The tireless musical trailblazer plays Arts + Literature Laboratory on June 18.
Since the early 1960s, Roscoe Mitchell has advanced jazz and avant-garde music with an approach that emphasizes the deliberate and the methodical as much as it does the wide-ranging possibilities of improvisation. Mitchell is a master of several woodwind instruments, but best known as a saxophone player, and it’s tough to identify a time in the past 50 years when he hasn’t been fiercely active as an improviser, composer, and teacher. His first album as a bandleader, 1966’s Sound, marked a key moment in the formation of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).
The dozens of releases he’s put out since reflect a constant curiosity about new ideas and new collaborators. (I won’t attempt to sum up his discography in any kind of concise way, but if you or a friend have access to UW-Madison's Mills Music Library, take advantage—they have a lot of it on LP and CD. For a few ideas on where to start exploring, I’ve found the late Robert Palmer’s 1978 New York Times article on Mitchell and the also-late Wondering Sound’s list of five essential Mitchell recordings very helpful.) And that spirit is going strong in the 75-year-old Mitchell: Over the few years, his activities have included celebrating the 50th anniversary of AACM, performing with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra at the Tectonics Festival in Reykjavik (using compositions that began with transcriptions of his prior improvised work), and rolling out new iterations of one of his signature compositions, “Nonaah.”
The year ahead will include a performance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow, as well as residencies in Sweden and Denmark. All this is on top of his work teaching composition and improvisation as a professor at Mills College in Oakland. His influence also continues to show up in the work of younger musicians. For instance, guitarist Mary Halvorson closed her 2015 album Meltframe with a solo performance of Mitchell’s “Leola,” and pianist Craig Taborn, who has collaborated with Mitchell, will be recording one of his compositions for an upcoming album.
Mitchell is playing a Saturday, June 18 show at Arts + Literature Laboratory with Chicago-based musicians Junius Paul on bass and Vincent Davis on drums. The somewhat last-minute show came together in part because the three were getting together in the Midwest anyway, to prepare for a 2017 concert marking the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane’s death. Mitchell also has his share of Madison connections: He has previously taught at UW-Madison and has lived here even while not working at UW (he still keeps a home in the area). His recorded work made in the area includes the 1987 release Four Compositions, which was mostly tracked in Mills Hall in the Humanities Building and featured Madison-based pianist Joan Wildman. Mitchell played on a 2007 album from a project called Voltress, organized by Madison-based rock drummer Eric Hartz.
Asking Mitchell about his work at this point is kind of like asking a mountain why it’s a mountain, but he is very gracious and expansive about it. He spoke with me by phone last week about teaching, his own development as an improviser, and what he’d still like to learn.
Tone Madison: In your current projects, you're still focusing on exploring the relationship between improvisation and composition. Since it's been 50 years since the release of Sound, I'm curious to hear how you thought about that relationship at the time, and how it's evolved since.
Roscoe Mitchell: Well, I mean, you know, still working on it! The thing that's different now is that you've got a lot of people that come from all different sides of music, but they're all interested in improvisation. People want to know how that works. I know how it works. What you're doing is, you're trying to speed up the process so that you can create composition in real time. If you're at home writing, you can write something and maybe you like it and maybe you don't, but you can wait until tomorrow and come back and look at it, and then you may decide to go with the new idea you were thinking about or you may decide to keep what you have. I'm working on being able to speed up that process, and this is the same kind of thing I teach in my classes, too.
What I did with this one piece, it was interesting, you know. I had a computer version of it, and I took it into my class and I had some of my students improvise with it. What it showed was that when they weren't paying attention and improvising on their own, and were waiting around to listen to what's going on and all that, then they were behind. I just told them, "Wait a minute. You have to be right there with where the flow of the music is going." When they were able to do that, then it started to come together.
