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Roscoe Mitchell & The Transatlantic Art Ensemble - Composition/ Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3

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Artist: Roscoe Mitchell & The Transatlantic Art Ensemble

Album: Composition/ Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3

Label: ECM

Review date: Jun. 27, 2007

Controversy continues to shadow Roscoe Mitchell’s decision to persist with the Art Ensemble of Chicago in the wake of a dwindling original roster. Some listeners decry the move as sacrilegious, arguing that the attrition of members Malachi Favors and Lester Bowie automatically compromises application of the appellation. Even the locale named in the band’s moniker hasn’t been an accurate geographical representation for years, what with Mitchell residing on a farm outside Madison, WI, and Joseph Jarman a longtime transplant to New York. Wherever one stands on the issue of the Art Ensemble’s continued longevity, Compositions/Improvisations Nos. 1, 2 & 3 offers an ambitious and invigorating fresh spin on the venerable band name and Mitchell’s longstanding interests in melding elements of jazz and classical. The resulting amalgam breaks down the oppositional connotations of the fundamental musical categories mentioned in the disc’s title.

The roll call of the assembled Transatlantic Art Ensemble reads like a dream band on paper, combining colleagues from Mitchell’s various working ensembles with those orbiting around the European axis of saxophonist Evan Parker. Occasion for the recording came out of a music symposium held in Munich, heavy on theory and praxis and designed to feature the work of both saxophonists. Mitchell makes use of a variety of scoring and signaling methods, limiting his instrumental presence to soprano and spending much of his energy cueing different substrata of the band. Much of the set works off porous concerto-like structures with various soloists featured atop shifting ensemble backdrops and foregrounds. Pianist Craig Taborn, flautist Neil Metcalfe and the string section dominate the lush neo-classical strains of the first track. A brief dual drum sortie from Paul Lovens and Tanni Tabbal signals a more tumultuous turn.

The collective cacophony of “III” reminds me of Alan Silva’s Seasons in terms of its density and intensity, but the pristine ECM acoustics bring out levels of detail that were never discernable on the orchestral free jazz classic. It’s some of the noisiest music I’ve ever heard on the label (tied with David Torn’s recent Prezens) and hopefully a harbinger of a renewed interest in returning to the sort of full bore free improv so prominent in its earliest releases. Parker rides the roiling swells and troughs on tenor venturing onward as the ensemble drops out. Later tracks confer focus to John Rangecroft’s clarinet, Metcalfe’s flute, Corey Wilkes flugelhorn and so on, with Mitchell devising rich ensemble canvases for each. The music’s academic overtones lead the ensemble suspiciously close to dry pedantry in several places, but Mitchell manages to zero in on these moments and spice things up, as during Anders Svanoe’s extended baritone improvisation on “VII,” an ingenious statement that conjures the aural countenances of Harry Carney and Pat Patrick into a brilliant reduction.

Steve Lake’s studious liners hint tantalizingly at a second day’s worth of music-making with Parker occupying the conductor’s podium in Mitchell’s stead. A release date for that companion set is hopefully in the works. In the meantime, this generously stocked program offers plenty to feast on as a truly sumptuous aural repast.

By Derek Taylor

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