Courtesy of Roscoe Mitchell


(September 2, 2002)

Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton speak about super musicians. It always seemed a bit of a reach for me. Images of capes and large Ss loom. After speaking with Mitchell, I have a better understanding of what a super musician in and why Mitchell in all his forms is indeed a super musician. Able to leap tall building, perhaps not, but able to do things musically that defy the conventional wisdom, Mitchell does that without breaking a sweat. So may I present super musician, Roscoe Mitchell, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: When we last spoke, you pledged to keep the Art Ensemble together.

ROSCOE MITCHELL: Yes, we're doing a concert at the Earshot Festival (Seattle, WA), November 5. We went into the studio as a trio, but Joseph is doing concerts with us again. That might be coming up at some point. The record hasn't been mixed yet. It's for ECM and so we have to get a date to mix it and after that time, we might know more about when it might come out.

FJ: Let's touch on your latest Note Factory release, Song for My Sister on Pi Recordings.

ROSCOE MITCHELL: It has evolved. You see, Fred, the Note Factory evolved out of the Sound Ensemble and that goes way back and eventually, we added a few more people here and there. On this recording, the personnel is a little bit different because Tani Tabbal couldn't make the session. Hugh Ragin had some problems also and couldn't make the session. But the band is pretty much the same except with the addition of Vijay Iyer on piano, who is replacing Matthew Shipp. The Sound Ensemble started when I was living in Michigan. The first thing that started was the CAC, which was the Creative Arts Collective, an organization with similar bylaws to the AACM, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, where we established ourselves in East Lansing, using the facilities of the University of Michigan to present concerts. We did our concerts with our own ensembles and we also brought in other people to do concerts or guest with us. The Sound Ensemble is an outgrowth of the Creative Arts Collective, which was a larger number of musicians, but the basic format of that group was myself, Hugh Ragin, Jaribu Shahid, Tani Tabbal, and Spencer Barefield. Back in the early Seventies is when we started with that, maybe thirty years ago.

FJ: Song for My Sister includes "this," a composition originally written for baritone vocalist Thomas Buckner, whom you've had a close association with through the years.

ROSCOE MITCHELL: What I do is judge each ensemble for the instrumentation. Of course, with a vocalist, you wouldn't play as loud as you would with a horn player. You judge the dynamics, but I do that with any ensemble that I would be playing in and that is based on a dynamic scale that I use. But that would be one of the considerations that I would look at. That goes back too because it started off as Thomas Buckner, Gerald Oshita, and myself. That group was called Space and the first record we have is New Music for Woodwinds and Voice (1750 Arch) and the second one was An Interesting Breakfast Conversation (1750 Arch). Both of those records have been reissued on CD by Mutable Music as a double CD. I'm going to be releasing a new CD with that group also, which will put emphasis on some of my written compositions. There is going to be "Variations of Sketches from the Bamboo Terrace," which was for chamber orchestra and baritone, but it also had within that piece a large solo for contrabass, which is called "Sketches" and that will also be on the record along with "8-8-88," a work for solo piano that I started ten years ago in 1988. That has three movements for solo piano. There is another work, "9-9-99" for piano and violin. That will probably be released next year because we're doing the final recording for that at the end of September. That will be on Mutable Music.

FJ: You have always been a composer in a musician's wardrobe.

ROSCOE MITCHELL: Fred, for me, I've tried to develop them both at the same time. There are periods where I write a lot if I have a commission and I have to finish that. I just finished "Non-cognitive Aspects of a City," a work for chamber orchestra and voice, which includes the poems by Joseph Jarman, a poem that he wrote in the Sixties. That's going to be premiered next year in New York. Yeah, I study it all parallel and I know I've got myself into deep water with all these different things that I do, but I'm stubborn, Fred. I can't let go because if I hear something that someone wrote, maybe I will get inspired and I want to try and write something. With the playing, I hear somebody play something and I want to play it. I would love to be in the class of the super musician, which is going to emerge. For me, it is like that. I try to do a hundred percent whenever I am there and which area I'm in and I find that you have to put it down for a little while and you go back, at least you're at the place where you left off.

FJ: Do you fear being a jack of many trades and a master of none?

ROSCOE MITCHELL: Well, you know, Fred, I've definitely heard that. My dad used to say that all the time. He would say, "Look, put that saxophone down and sing. Saxophone players are a dime a dozen." To some degree he is correct. He said that singers make all the money. I guess I am, but I want to be good at all of these things. I don't know, certainly we have had it where a person will reach a very high level on one instrument. We've had that and there is nothing wrong with that. But there also is, you know how human beings are, they want to keep reaching. For me, in music, that's been one of the things that has always drawn me to it, where I'm inspired by that, being able to reach different conclusions and I am a firm believer that we are living in the age of the super musician. This is going to come. I've seen this happen to a lot of people. For instance, if you look at the career of John Coltrane, when he decided to change his music, he lost some of the people that he had as staunch listeners and some people will always listen to a certain music by him. What we have to remain open to is that there are these other things too and if we are to keep evolving as we have in the past, we have to entertain these thoughts because for me, maybe five, ten years ago, it would have been unimaginable for me to think that I would record some of these Bach Sonatas, but now I entertain these thoughts because I spend a lot of time practicing this music and I love all music and so I don't see any reason and I don't know if I will be proven wrong or whatever, but I don't see any reason to stop what you're aspiring for if this is the thing that really gives you fulfillment and enjoyment.

