Composition / Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3
By Roscoe Mitchell, 2007
I was happy to discover Roscoe Mitchell’s Composition / Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 in our stacks. Few names are more prominent in the history of improvised music than Mitchell’s. Founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, one of free jazz’s most high profile groups, Mitchell was commissioned by the city of Munich to compose a piece for a symposium on improvised music being held at Ludwig Maximillian University. Together with Evan Parker, a sax improv legend in he his own right, they hand picked twelve other prominent players from around the world for a group they dubbed “The Transatlantic Art Ensemble.” Besides a full range of saxophones, the group included trumpet, clarinet, flute, a string section, piano, two basses and two percussionists.
As the title implies the piece is part composed and part improvised. Mitchell has always had a tendency towards European atonalism more so that other free jazz composers. Yet for every nod to concert hall there is one to the club. Sometimes this record actually swings, but it is a fever dance, the rhythm is there but the melody is in an offkey modality. The unique instrumentation lends itself to such juxtapositions. As does the Mitchell’s method of controlled improvisation: sometimes asking players to improv on a limited number of notes; sometimes giving players six cards with scored motifs and asking players to improvise around those motifs; sometimes whole sections traditionally scored with space for individual solo improvisation.
Though this piece, as with most Mitchell’s music, is all about creating tension, such tension has no reference point without a little release. There are fiery moments. Free jazz isn’t free you know? Someone has to burn. Besides Composition / Improvistion Nos 1,2 & 3, which is attributed to Mitchell as the sole composer, the library owns a handful of albums by Art Ensemble of Chicago which are definitely more hi-tempo jazz oriented affairs with a bit of surrealist Africana thrown in to really subvert your expectations.