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March 2011

Roscoe Mitchell and the Note Factory
The Far Side
ECM Records

A live recording from Germany’s Burghausen Festival in 2007, Far Side furthers Roscoe Mitchell’s distinctive mesh of brusque jazz and alert chamber music, spun by the double quartet of his Note Factory into a webbing of tensile strength and innovative textures. It begins with a 31-minute magnum opus, “Far Side/Cards/Far Side,” that dawns portentously with bowed strings and breathy squeaks through a metal mouthpiece. The journey then becomes both meandering and persistent, with a slightly ethereal ambience, before shifting into a familiar Mitchell device—a patchwork quilt of brief flourishes, from piano trills to cymbal fills to lowing, bowed bass and cello advisories.

At the halfway point the music erupts like scattering cockroaches when the light goes on, seemingly chaotic but utterly shrewd. Mitchell’s soprano joins in four minutes later, both keening and modulated like Indian music, adding to the roiling heave and churn that’s all infused with a dab of glee. Then Mitchell steps back and Corey Wilkes moves from a baritone-deep growl to rippling fanfares that inevitably provoke comparisons to Lester Bowie. The abrupt ending is a crafty surprise, and the work in all is a whale of an endeavor that balances composition and improvisation on a grand scale.

The rest of the disc is necessarily anticlimactic, more rewarding for snippets and individual voicings than the sum of those parts. “Quintet 2007 A for Eight” extends the patchwork approach for nearly all of its nine minutes, but the bassist-cellist Harrison Bankhead and bassist Jaribu Shahid stand out in both lead and supportive roles. “Trio Four for Eight” features Mitchell’s clarion flute in tandem with cello and bass, and the ensemble actually swings a bit before yielding to drummers Vincent Davis and Tani Tabbal toward the finish. “Ex Flover Five” is for those excited by the inclusion of two stellar pianists, Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer, who get a chance to hammer, hurdle and prance for most of the song.

Looking over the nearly half-century that Roscoe Mitchell has been expanding the envelope of avant-garde jazz, it is remarkable how consistent his principles and sound have remained. This outing is three years old, and I can’t imagine Roscoe is resting on his laurels. Let’s get this man more opportunities to play when the tapes are rolling. What’s beyond the Far Side?

Originally published in March 2011
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