Bells for the South Side is 2-CD set recorded at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art during an exhibition devoted to the legacy of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the musicians’ collective, founded in 1965, which seeded the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet and its blossoming into the most fabulous Art Ensemble of Chicago.
It’s released at a time when Mitchell’s tenure in the prestigious Chair of Composition at Mills College, California, which he’s held since 2007, is controversially threatened by financial cuts – eliciting an impressively countersigned petition on his behalf – so it serves as a timely showcase, encompassing everything from free jazz to post-third-wave and electro-acoustics, all in classically syncretistic AEC style, of the more cerebral aspects of his always earthy and alive music-making.
The set premieres all new music, a collection of variegated pieces written for the combined personnel of four working trios: there’s a showcase for each trio, plus six other pieces that draw on new configurations.
Craig Taborn’s piano on ‘Spatial Aspects of the Sound’ (12:14) is initially Feldman-esque, excepting occasionally striking emphases and an increasingly dramatic use of preparations. He’s shaded by sometimes ghostly tubular bells and sleigh bells played by Tyshawn Sorey, the latter heightening late onset agitation, ahead of a contrastingly pastoral coda with Mitchell on flute.
‘Panoply’ (7:36) is also the title of the Mitchell painting that’s reproduced on the album cover. The music is spare-but-intense free-jazz studded with silences, sour reeds pitted against orchestral percussion, and dynamic kit drumming sparked by Hugh Ragin’s superb, impassioned trumpet playing, all of which culminates in a frenetic percussion workout.
‘Prelude to a Rose’ (12:44) is contrastingly percussion-free: Ragin’s trumpet plus Sorey on trombone and Mitchell on reeds (one of the established trios), all sounding stabs, breathy slurs and smears in a dynamic calibration of silences and strikingly emphatic gestures.
‘Dancing in the Canyon’ (10:23) – an improvisation by the trio of Mitchell, Taborn and drummer Kikanju Baku – is the only piece here not composed by Mitchell. It progresses from a subtle blending of aeolian chimes and untethered electronic glitches through a sustained swell of tumultuous freejazz intensity, a welcome dynamic blast of exuberance in an occasionally austere and consistently demanding (and rewarding) programme.
Most of these pieces were recorded during performances in the Museum’s theatre, but the two tracks that close CD 1, were both recorded in the Museum’s exhibition space, where the Art Ensemble’s instruments were on display.
The first of these, ‘EP 7849’ (8:13) is an odd one: an initially brittle electro-acoustic soundscape (Taborn) with low liturgical vocalisations segues into a passage of tightly drawn electric bass (Jaribu Shahid) agitated by an orchestral percussion array presumably played by William Winant: think Sunn O))) meets Xenakis.
‘Bells for the South Side’ (12:35) is maybe closer the AEC tribute you’d expect. Sorey is playing Mitchell’s percussion cage, Tani Tabbal and Baku are playing the percussion instruments of Don Moye and Malachi Favors, and Winant is sounding Lester Bowie’s bass drum. But Ragin’s trumpet playing has more the plangency of Arve Henriksen than the exuberance of Bowie, and you can practically hear the temperance of the gallery space muting the smouldering heat of this performance.
CD2 begins with Mitchell’s trio with Shahid and Tabbal (a well established rhythm partnership). Mitchell’s extended introductory solo to ‘Prelude to the Card Game, Cards for Drums, and the Final Hand’ (12:26) is a glimpse of the free-ranging saxophony more extensively documented on Improvisations, here with only bowed contrabass accompaniment. The bulk of what follows is a beautifully weighted kit drums solo, capped by two minutes of intense, knotty trioism, with Shahid now on electric bass.
There’s more of what feels like free jazz on ‘The Last Chord’ (12:26), which initially sounds like an orchestration of the Cecil Taylor/Tony Oxley duo’s dynamic. Taborn temporarily cedes the spotlight to Ragin’s (briefly unaccompanied) trumpet, but, typically for this percussion-centric set, it’s whoever’s drumming (the liner notes don’t specify) that dominates.
The title of ‘Six Gongs and Two Woodblocks’ (7:50) tells only part of the story. It’s played by Mitchell’s trio with Winant and James Fei. Fei plays saxophones, clarinet and electronics, and electronic tones rub up against shawm-like passages of circulated breathing on reeds, creating a sere, electro-acoustic aspect that’s just as dominant as the wooden and metallic elements. ‘R509A Twenty B’ (1:34) makes for an effective coda closer to the AEC’s style.
All of which leaves just the medley ‘Red Moon in the Sky/Odwalla’ (25:49). ‘Red Moon…’ is a spacey, improv/acousmatic-sounding setting for sparse percussion, prepared piano and the dominant glitchy electronics of Taborn and Fei. As it develops and intensifies it reprises the unbound jazz feel of the AEC’s live classic Urban Bushmen.
After 17 minutes a final percussive flurry breaks into the loose sway of ‘Odwalla’, Mitchell’s AEC theme song, with its unforced unison horns and crisp jazzy undercarriage. Mitchell takes a short, sweet valedictory solo before introducing the band, eliciting brief cameos and responsive applause. It’s a nice touch, putting us in the moment, allowing the musicians’ relaxation and the warmth of the audience’s appreciation to cushion our own exit.
There’s a lot here, and it takes some digesting, but Bells for the South Side is a superb album.
Roscoe Mitchell, Tony Marsh, John Edwards – Improvisations.
Roscoe Mitchell with John Edwards and Tani Tabbal at Cafe Oto, 29 January 2013.
Roscoe Mitchell with John Edwards and Tony Marsh at Cafe Oto, 10 March 2012.
Buy Bells for the South Side direct from ECM.