), which suggested that Mitchell's Note Factory, a nonet with twin rhythm sections, would most likely be the ensemble setting the new standard. Song for My Sister comes close-real close.
There are interlocking reasons of equal weight why this is so. Seemingly innocuous personnel changes yield bigger than expected results (only pianist Craig Taborn, bassist Jaribu Shahid and drummer Gerald Cleaver performed on Nine to Get Ready). The replacement of trombonist George Lewis by guitarist Spencer Barefield is the case in point. As both have collaborated with Mitchell since the '70s, it is a change that can be easily overlooked on paper; but substituting Barefield's flexibility for the power Lewis gave the front line pays off time and again throughout the album. Trumpeter Corey Wilkes sidesteps the bravura his predecessor, Hugh Ragin, brought to the table, and instead tends to shadow Mitchell in the ensembles, and flash occasional, welcomed evocations of Lester Bowie. Pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist Leon Dorsey and drummer Vincent Davis make subtle contributions in terms of ensemble sheen and the streamlining of open-field improvisations. And, for the seemingly through-notated "Wind Change," Mitchell creates a contrasting palette with clarinetist Anders Svanoe, bassoonist Willy Walter and string players Janse H. Vincent and Nels Bultmann.
The smart sequencing of materials repeatedly triggers the ensemble's assets. Perhaps the best strategic decision was to deploy three concise, furious bursts of free improvisation; they function like the aural equivalent of scoops of palette-cleansing sherbet between courses of a long, heavy meal. The AECish title tune is a buoyant opener, see-sawing between rhythmic feels with trademark Mitchell pluck. After the first of the three soprano-driven improvisations, "This" is nearly confrontational in its elegiac stillness and its haunting blend of bass recorder, muted trumpet, mallet percussion and acoustic guitar. Another brief gale is followed by the pointillistic "The Megaplexian," an open-field piece for pianos and percussion, and "Step One, Two, Three," which plies a halting ostinato, a jangling chromatic figure, parade drumming and subtle counterpoint by the horns with winning results. The aptly named "The Inside of a Star" sets up the album's strong finish in "Wind Change," a hale piece of contemporary music, and the funk-drenched "Count Off."
The deepest aspect of Song for My Sister is that it is merely a glimpse of Mitchell's potential with the Note Factory. PI Recordings had an auspicious debut simultaneously releasing respective CDs by Henry Threadgill's Make a Move and Zooid. This album reinforces PI's bona fides, but an expedient follow-up, further detailing the scope of Mitchell's vision for this exceptional ensemble, would secure its place among the most committed, forward-looking U.S. labels.