Roscoe Mitchell with John Edwards and Tony Marsh at Cafe Oto, 10 March 2012

Roscoe Mitchell and John Edwards at Cafe OtoSaxophonist Roscoe Mitchell plays with a daunting single-mindedness and focus of intensity. Each of the two sets he played at Cafe Oto was composed of long-form improvisations, during which the 71 year old Art Ensemble of Chicago veteran seldom took his instrument from his mouth. He played for extended durations in circular breathing, blowing while simultaneously inhaling through his nose, so producing a continuous tone and an unrelieved torrent of notes.

Relatively few saxophonists can master this technique, and fewer still can turn it to a purpose surpassing novelty (Evan Parker, Mitchell’s co-leader in the Transatlantic Art Ensemble, is one such), and I have never heard anyone play so musically in this style as Mitchell. If it shapes and informs the contours of the probing, lineal compositions he writes for his current large ensemble The Note Factory, it becomes a defining characteristic of his improvising in a small group context such as this trio with John Edwards and Tony Marsh.

Tony Marsh at Cafe OtoSince Mitchell set the tempo and imposed the form of the improvisations at Oto, percussionist Marsh’s role was essentially that of colourist, teasing out the connotations in Mitchell’s conceptions and highlighting the implicit drama in contrasting shades and definitions. He seemed rather reticent at first, initially restricting himself to felicitous and judiciously timed light touches. Standing behind a battery of two floor toms, a snare drum, a rounded red woodblock, and assorted cymbals, he played with exquisite sensitivity from the start, and ever-increasing conviction.

I’ve seen double bassist John Edwards perform innumerable times, often in far more ostensibly intense settings than this (as with Peter Brötzmann, or in Edwards’ various trios with drummer Steve Noble), yet I’ve never seen him set quite so hard to purpose as he was by Roscoe Mitchell’s torrents of invention. There was little scope for the more outré of the extended techniques for which the bassist is so highly regarded; rather the subtleties behind his surface aggression were put to the test, and he rose to the test superbly. True to the spirit of Mitchell’s long-form conception, he narrowed his focus and concentrated on bowed sound throughout the first set, mostly playing pizzicato style, with his fingers, in the second.

When Mitchell switched from alto to soprano saxophone he also dropped his multiphonic note flurries to produce more guttural effects. Edwards matched him by bowing below the bridge. The saxophonist’s more concise, breath-length phrases were echoed in his partners’ now playing at a walk tempo, but the forward momentum of the music was still insistent, and Mitchell produced a flood of notes in an altissimo register before unearthing an evocative folk-like melody that was reminiscent of a theme from Bartók.

A short break allowed Mitchell to switch briefly to flute for a relatively pastoral sequence accompanied by Edwards’ supple bowing and deft cymbal work from Marsh. In a short up-tempo first-set encore Mitchell, back on alto, locked onto a cyclical key pattern and fingered it in deftly hypnotic repeats.

He began the second set with another passage of circular breathing on soprano, keeping all valves closed to produce a thin, sibilant breath sound. Edwards responded by rubbing his knuckles against his instrument’s wood to produce a muted squeak while Marsh tickled his snare’s lower drum head. This brief exploratory passage intoduced a naïve theme by Mitchell that was reminiscent of Frank Loesser’s intricate melody “The Inchworm”, as once played by John Coltrane.

Mitchell then sat out, briefly allowing Edwards and Marsh to play with greater freedom. Marsh, on wire brushes, developed his part into a short emphatic solo. A following trio passage was halting at first, but soon developed its resolve, with Mitchell taking his alto into crossover tenor range for a brawny solo.

From there the set built inexorably, Marsh now playing like a timpanist in more than just stance and Edwards digging deep, until a long tail-off drew the set down ahead of the evening’s vigorously brief finale. As the percussionist rang dancing patterns on suspended cymbals, Mitchell shaped a final melody from one more sustained recycled breath.

Addendum: A recording of sets from both this concert and another held the previous evening was later released as an album, Improvisations, on Cafe OTO’s OTOroku label. I reviewed it here.

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