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Time Pressures: Short Take on Roscoe Mitchell with Tyshawn Sorey and Hugh Ragin

Roscoe Mitchell’s new, eponymous album on Wide Hive records presents him, as composer and as improviser, in shifting configurations: in a trio with himself on saxophones (alternately sopranino, alto and bass), Hugh Ragin on trumpet and Tyshawn Sorey at the drum kit; in duo (on flute and alto sax) with Sorey, who switches to piano for two of the three tracks; and solo with a set of percussion miniatures, played on what in his work with The Art Ensemble of Chicago used to be called “little instruments,” which would include everything from small tuned gongs to found objects. The album is sequenced as an extended palindrome, solo-duo-trio-[solo-trio-duo-trio-solo]-duo-trio-solo, creating an interlace of varying sound-textures while also suggesting recurrence, a cyclical symmetry.
Mitchell’s solos all involve delicately a-metrical plunks and tintinnabulations; he has recorded similar percussion pieces on previous solo projects, but here they feel artfully succinct and carefully realized. Striking his tabletop array of wooden blocks and metallophones with compact sticks and mallets, he produces fleeting, irregularly cadenced clusters of pulses and beats. Time takes on a certain plasticity in these brief performances, as Mitchell alternatively presses toward and draws back from an implied downbeat, a centred measure that never quite arrives. Time hangs between counted and uncountable, openings and distensions, small extemporaneities, spaces. His saxophone tone is always fully-blown, reedy and firm, but his pitch – like his rhythmic sense – often seems to skirt around its centres, as he deliberately manipulates micro-pressures of breath and embouchure to stretch and pull the notes just slightly sharp or flat, creating subtly thrumming layers of detuned harmonics. This plasticity is a hallmark of Roscoe Mitchell’s sound, as I hear it, his improvised lines pushing and tugging at their audible edges.
Tyshawn Sorey’s drumming develops a similar kind of temporal openness, and his sense of auditory space recalls for me some of the work of Paul Motian and Jerome Cooper, and – perhaps echoing a little of Roscoe Mitchell’s early Old/Quartet sessionsPhillip Wilson. I love his playing here, working a middle zone between pulse and arrhythmia. His piano is also compelling; his touch can be hard, but Sorey uses what could potentially be taken for an underdeveloped pianism to great advantage, treating the piano the way maybe it should be treated, as percussion. On “A Game of Catch,” he starts by thrumming and plucking inside the instrument, working the interstices of Mitchell’s melodic fragments. But I especially like his playing on “The Way Home,” where he develops waves and surges, dispersions and clusters, that feel reminiscent to me of Sam Rivers’s piano forays with his trios and with Dave Holland. Sorey’s playing evinces a compellingly nascent rhythmatizing – texturally, a marked contrast from his Morton Feldman-influenced “Permutations for Solo Piano” on his 2007 release That/Not (although, as sound conceptualists, both Sorey and Mitchell are not that far removed from Feldman’s interest in resonance and refrain, what a recent article in The Guardian called “the substance of sound”). And Hugh Ragin is excellent throughout the record, drawing on sonic vocabularies developed in his Sound Pictures for Solo Trumpet(Hopscotch, 2002, a CD that featured his own compositions as well as a suite by Wadada Leo Smith). A master of free improvisation, Ragin evokes at times in his tone and attack the clarion spectre of Louis Armstrong, at others the more laser-like inflections of Lee Morgan: his playing is that fine, that good. I could listen to him all night and day.
Centripetally and centrifugally, convergent and divergent, the music of Mitchell, Sorey and Ragin explores the elastic and uneasy verges of time present, wanting to make its ragged limits sing.

Short Take on Nicole Mitchell, Solo

I spent the day yesterday off and on with Nicole Mitchell‘s remarkable new cd on my player. Engraved in the Wind, released on the French Rogueart label, is a set of compositions and improvisations for solo flute (with a track or two overdubbed, but most cuts using a single live instrument). Nicole Mitchell has worked in a number of musical contexts, from collaborative ensembles and AACM repertory groups to her own Black Earth Ensembles, but here she is in many ways at her most vulnerable — and also, her most moving. This album doesn’t merely showcase her virtuosity, which is thoroughly impressive; she is hands down and unquestionably one of the most accomplished and brilliant flautists in the world, working now in any idiom or sub genre, from classical to jazz and beyond. Mitchell’s huge instrumental technique, whether focused on fundamentals or developing an extended sonic palette, inevitably serves the musical demands of a given moment. The disc intermingles commissions from colleagues (and one piece from the emerging contemporary repertoire for solo flute, Alvin Singleton‘s “Agoru III”) with a series of improvisational explorations of various elements in Mitchell’s instrumental language, a concept akin to Anthony Braxton‘s For Alto, although Mitchell’s rhythmic and harmonic senses are entirely her own; her playing sounds little to nothing like Braxton’s, and she prefers (to my ears, at least) a more folk-based and lyrical melodic tactic. There is a debt here, perhaps, to James Newton‘s Axum, and Newton is one of the composers to offer an original composition, in this instance “Six Wings,” for Mitchell’s recital. But while she often acknowledges her indebtedness to traditions of Afrological music-making — “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future” — her voice, at this point in her career, has become fully her own. (Joe Morris provides excellent liner notes that speak to her technique and to her musical approaches much more eloquently than I can here.)  On the album, she explores a wide range of textures and timbres, but my favourite cut so far is “Dadwee,” a folksy (even blues-ish) line co-composed with Aaya Samaa that demonstrates the almost buttery richness and harmonic density of her flute tone. Her music nourishes as it unfolds. The recording, done at UC Irvine, is intimate and full, very present, which helps, of course. But what most impresses me, as I listen, is the warmth and closeness of her music. Nicole Mitchell has created a definitive album of solo flute music, one to which I am sure I will return again and again.