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Roscoe Mitchell and the Sound Ensemble: Snurdy McGurdy and her Dancin’ Shoes

Anthony Braxton has noted that Chicago’s AACM musicians were among the first to explore, in form, structure and even delicate expression, the possibilities that came out of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler’s energy music. That claim is certainly borne out by two recent reissues featuring the work of Braxton’s Chicagoland peer, Roscoe Mitchell. Both recordings catch Mitchell away from his main outlet, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and are very much focused on the interplay between free expression, form and space.

Cut in 1980, Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancin’ Shoes (Nessa) finds Mitchell and company engaged in very deliberate formal experimentation. A rhythm section of Tani Tabbal and drums and Jaribu Shahid on bass ensure that Mitchell’s group does not go entirely pulseless for long, and they also help Mitchell and the band induce very abrupt shifts in mood, style and energy level. “Sing/Song” starts off lyrically but turns tumultuous almost immediately, only then to segue into an easy, swinging bebop carried admirably by Mitchell and trumpeter Hugh Ragin. The front line of Mitchell, Ragin and guitarist Spencer Barefield then close out the tune with a gorgeous polyphony. The equally abrupt “Stomp and the Far East Blues” links minimalist, vaguely Eastern, long-tone improv with a spanking funk. The band also finds the time to throw in a highly structured Braxton composition “March (Composition 40Q).” There is a lightness here, and the band plays with good humor. Unfortunately, sometimes those qualities get bogged down in Mitchell’s more mannered compositions on Snurdy McGurdy.

A live recording from five years earlier, Quartet (Sackville) documents Michell’s in-concert adventures in pure sound and silence. He and his group-pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, Barefield and George Lewis, then a 23-year-old trombonist making his recorded debut-use space as expressively as they do sound. Much of the playing here comes in the form of short statements deliberately pitted against space, which other band members are invited to fill-or not. The opening tune, Mitchell’s “Tnoona,” obviously draws from minimalism, as the music balances itself between Barfield’s spacy, distant guitar tones and Abrams’ keyboard trill, which repeats over and over for the length of the tune. Mitchell and Lewis restrict themselves to small gestures, like the wooshing of breath through the horn. Uneven overall, Quartet is still worth checking out for its thorough exposure of the young trombonist.

Originally Published