The Upshot: To ears unaccustomed to madness, this may all sound like unstructured falderal. But listen close, and you’ll find a master and his musicians at their best.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
As co-founder of both the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, reedsman and composer Roscoe Mitchell has a long history of leading jazz into the bushes of the avant garde – and back. In celebration of his long career and the work of the AACM, he was invited to create a new work for his hometown’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Gathering up a gang of likeminded souls, including maverick pianist Craig Taborn, that make up his various trios, Mitchell recorded Bells For the South Side in both the museum’s theater and in the exhibition space itself.
The Art Ensemble was known for its extensive use of percussion, so “Spatial Aspects of the Sound,” the first track on Bells, serves as a reminder. Chimes, bells and atonal piano rattle about like ambient music made by bees, before Mitchell’s flute rises up from the clatter for a quiet but compelling theme. “EP 7849” bashes away on cymbals and blocks before introducing Jaribu Shahid’s bowel-loosening bass tones.“Six Gongs and Two Woodblocks” isn’t what’s advertised, but certainly bangs the cans frequently under James Fei’s clarinet honks and Mitchell’s soprano squeals. The sonorous title track is basically a duet between Mitchell’s piercing sax work and the group’s forest of rattles and clangs. As with the original band, whose set-ups get used here, percussion is the through line for these pieces, and most of them are introduced, interrupted or accompanied by various jangles, tinkles, clatters and clunks.
That’s the easy part, however – once the ensemble gets to “Prelude to a Rose,” the horns take over, playfully hopping, skipping and jumping around the minimal melody, as trumpeter Hugh Ragin and trombonist Tyshawn Sorey dance giddily around Mitchell’s rumbling bass sax. “Dancing in the Canyon” switches out the bass for alto, and brings in Taborn’s battering keyboard runs and Kikanju Baku’s furious drumming for a ten-minute storm of improvisation. “The Last Chord” conjures a sense of play with giddy kit bashing, aggressive piano ripples and squonking horns. But Mitchell’s visions truly comes together on a pair of epics in the second half of the program. “Prelude to the Card Game, Cards for Drums, and The Final Hand” swirls around percussion and honking saxophone, while the massive “Red Moon in the Sky/Odwalla” moves from ambient to agitated, placid to pissed off, through a near half-hour of squeaks, squonks, clashes, rattles and actual melody, bent into more than just cacophony by sheer force of Mitchell’s will. It’s probably the most challenging piece in an album full of them. To ears unaccustomed to madness, this may all sound like unstructured falderal. But few have the experience in shaping art out of chaos that Mitchell does, and Bells For the South Side finds a master and his musicians at their best.
DOWNLOAD: “Red Moon in the Sky/Odwalla,” “Dancing in the Canyon,” “Prelude to a Rose”