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Roscoe Mitchell Quartet - Before There Was Sound

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Artist: Roscoe Mitchell Quartet

Album: Before There Was Sound

Label: Nessa

Review date: Dec. 1, 2011

An album literally 46 years in the offing since its impetus, Before There Was Sound presents work by the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet of a vintage that will make many fans salivate on sight. Recorded nearly a full year before Sound — the saxophonist’s auspicious 1966 debut on Delmark — the bulk of the disc sources from a Chicago radio air shot. Mitchell sticks solely to alto, and the ensemble’s instrumentation (with Fred Berry on trumpet and flugelhorn, Malachi Favors on bass and Alvin Fielder on drums) references the precedence set by Ornette Coleman on the Contemporary and Atlantic labels while still standing distinctly apart from it.

The set opener, “Mr. Freddy,” sounds like a close cousin to a Coleman composition with its cocky corkscrew head and subsequent freewheeling solos from the horns. The piece also features a bracing, largely strummed statement by Favors towards its tail end that underscores the bassist’s uncanny ability to fill a room with booming sound. The through-composed sounding ballad “Green,” which springs from Berry’s pen, is of a completely different bag. A solemn feature for his flugelhorn, it’s proof of Mitchell and his crew’s interest in classical-derived song forms and works as a companion piece to the leader’s somberly drawn “And There Was Peace.”

“Outer Space” nods at former Chicagoan Sun Ra in its title, but tracks closer to the wide dynamics and carefully segmented structure of Mitchell’s epochal “Sound” in its boisterous bursts of horn polyphony paired with passages of more measured, tension-ratcheting improvisation. Fielder is a percussive phenomenon, parsing and slicing the beats with Ginsu precision and engaging in a near set-stealing handoff with Favors near the composition’s close. Mitchell’s freebop lark “Carefree” comes in two incarnations, each showing off his synthesis of smatterings of Dolphy and Coleman into his own distinct style. The second comes along with “Jo Jar,” a dedicatory piece to Joseph Jarman from a slightly later session. Favors’ fanfare-driven “Akhenaten” would go on to regular rotation in the Art Ensemble of Chicago songbook. Its early guise here gives the bassist and Fielder another go at a closely concentrated colloquy after some more controlled horn fireworks.

Sometimes with this sort of release historical import eclipses the musical enjoyment ensconced in the sounds. Not so in this case, as Mitchell and his cohort remain clearly engaged and energized throughout the set. Producer Chuck Nessa’s earlier efforts reissuing the contents of his now out-of-print Art Ensemble box remain admirable, but this cleverly titled set is a gift to both newcomers and those who had that original material in its earlier forms. Fielder also deserves copious thanks for keeping the master tapes safe and sound for the better part of a half century, as well as serving as original catalyst for the radio session to begin with.

By Derek Taylor

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