Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 3 August 1940, Chicago IL) Reeds, composer. Played in high school, then US Army; with Henry Threadgill in conventional post-bop small group, then joined Muhal Richard Abrams's Experimental Band and later became co-founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He has continued to pursue parallel solo projects as one of the most interesting and important composers in contemporary black music, exploring sound and space, playing all the reed instruments as well as percussion.

His early LPs as a leader were leading up to the Art Ensemble: one of the first masterpieces of AACM music was Sound '66 on Delmark, with Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, three others; Old/Quartet '67 and Congliptious '68 on Nessa were quartet LPs, the latter as the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble (later in a five-CD set; still later on CDs with additional tracks: see Nessa). On Sackville, The Roscoe Mitchell Solo Saxophone Concerts '73-4 had nine tracks using four saxophones, opening and closing with short versions of 'Nonaah'; Quartet '75 included Abrams, George Lewis on trombone, Spencer Barefield on guitar; also Duets With Anthony Braxton '76. On Nessa, the monumental, beautiful two-disc Nonaah '76-7 included a side-long solo development of the title composition and a quartet version for four altos (Mitchell, Threadgill, Joseph Jarman, Wallace McMillan), also other solos, duos, and a trio 'Tahquemenon' with Abrams and Lewis. Mitchell describes his warming up before a concert until the alto says, 'OK, you can play me now.' Terry Martin's notes speak of the solo work as 'the diverse images a single mind and instrument can be made to reveal', the rest as 'an enlargement of the circle'.

The 2-LP set LRG/The Maze/S II Examples '78 on Nessa was later squeezed on to a CD: 'LRG' was a trio with Lewis on low and Leo Smith on high brass instruments, 'Examples' was a soprano solo, 'The Maze' a masterpiece played by percussionists Don Moye, Douglas Ewart, Thurman Barker, Jarman, Braxton, Threadgill, Favors and Mitchell, shot through with space and light, in the recording as well as the playing: a gatefold photograph (by Ann Nessa) on the LP revealed a large roomful of percussion: the engineers at CBS studios in NYC were astonished at the efficiency with which the recording was made. The 20th anniversary of the epochal recording was marked in Chicago by live performances in April '98.

Sketches From Bamboo '79 on Moers Music was by the Creative Orchestra, with Kenny Wheeler, Smith, Lewis, Ewart, Braxton, Hugh Ragin, McMillan, eleven others; quintet Sound Ensemble included Barefield, bassist Jaribu Shahid, Raglin on brass instruments, Tani Tabbal on percussion: they sounded like a larger group on marching, stomping good-time Snurdy McGurdy And Her Dancin' Shoes '80 on Nessa; 3 x 4 Eye '81 on Black Saint included 'Variations On A Folk Song Written In The Sixties'; More Cutouts '81 included Ragin, Tabbal; New Music For Woodwinds And Voice '81 and Space Improvisations on Arch had Gerald Oshita on wind intruments, Tom Buckner's voice. Quintet Live At The Knitting Factory '87 on Black Saint included Barefield; intense quartet The Flow Of Things '86 on Black Saint with Favors, Jodie Christian on piano, Steve McCall on drums had three versions of the title piece, a high-energy roller-coaster; McCall died '89, and This Dance Is For Steve McCall by sextet Roscoe Mitchell and the Note Factory '92 was also on Black Saint. There was a solo record on Cecma '87; a 'classical' album on Lovely Music; Duets And Solos with Abrams and The Sound And Space Ensemble on Black Saint; After Fallen Leaves on Silkheart/Gazelle. Songs In The Wind '90 on the Canadian Victo label was an assay of bull roarers, wind wands, reeds and woodwinds, a violin on three tracks and another version of McCall's dance, recorded in Cross Plains and Madison Wisconsin. Quartet Hey Donald '94 on Delmark with Christian, Favors and Al Heath was dedicated to the late Donald Myrick, Roscoe's high-school friend who was also an original member of Earth, Wind and Fire: the music was now 'in', now 'out', always full of love. A solo two-CD Sound Songs also on Delmark captured 'naked solos' from the mid-'90s, for the first time Mitchell overdubbed himself to make a kind of programme music, with saxes, flute and 'little instruments'. Duo 2-Z on 2 13 61 Records with pianist Matthew Shipp was a satisfying dialogue, beautifully recorded. Trio The Day And The Night on Dizim included Favors and Gerald Cleaver on percussion.

Five Chicagoans got together at the Chicago Jazz Festival in August 2013: Jack DeJohnette, Mitchell, Abrams, Threadgill, and relative youngster Larry Gray on bass played a set recorded and issued by ECM called Made In Chicago, proving that the essence of modern Chicago music was alive and well. In March 2015 Celebrating Fred Anderson was recorded live at Constellation in Chicago by Mitchell, Tomeka Reid on cello, Junius Paul on bass and Vincent David on drums; the tribute to the late, great Chicagoan was released on Nessa. Meanwhile, in February 2014 Roscoe's orchestration of 'Nonaah' was played by the BBC Scottish Symphony, conducted by Ilan Volkov, in a programme that also included pieces by Fred Frith and George Lewis (as well as a jam with all three); and Volkov played 'Nonaah' again in 2016 with his Icelandic Symphony Orchestra.

2017 was the 50th year of Nessa Records, and that year saw the release of Four Ways, Roscoe Mitchell with the trio Yuganaut: Stephen Rush, Tom Abbs and Geoff Mann honor the spirit of the Art Ensemble by playing about 50 instruments among them. And in 2018 Roscoe Mitchell and the Montreal-Toronto Art Orchestra released Ride The Wind, perhaps one of the most significant MItchell projects. Mitchell (and Braxton) have been taking the ethos of the AACM to a new level: the idea was always to bring your own music to the collective; now composition, orchestration and improvisation have become equal parts.

Mitchell had made two CDs of free Conversations for trio, with Craig Taborn on keyboards and percussionist Kikanju Baku, on the Wide Hive label. Now some of his best students were invited to transcribe and/or orchestrate several of the conversations. (Some of this work by Daniel Steffey and Chistopher Luna-Mega had already been played in Iceland.) All this was following on from everything in the history of improvised music: as Stuart Broomer's excellent notes to Ride The Wind point out, King Oliver's 'Dippermouth Blues' became Don Redman's arrangement 'Sugarfoot Stomp' for Fletcher Henderson; Hall Overton had arranged Thelonious Monk's piano solo 'Little Rootie Tootie' for a concert in 1959, and throughout the decades the masters have provided younger talents with opportunities. So now Ride The Wind has five of what are now Mitchell's 'Conversations for Orchestra' played by various combinations of up to 20 young musicians, plus a quartet arrangement of 'Nonaah', which began as a solo piece, and which Mitchell has now been playing for at least 40 years.