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Roscoe Mitchell and Tatsu Aoki: First Look/Chicago Duos

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Bassist Tatsu Aoki is a Chicago jazz veteran, having appeared on 70 albums as a sideman and another 30 as a leader. On First Look, AACM legend Roscoe Mitchell joins Aoki in a masterful series of sound explorations. Both musicians roam comfortably around the tonal spectrum: Mitchell moves from sliding sax and breathy flute to ringing bells and rattling chimes, while Aoki delivers thick plucks, textured bowing and precise percussion. Most impressive are the tracks in which Aoki hones a repetitive bass line for Mitchell to run around and glide over. “Number Five Wings Place” is like a painting made of sound, with Aoki’s tactile notes dripping onto Mitchell’s impressionist canvas. “The Journey” vaults Mitchell to a horn-bending peak over Aoki’s falling drums, and “Out” rides rumbling bass and glistening percussion off into the distance.

Less satisfying are Aoki’s duets with saxophonist Tim O’Dell on Ancient Pines. Aoki searches heroically for variety inside these pieces, but O’Dell’s slow tone drags things down. O’Dell’s style is a conundrum: His somber playing has a rich timbre and consistent vision, but it often hangs too heavily in the air, without enough tension to generate momentum. The exception is a three-song title suite, in which the addition of bass trumpeter Ryan Shultz pushes the album into more compelling terrain. On “Fanfare/Squirrels,” Shultz and O’Dell skip through a boppish run, while on “Old Growth” Aoki’s forceful line guides his partners’ held notes like a ship captain conducting waves. Later, O’Dell and Aoki work hard to light fires under their languid pieces, ending on a high note with the cracking “Sneaky.” But only when Shultz is involved does Ancient Pines truly burn.