Taylor Ho Bynum

*Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Writings By

Roscoe Mitchell

A short article on the work of Roscoe Mitchell from the Tables & Chairs blog, in advance of a Seattle concert of Mitchell’s:

Like many listeners, I first heard Roscoe Mitchell in the context of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. As a brass player, it was Lester Bowie’s clarion call that brought me in, but I soon wholly embraced the collective; the magical balance of these contrasting and complementary musical souls, especially the yin/yang partnership of Roscoe and Lester.

The first album I bought under Roscoe Mitchell’s name was The Flow of Things (1987), a quartet recording with Jodie Christian, Malachi Favors, and Steve McCall. Quite frankly, it scared the hell out of me (as revolutionary art is supposed to do). The title track, presented in three takes, offers an unrelenting wave of sound, where Roscoe’s soprano sax sounds like it is about to burst at the seams as he forces it to do the work of three horns simultaneously. I couldn’t figure out what I was hearing, but I couldn’t let it go. My next step was his 1966 debut album Sound, which again challenged all my musical assumptions. The same intensity as Flow, but stretching out the sound to its translucent limit, the delicious tension of delicacy and silence at its breaking point.

In the years since, I have devoured Roscoe’s music whenever I’ve heard it, from his trio deconstruction of Oh Susanna in 1967 through the decades to the double image logic of the Note Factory. I’ve learned the different extremes of Flow and Sound are not contradictions, but two manifestations of the same guiding principle: Roscoe’s dedication to exploring musical ideas to their deepest level, unearthing the beauty and revelation that only the most absolute kind of commitment, conviction, and brilliance can produce.


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