Roscoe Mitchell ‘Bells for the South Side’ 2CD (ECM) 4/5

The Art Ensemble of Chicago will be best remembered in the UK for their left-field jazz number, ‘Theme de yo-yo’, and one of the founding fathers of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) is fêted here with an exhilarating double CD that features no less than four contrasting trios to accompany him, and this in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the AACM’s very foundation back in 1967. While there is certainly not another classic tune on a par to, ‘Theme to yo-yo’ present here nor anything that fans of the more esoteric side of spiritual jazz might warm to, this is nonetheless uncompromising and ever on the edge music that enters into free jazz territory, and for a seventy-six year old leader, that is no mean feat. Roscoe Mitchell is now Chair of musical composition at Mills College in California, though this esteemed position, which he has held since 2007, is now under threat because of financial cuts. An online petition is currently seeking to reverse the potential closure of the post.

On one of the trios, Roscoe Mitchell is surrounded by a young nucleus of musicians including regular ECM performer Craig Taborn, drummer Tyshawn Sorey and saxophonist James Frei. On another, the fourth of the trios showcased, this is in fact a set of musicians that he has been performing with since the mid-1970s, and includes Tani Tabbal on drums and percussion and Jaribu Shahid on double bass, bass guitar and percussion. This is not without recalling some of the 1980s work of Ornette Coleman, successfully fusing electric and acoustic elements.

Mitchell himself performs on multiple instruments including alto and baritones saxophones, flute, piccolo and even sopranino. The lengthy piece, including a twenty-five minute composition, combine elements of avant-garde and free jazz, electro and acoustic idioms and hark back to the 1960 period of experimentation. Of note to long-time fans of the AACM sound is a near twenty-six minute marathon medley of sorts with a reprise of, ‘Red moon in the sky/Odwalla’, the latter of which is none other than the theme song of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Certainly not music for the faint hearted, but performed with integrity, love and conviction all the same.

Tim Stenhouse