New album from former Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist/composer.
Bill Tilland 2002
The late trumpeter Lester Bowie often wore a white lab coat during the Art Ensemble of Chicago's live performances, but in many respects the lab coat would have been more appropriate attire for AEC member Mitchell.
As both musician and composer, Mitchell is always the scientist, tirelessly experimenting with musical forms, textures and instrumentation. Over the years, this has resulted in a decidedly mixed critical response to Mitchell's own recordings as leader, because his musical agenda is both challenging and elusive.
Superficially, the title piece on this new CD gives the lie to Mitchell's experimental tendencies; it's a quietly elegant post-bop composition that is unusual only for being played by an ensemble which includes two pianos, two basses and two drummers. Otherwise, the piece could just as easily have come from one of Art Blakey's better 1960's quintets, although the opening and closing theme also recalls Count Basie, and has a swing era, pre-bop feel to it. Perhaps this is Mitchell's answer to critics who have said over the years that he is incapable of playing "real" jazz.
Having set the listener up with something more or less conventional, "When the Whistle Blows" and "The Inside of a Star" both feature spirals and corkscrew figures from Mitchell's restless, slightly acidic alto and soprano, with the pianos laying down roiling, pointillist support.
"The Inside of a Star" is perhaps an apt metaphor for this particular facet of Mitchell's work, as it is easy to imagine billowing, unstable clouds of incandescent vapor, although the effect is also somewhat similar to being caught in a swirling blizzard (of notes), with no certain perspective or center of gravity.
Yet another dimension of Mitchell's musical universe is represented by "this," "The Megaplexian" and "Wind Change," all of which are quiet, thoughtful chamber jazz, with delicate coloristic effects from xylophone, piano, guitar and miscellaneous percussion.
On "Wind Change," Mitchell plays soprano saxophone and flute, but also brings in additional voices on bassoon, clarinet, violin and viola, venturing into an abstract but accomplished "third stream" synthesis of contemporary classical and jazz.
As if all this diversity wasn't enough, Mitchell throws the listener a few more curves with "Step One, Two Three," a shuffling Monkish piece which features wailing duets from Mitchell and trumpeter Corey Wilkes, and a stuttering, almost obsessive minor key vamp from the pianos.
The album concludes with "Count-Off," a swinging harmolodic ditty with Mitchell featured on tenor, paying apparent homage to Ornette Coleman.
Overall, this CD puts on display the diversity of Mitchell's musical vision, and while most listeners will respond more fully to some of its elements than to others, everything here is eminently worthy of attention.