Roscoe Mitchell Quartet: Live at “A Space” 1975

Only the most modern of listeners will be able to get with this 38-year-old music. Its barriers to entry are extreme. It comes from two nights in 1975 at A Space, an artist-run gallery in downtown Toronto which, in 2013, is still open for business. Four of the eight tracks were released on the Canadian Sackville label, on LP in 1976 and on CD in 2002; four tracks are previously unissued. The band is Roscoe Mitchell (reeds); George Lewis, a 23-year-old in his debut recording (trombone); Muhal Richard Abrams (piano) and Spencer Barefield (guitar).

In 1975, Mitchell’s primary affiliation was the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The quartet at A Space has more in common with the European and American classical avant-garde. Lewis’ blats in the right channel sound entirely disassociated from Mitchell’s chirps in the left. It is startling when seemingly random utterances coincide and the two arrive at rough unisons. Barefield does not “play” the guitar but occasionally inserts motivational strums or vivid configurations of color. Abrams is the voice of reason, picking his spots, spilling beautiful, comprehensible effusions between and around Mitchell and Lewis.

In these stark sonic landscapes, there are almost no melodic or harmonic or rhythmic plotting points. Most of the whirring and murmuring on “Tnoona” cannot even be identified by instrument. Yet there are moments of epiphany, when irrational gestures, emerging from silence, gain access to previously inaccessible regions of the subconscious. Some of the experiments fail: “Olobo” simply lays there, inert, an interminable 10-minute trombone solo.

The first two tracks, new to the world, are valuable discoveries. “Prelude to Naima” contains fragments of Coltrane’s song, dramatically slowed to an episodic nine-minute contemplation, outside time. It dawns like breaking light when it becomes, for three minutes, the actual “Naima,” rapt and obsessed.

Thomas Conrad

Thomas Conrad has a BA from the University of Utah and an MA from the University of Iowa (where he attended the Writers Workshop). He taught English at Central State University in Ohio, then left the academic world for the private sector. His affiliation with publications such as JazzTimes, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record and DownBeat has enabled him to sustain active involvement in two of his passions: music and writing.