Several years ago, free jazz producer and label owner Chuck Nessa was kind enough to send me a taped copy, from vinyl, of this long out-of-print masterpiece, stating at the time that he simply did not have the funds to reissue it properly. It is felicitous that the situation has changed, and we now have a CD version of the album whose sound equals the music in clarity and richness.
Originally released in 1977, this was the first Roscoe Mitchell solo effort to post-date the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s heyday. In contrast to the AEOC material of the period, Nonaah (pronounced “no-nay-ah) is austere and uncompromising, sharing a radical chamber music gestalt with the releases that would follow. The largest grouping is the saxophone quartet that rounds out what was Side D of the double album, duets and trios being heard throughout the rest. Most impressive, though, is Mitchell’s solo material, including the first iteration of the title piece, Taken from a now legendary solo concert in Willisau and performed on short notice when Anthony Braxton canceled. The audience demonstrates disappointment from the opening gestures of this bold exploration of extreme minimalism and raucous timbre, performer and listeners locked in a struggle of wills that Mitchell ultimately wins. By the time the nine-note theme’s permutations and reiterations cease, the hostile audience is dead silent; the transition to a soft but somehow disquieting middle section is as quick as it is dramatic, Mitchell’s alto warmer, almost tender, and some vibrato informing the proceedings.
Only at the end of the album do we hear that “Nonaah” is a fully realized composition, the quartet of Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, Joseph Jarman and Wallace McMillan rendering it stark yet full, the initial confrontation still present but sublimated in favor of liberated dissonance. Here again, the middle section is taut yet languid, floating out over the silence that seems ready to engulf it at any moment.
Silence is an integral part of the album, the other pieces thriving on it. “Off Five Dark Six,” a Mitchell-Braxton duo, interweaves brief pointed gestures amidst stretches of pregnant pause. The two saxophones often breathe as one and at the same time, but shards of melody bounce from hand to hand, rendering the suggestion of harmony illusory. The Mitchell duet with Art Ensemble bassist Malachi Favors, “A1 Tal 2La,” is slightly fuller in texture due to Favors’ chordal pizzicato and arco work. Pianist Muhal Richard Abrams fills out the texture similarly on “Tahquemenon,” brief bursts of abstractly bluesy activity speaking volumes but prefiguring nothing as the piece wends its pointillist way forward.
As with several of the rereleases in Nessa’s back catalog, this new issue of Nonaah sports bonus material. Taken from Mitchell performances contemporary with the album tracks, these solo saxophone pieces shed further light on the album proper, a solo version of “Off Five” allowing an alternate view of the compositional frame. In its new guise then, Nonaah stands alongside Nessa’s Art Ensemble box set as a further testament to Mitchell’s improvisational and compositional creativity.