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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 sessions – Phillip 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.