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Roscoe Mitchell with Ostravská Banda: Distant Radio Transmission (Wide Hive)

A review of the saxophonist's album with the Czech Republic-based contemporary chamber-music ensemble

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Roscoe Mitchell with Ostravská Banda: Distant Radio Transmission
The cover of Distant Radio Transmission by Roscoe Mitchell with Ostravská Banda

Drawing nigh on 80, saxophonist/composer Roscoe Mitchell—an axe man who can blow high, hard flames or find blowsy elegance in the understated and the meditative—is showing no signs of a slowdown. The co-creator of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians has spent his autumnal years breaking new ground with avant-garde performers such as Craig Taborn, Moor Mother, Kikanju Baku, William Winant, Yuganaut, and Matthew Shipp. 

Add the mixed European, Czech Republic-based contemporary chamber-music outfit Ostravská Banda to the AACM master’s churning combine of collaborators who, like him, specialize in noise, nuance, and melodies held in thrall by brutal beauty. (There are three additional players behind Mitchell’s pixie-ish “Nonaah Trio”—pianist Dana Reason, flutist John C Savage, oboist Catherine Lee—and a woodwind quintet featuring bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck on “Cutouts”; one more track, “8-8-88,” is performed on a Yamaha Synclavier.)

The album’s centerpiece, “Distant Radio Transmission,” was originally recorded in 2013 as a spare, free improvisation played by Mitchell (on soprano), keyboardist Taborn, and percussionist Baku. Transcribed and rearranged for orchestra—including chattering baritone vocalist Thomas Buckner, wildly theatrical pianist Keiko Shichijo, and creepy electroniciste James Fei—this 2017 recording is a rousingly cinematic epic that sounds as if it contains elements of Brian Easdale’s uneasy score for The Red Shoes and Jerry Goldsmith’s musky, horrified Planet of the Apes soundtrack. 

Winding their way through a juking, jiving 20-minute journey, Mitchell and conductor Petr Kotik’s 33-piece ensemble capture the abstract—be it playfully fun or nervously diabolical—like a tiger by the tail. With the saxophonist squeaking, soliciting, and snake-charming his way through a daringly goofy center section that finds him in battle stance with Buckner (Robert Ashley’s favorite vocalist), this is dramatic experimental music that never forgets its senses of majesty or humor.

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