FJ: What defines a super musician?

ROSCOE MITCHELL: A super musician is somebody that can just come up and do everything, not everything, I wouldn't say everything, but certainly, if I look at the flute for instance, there is a lot of substance being played on the flute. There is a lot of good Latin flute players. There's classical flute players. There's jazz. If I just look at the tenor saxophone, wow, it has a legacy. Not that I would want to play like anybody in particular, but certainly to understand what it was that they were doing and be able to call that vocabulary to the front if I needed it for anything. This is what it's got to be because I think that we've had such wonderful examples that are there for us to follow. To me, it seems logical to get to the next, you've got to have an understanding of all the different factions. It's not enough anymore just to be in one category and that's it. Only a certain amount will come from that and we've had great examples of that on all sides of the fence.

FJ: There is a method to the madness. You write piano parts better than composers who call the piano their own.

ROSCOE MITCHELL: Yeah, yeah. I studied it all. I studied it. A lot of that is due to Muhal. I met him at a time in my life and we were studying with him and he said, "Wait a minute. Write it down. You have to leave something behind for musicians that will come after you." Of course, by having this as a practice, I know that in order to be a good improviser, you've got to know something about composing. It's impossible for you to be a good improviser without knowing that because you don't even know what's going on. You don't know if you're not a composer. You don't know counterpoint to a degree that is someone's playing eighth notes that half notes or quarter notes will go good with that. In trying to reach a more complexity with improvisation, maybe you have to study seven notes on a beat, nine notes, twelve notes on a beat. Maybe you have to start sometimes not on a beat. Maybe you start on the second part of a triplet or the third part of a quintuplet. But all of these things have to be as close to the front of your mind so that you can use them in a real situation and they are in a situation where you're composing, where you have the time to really think about it. Maybe a quintuplet will work nice here or a sixteenth and so on like that. It is clear to me what it is. I just wish I had more years to study, Fred. It seems like here I am finally learning something about music and I'm sixty-two years old. Hopefully, what I have found with myself is that things do come faster now. They do come faster. It is the accumulation of knowledge, which has helped me the most, being able to reflect on something that you did ten or twenty years ago and then taking another look at that and seeing what was overlooked or what could be added to or what could be extracted and so on and so forth. I have always found that music is a constant. It is constantly like that. You will do something and then after you do it, you go, "Oh, my God. Why did I do this?" It is always something there that you're not going to get. You have to keep turning it over in this way.

FJ: What stimulates you now?

ROSCOE MITCHELL: Well, another thing like you've mentioned, Fred, I going to be doing a solo record and I've been starting to think about what I really want to do this next couple records, which I want to make very good and I want to take my time and do it. Certainly, I love writing. I've gotten myself interested in early music and so I study that. The things that I'm drawn to in that music is just the style in which it was played in and what was the expectations of the musicians. If something was written in the same way twice, you were expected to change something the second time that that came around. There are things about that music that draw me to that music. There's certainly things about classical music that draws me to that. When I was driving around in my car and I heard Jean-Pierre Rampal playing the Khachaturian, I thought, "Oh, my God. What am I doing?" So I run off and I get the piece and I start studying it. It is just in the earlier days when the AACM was there. When you go to hear somebody else's concert, you get all excited about what they're doing and you run back home and plan what it is you're going to do at your next concert. I think this music is actually in a mature state now. What it really needs is more performances.

FJ: More concerts is merely plugging the holes in the dam with your fingers isn't it?

ROSCOE MITCHELL: I think everything has its time. There is a time to get things together and then there is a time to perform a lot. What I would like to see is a situation similar to the way it was when I was growing up. In my neighborhood, you had clubs and so on where on the off nights, the local musicians were there. On the on nights, you might walk in there and there is Trane or Sonny Stitt or whoever. This was on an ongoing basis all the time. The music was not only on the move, but it had a place to be on the move. I think what would benefit the music now is to have more of those places now.

FJ: What city is making such headway?

ROSCOE MITCHELL: I've seen some places start to come back a little bit. Certainly, there is more things happening in Chicago now than there were a few years back, but it is isolated. Now, to get a decent gig, a lot of times you will have to plan it out far in advance and try to find some supplementary funding to actually make it happen. For instance, if you are talking about a band like the Note Factory, that's nine people, but not only is it nine people, it requires two pianos and places now a days don't even have one piano. But a long time ago, there was no such thing as a jazz club without a piano. That wasn't even happening.

FJ: The tragic irony of the modern era is as a composer, there is an endless wealth of material to draw from, but as a player, only a limited amount of space to play in.

ROSCOE MITCHELL: It is very limited. You are absolutely correct, Fred. And then people have to, you see there is a merging in music that is going on that a lot of people haven't really woke up to and that is the word improvisation because it crosses the line of styles. If you have a person that is interested in improvisation, it doesn't matter what styles. What a good improviser strives to do is to get their vocabulary strong enough so that it can cross styles. You use a different vocabulary if you are playing with computers or electronic music other than playing with live musicians. All of these things, you have to have at your grasp.

FJ: Speaks volumes that the AACM model holds steadfast forty years later.


Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and is the lion and the wardrobe. Comments? Email Him