Sunday, 3 February 2013

Roscoe Mitchell at Cafe Oto, 29.01.2013

(Mitchell played with John Edwards, bass, and Tani Tabbal, drums. This was the first night of a two-night residency.)

Mitchell can be heard saying to Tabbal, 'you start it off'. All the musicians have sheet music discrete on stands, and at first it seems as if Tabbal might be playing a notated drum part, repeated figure dropped as announcement -- entrance-utterance, entrance into trance, with little variations, the slightest temporal differences between repeats, as an ever-so-slight suggestion of elasticity in a mode of playing that enthrals by its engrossing steadfastness. Tabbal -- whom I don’t recall knowingly coming across before, tho’ he’s a long-time collaborator of Mitchell’s -- is all about clarity, a kind of loud directness rather different to the usual more skittery & insectoid playing along the European free improv model that we’re used to hearing in these parts. He thinks above all melodically, with the variant and elastic pulse-work that we expected from both free jazz and free improv players, true, but with an added and keen focus on repeating and working thru an area or phrase until he feels it’s done, even as he’ll also interrupt his own phrases in complexifying flying outburst. (Think, perhaps, and rather distantly, of Ronald Shannon Jackson’s blasts & back-beats with Cecil Taylor on ‘One Too Many Salty Swift & Not Goodbye’.) If this variation within a given area is exemplified by Tabbal in particular, the same is true, in a different manner and to a differing extent, of the leader's playing: his is much more deliberately smeared, notes bent & multiphonic'd & flutter-tongued as the scalar figures he so relishes, on which so many of his composed & improvised lines are built, are edged away from the orthodoxies of 'correct' western pitch, the mellifluousness of almost never-ending circular-breathed cycles stretched & snapped by a whorled wildness that slurs & veers from an almost sloppy-sounding intonation to the most tight & piquant of pitch-jumping figures: all raw smooth progression, it cuts like a knife. I mean, if you think the alto playing of Jackie McLean or the soprano playing of Steve Lacy is 'tart' or 'sharp', Mitchell, in a way utterly distinct from either player (as they are utterly distinct from each other in turn) makes 'tartness' and 'sharpness' a kind of credo. When he gets going on his excursions, minutes and minutes at a time get just sucked into spinning vortex hold, speed round constantly-shifting centre in incremental momentum advance, or not-advance, running like crazy in that spot.

It's hard to focus on details so much as on the block impact of sound - a kind of twitching, leg-shuddering 'high energy' maelstrom that sets its variations within a broadly-defined territory of circular, repeating-type figures that might be described as a sort of minimalism. But there’s no holy or bright pop-py ease here; rather, something more akin to voodoo possession, trance as excess energy burst, play of control & uncontrol, refusal to bend individual model to conformity, yet within a music that depends for its success on group interaction, pin-drop or -point con- and di-vergence. Mitchell’s cheeks puff in-out, neck veins pop, leg lifts and body bends in his overlarge suite & hollers finger-flayed mouthpiece-yelped peak out to Tabbal’s delight, a sustained smashing cymbal barrage almost drowning out the leader as Edwards’ grunted exhortations lift him in full thwacking thump, in dance with his bass, his foot too lifted, Tabbal grinning at commitment as physical force thru momentum & sustained polyrhythmic locking-in: Mitchell will stop, and sit down, and drink his water, & Tabbal will take a solo, again, as at the very start of the whole performance, going round his kit in ritualized repeated melody, or he and Edwards will duet in closest sustained concentration, Edwards sticking his bow behind the strings so it jerks and shudders against them as he rides and slides up and down those strings like effects pedal treatment; Mitchell picking up on the simplest of rhythmic phrases, of Tabbal’s, and turning it into a space-filled in, back in to the music, starting with one blast, as if by accident, doing the simple two or three note phrase as unpredictably rhythmical semi-synchronicity with the others, before you know it into another storm of rippling repetition which references that initial simple spur before totally moving on to some other place. You close your eyes to try and get some sense of how this kind of playing’s shaped, how RM’s constancy leaves or leads his bandmates to swell and drop behind, at points going into full body juddering train, runaway adrenaline ride, others chipping and jerking into spaces behind the still-continuing squall. But in the end that analytical framework just won’t really work as a way into the music, at least not in this moment of live listening, even as a sense of the structural dynamics at work is for sure involved in the dynamics of listening involvement as much as it must be for the players. What I mean is that part of the pleasure of the set is seeing how these blocks fit together, & that there’s an amazing willed surrender at the moment when you realize Mitchell’s GONE again, out there a minute (more than that!), and you settle in for the ride.

This music is like that, then, blocks with a potentially almost infinite amount of possibilities as variations within quite deliberately limited areas, bookended or juxtaposed with more stop-start ‘interactive’ passages, often involving Edwards & Tabbal while Mitchell recovers himself after another hollering storm. They play two sets, the first more broken up in that Mitchell plays for less extended periods, switching alto & soprano, and after the long piece does a lovely soprano ballad thing, unexpected in contrast, like an absolutely classic melody he never quite fixes to the ‘songbook’; & just stops after say two minutes of this with intermission announcement, and that way it sticks so much more firmly in mind. The second set begins with a long composed section, again on soprano, partly played solo, then the curious slow graciousness of RM’s notated melodic lines, serpentine in their unfolding, sinuous and extended, in contrast to rhythm boil underneath, Edwards’ bass at one point into harmonics so gently plucked as to suggest a less twanging mbira, those uncanny moments when he finds pitch and timbral ranges which almost exactly duplicate those sounds Mitchell’s at that moment exploring, then the exhilaration when he swings to more orthodox free bass territory. They almost get a fractured swing thing going at one point, Mitchell making his playing sound in the jazz lineage it does contain, way past Coltrane, speeding out on a different train, at the start of the second set someone sitting on a beer barrel in the corner obnoxiously playing an actual game on an actual mobile phone! As if trekking out to Dalston in this winter cold didn’t justify actually looking up and involving oneself in the music that one of the great abrasive players was throwing up, for you, and true enough he couldn’t continue once Mitchell had flown, and the bar glass clink and coughs that set up a protective barrier against quietness and space and attention – yes, that attention you might actually have to pay – dispelled into an audience caught dancing into the clipped, clattering, rhythmic interaction of severe viscera, cerebral is not the word, intensity of purpose, intents and purposes, the hipsters in the mist who peered thru the windows only to move on, scoffing at the old saxophone dude w/the shut-eyed jive, didn’t know what in hell they were missing. If Thurston Moore were here the place would be packed, rammed, jammed up to the rafters, to the gills with sweat & self-congratulatory celeb-anticipation. But what wd they know, this just is, still, ‘the new thing’, if newness is what shoots round yr body as electric current and dementedly mental concentration, material in space, music the matter of time, manifesting time in body-mind machine; RM’S infernal machines, perpetuum mobile, into the future in that simultaneous felt manifestation & erasure of time, moment into moment into climax as sustained, plateau & drop, & out you go –- WIRED! -- into that good night.


Luke Bergman said...

Hi There! Table & Chairs Music and Roscoe Mitchell are putting on a concert at Seattle's Benaroya hall on June 7th, 2013. It will be the first ever concert dedicated to all different versions of Nonaah including Roscoe performing solo the world premier of his newest rendition of the piece. If you'd like to feature this event in your blog get in touch with us at

Luke Bergman said...

Check out for more information on the aforementioned concert!