But these are the things I've known all the time. I came up with different methods to address some of the mistakes that I noticed that were occurring over and over again, from teaching a lot of improvisation classes. One is following. Following is like being behind on a written piece of music. You're waiting around to see what someone else is doing, and then by that time you're already behind. So, it has to work the same way composition works: Everybody's got a part, and you have to learn your part and be able to play your part. All of these different kinds of principles, I teach my students that if you want to be a good improviser, you should learn how to do it by yourself, and then of course the other part of that is being able to do it with other people. I teach a kind of graduated plan. I might start everybody off doing solo. All of a sudden, the class gets to hear where each person is coming from with their language. Next week, duets. Next week, trios, quartets. Go work on these things during the week, come back, explain to us what it is that you're doing. I gradually build up through half of the ensemble and then the full ensemble, which is a big problem, because you've got to get all these people thinking on the same page, and they have to be sounding like they know what they're doing. They have to know, "Oh, this is a great place for us to have a fermata, or a strong attack or a pause," and so on and so forth. It's really just a collective composition. It's composing collectively in real time. The mature improvisers can do that.
And maybe it doesn't seem like a long time, but you're talking about Sound, that was 1966. This is 2016, so it has been a long time. Yeah, but still working on it. I'd need a few lifetimes to learn everything I'd like to know about music.
Tone Madison: One common thread in your music is that when you're improvising, it has this sense of control and deliberateness—not just in the notes you're playing, but in the timbres you're exploring. When did you start to develop these ideas as improvisation as a really systematic thing?
Roscoe Mitchell: I guess when I got out of the Army, I joined up with Muhal Richard Abrams' big band, and he encouraged all the people there to write, and write for the band, because we had a big band rehearsal every Monday night. You could write a piece, bring it in for the band to play. If it was something that you didn't quite like, you could take it home and fix it, bring it back next week, and so on and so forth. There was always a practice of whatever you start, finish it. You at least got a chance to see what the end results were. So, yeah, thinking along that way, and the other philosophy of, you should write some things down because after you're gone, maybe some other musicians might want to play some of your music. From that standpoint, just developing the art of composition and performance at the same time. Which is not a new thing—Bach and Mozart and all these people were extraordinary improvisers and performers, and yet they wrote, also, a lot of music that they left behind.
Tone Madison: When you first started the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, was there a lot of debate within the group about the approach and philosophy of improvisation?
Roscoe Mitchell: Well, we mostly rehearsed! [Both laugh] We cut down on the discussion and were doing it in real time. The Art Ensemble, when we first started out, we rehearsed five days week from 9 to 5, every week. Sometimes maybe we'd have a gig on the weekend or something like that. But it wasn't even a thing but "What are you doing tomorrow?" We were going to be getting together at 9 o'clock and rehearsing. So, yeah, that's how it developed. Even when I first met Lester Bowie, Lester and I would go out to Jackson Park [along Lake Michigan, in Chicago's Woodlawn and Hyde Park neighborhoods] just practicing together, trying to get a sound together. That's the thing—you can be fine by yourself, but that doesn't mean you're going to be fine playing with somebody else, unless you rehearse. I've always been that kind of a hands-on type person, from that standpoint.
Tone Madison: As you said before, there's still more that you want to learn about music. What are some of the things you're most interested in exploring in the future?
Roscoe Mitchell: Right now, I'm studying early music—the baroque flute and the recorders and so on. And then, actually, I was offered to come to the Royal Conservatory in Holland.... but right now I'm teaching school and their schedules are on the same time that the schedules at Mills are. But yeah, I'm interested in that, all phases of music.
Tone Madison: In Madison, you'll be playing with Junius Paul on bass and Vincent Davis on drums—what do you have planned for this show?
Roscoe Mitchell: We recorded a record together just a few years ago, Celebrating Fred Anderson, and also I was just down in Chicago playing at the Constellation on May 27, and Junius Paul was in the group, and Mike Reed and then Maya Dunietz, who is the wife of Ilan Volkov, and she's a pianist. We play together a lot, and we're developing music for next year. This may be a concert of improvised music.
Tone Madison: And the three of you are working on a performance for next year to mark the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane's death.
Roscoe Mitchell: That's right, but it's going be Vincent, Junius, there's also Tomeka Reed's trio—violin, cello, and bass. So it's a sextet. The instrumentation is woodwinds, violin, cello, two basses, and drums.
Tone Madison: What do you have planned for that performance?
Roscoe Mitchell: I will probably play a couple of Coltrane's musics, and of course I'll play some of my own music too.
Tone Madison: What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of your work?
Roscoe Mitchell: Nothing's misunderstood, I mean, from the people that talk to me! Most people don't say they like it. They say they need it.