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Roscoe Mitchell: Solo 3

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Roscoe Mitchell is feeling intimations of mortality. And who can blame him, after losing two of his most important collaborators, Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors, over the past few years? Solo [3] had originally been planned as a single-disc release, but Mitchell decided he had more to say, and a finite time in which to say it, so he expanded the project to three discs covering different aspects of his solo music.

Disc one is Tech Ritter and the Megabytes; and it consists of two extended solo soprano sax pieces, a solo percussion piece, a flute solo with percussion self-accompaniment and three tracks featuring overdubbed saxes. Solo sax is notoriously hard to put over, largely because the ear can get really tired really quick of hearing one instrument play one note at a time for an extended period. On the soprano solo “November 17, 2000,” Mitchell effectively addresses that by creating a dialogue with himself, biting out upper harmonic partials that augment and even seem to run counter to the main improvised line. The flute and percussion piece and the multiple sax improvs are obviously a different matter. These (particularly the two Tech Ritter quartets) engage the ear immediately and naturally. With a single intellect in charge, even the wildest and woolliest improvised pieces maintain consistency and coherence.

Disc two, Solar Flares for Alto Saxophone, is a series of tuneful improvisations. In contrast to the cyclic frenzy that characterizes much of Mitchell’s sax work, these are lyrical fantasias. The music is attractive, although, once again, the limitations of the form are apparent. The same can be said of disc three, The Percussion Cage and Music on the Go, which consists mostly of Mitchell’s spare, random-sounding percussion improvisations. While Mitchell’s “percussion cage”-a remarkable looking contraption in which he’s enclosed on four sides by walls comprised of hundreds of small percussion instruments-is an ingenious invention, it leaves something to be desired as a solo vehicle. Though I’m sure that the cage must be a fabulous sonic resource in a group context, here all the little disembodied tinklings and rattlings remind me of an eccentric set of wind chimes-nice as background but rather dull as foreground. More interesting are the lyrical soprano solos that make up the rest of disc three.

Indeed, as much as Mitchell has done to expand the role of percussion in jazz-based improvised music, he is first and foremost a great saxophonist. His innovative sax work almost certainly will be his most important legacy; getting to hear it as plainly as this is without a doubt the best thing about this album.