Recorded in 2015 at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, as part of a celebration of the AACM’s 50th anniversary, this double album basks in powerful memories. Where would modern music be had not Mitchell and his partners in the Art Ensemble of Chicago—now also a half-century old—introduced “little instruments” like the bells on Bells for the South Side and reinvented jazz in so many other ways?
But even as Mitchell acknowledges the past, performing on woodwinds, flute, piccolo and bass recorder, he pushes relentlessly forward with new concepts and constructions. The nine-man lineup may suggest the little-big-band dynamism of Nine to Get Ready, his 1999 octet masterpiece for ECM (from which trumpeter Hugh Ragin, keyboardist Craig Taborn, bassist Jaribu Shahid and drummer Tani Tabbal return here). But this aural adventure, ranging from the barest minimalism to the knottiest interactions, is performed by four different trios and combinations of them.
Some of Bells was recorded in the MCA’s exhibition space, where artworks by Mitchell and other AACM members hung on the walls, so listeners will need to exercise their imaginations to hear this performance as an extension of its special setting. But there are plenty of “Spatial Aspects of the Sound,” as the opening piece is called, with which to engage. That song features dual pianos by Taborn and the singular Tyshawn Sorey (featured elsewhere on trombone and drums), and a pouring of bells—tubular, ankle, sleigh. The title piece, grounded in James Fei’s contra-alto clarinet and streaked with silence, comes across as a eulogy for victims of South Side violence, with its burst of siren and “Taps”-like solo by Ragin. The performance concludes with a long medley including the spooky, electronically based “Red Moon in the Sky” and a glowing full-ensemble concert reading of the Art Ensemble classic “Odwalla.” Happy 50ths to all concerned.