“I’ve never been more excited about learning in my life than I am right now. There’s no lack of things to learn right now.”
By Mike Shanley
As Roscoe Mitchell explains some of his current music, which aims to blur the line between composition and improvisation, he cites one of his rules to illustrate his methods: “Don’t follow. If you know your part and I don’t know mine, I’m sitting around waiting to see what you’re going to do,” he says by phone from Portugal. “By the time I do that, I’m behind. And that… would be like being behind on a written piece of music.”
The saxophonist has broken new musical ground several times over throughout his career. He was an early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a group of Chicago composers and performers who devised a forum for modern works that didn’t fit with the city’s diverse jazz scene. After more than half a century, the AACM continues to nurture new talent. What began as the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble became the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a world-revered band. Their musical philosophy of “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future” explained how they could go from traditional jazz to free jazz to percussion workouts, all within the space of a set. Although three of the five members of the Art Ensemble have passed away, Mitchell and drummer Famoudou Don Moye are keeping the name alive with a 17-member incarnation of the group, who released the two-disc We Are On the Edge earlier this year.
Mitchell comes to town this week for the 49th Annual Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert, which is hosted by Nicole Mitchell (no relation), president emeritus of AACM and the new head of the university’s Jazz Studies program. In addition to the long-standing tradition of a Saturday night concert, the event has a Friday night concert with pianist/organist Amina Claudine Meyers at Bellefield Hall.
This marks Mitchell’s first visit to Pittsburgh since the Art Ensemble’s 1990 performance. At the age of 79, recently retired from a teaching post at Mills College, Roscoe Mitchell isn’t about to let go of the probing nature that has fueled his musical career. In fact, he emphatically states, “I’ve never been more excited about learning in my life than I am right now. There’s no lack of things to learn right now.”
Sound, the 1966 album by the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, was the first release from an AACM member and it showed a leader that was already in command of a unique alto saxophone technique. The session included future Art Ensemble members Lester Bowie (trumpet) and Malachi Favors (bass). Mitchell says the inspiration for the album was born in part by participating in weekly practice sessions with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental Band. “We were always encouraged by Muhal to write for the band: Bring your pieces in. Get heard. Don’t like them? Take them home. Fix them up. Bring them back next week,” he says.
Playing sessions with other people around Chicago also sparked his imagination. “I would start to hear all these different things and I suppressed them for a long time,” Mitchell says. “When I decided not to do that anymore, they started to pour out of me. All the musicians that I was playing with all welcomed that and encouraged me.”
In the Art Ensemble’s heyday, it was typical to see Mitchell spend time on myriad horns, from the tiny sopranino sax to the massive bass sax. In Pittsburgh, he might have just the former horn and his soprano, along with a small percussion set-up. “My dream is to go smaller and smaller, so I can have a big coat with a lot of pockets so I can pull out small instruments,” he says. “Trying to travel around with instruments is challenging.”
Mitchell will host a free seminar on Saturday, November 2 at 10 a.m. at the Frick Fine Arts Building, Oakland.