Roscoe Mitchell’s concerts of March 2012 were widely held to have been among the live highlights of that year, so – despite the pall cast by the subsequent death of Tony Marsh, the drummer on those dates – his return to OTO was highly anticipated.
Marsh died just one month after his date with Mitchell and John Edwards, on 09 April. In a Guardian obituary, John Fordham said, quite rightly, that Marsh’s performance “astonished those who witnessed it”. It’s probably also fair to add that Marsh’s performance was prompted by a no less astonishing outing from Roscoe Mitchell, then age 71.
Mitchell has perfected a style focused on mastery of circular breathing. In 2012 I wrote: “I have never heard anyone play so musically in this style as Mitchell”, and this latest concert only confirmed that opinion. It’s quite something to see Mitchell, cheeks distended with air inhaled through his nose, shaping air to be forced through the reed, creating note flows of supremely lyrical cadence. Mitchell’s tonality can range from a soft coppery purr on the tenor to a sour asperity in the higher register of the soprano, but it’s the fluidity of his transitions and the way he shapes a line that catch the ear.
His drummer for these dates was Tani Tabbal, who I last saw a decade or more ago, playing as a mainstay of James Carter’s quartet of the time. Whereas Marsh adapted to Mitchell’s snaking linearity by playing much in the style of a timpanist, Tabbal often kicked in harder on the bass drum, or else created syncopated rhythms accented by emphatic splashes of hi-hat and ride cymbals.
John Edwards was Mitchell’s choice of bassist last year, and he was worked just as hard this time around. However he managed to make more effective use of his extended playing vocabulary on this occasion, as (to select just a couple of examples) when he played pizzicato with the bow inserted between fingerboard and strings, or dramatically struck and muted strings with forceful impacts of the flat end of his bow’s frog.
After a first set of mounting intensity peaked with the sudden dissipation of Tabbal’s percussive thunderhead, most trios would call a break, but Mitchell decided to allow Tabbal and Edwards to take a short but exquisitely subtle duet, joining in only briefly to round their improvisation off with concise melodicism. A second set was slightly more discursive, and slightly less directional; slightly less impactful perhaps, but such things are relative. This was another masterful performance overall, confirming the impression that Roscoe Mitchell has come into peerless form.