Jazz Institute of Chicago

A Conversation with Roscoe Mitchell

Roscoe Mitchell: an interview with Lazaro Vega

GRAND RAPIDS—On May 18, 2002, The Roscoe Mitchell Quintet with special guest Fred Anderson played a successful benefit concert for Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp at the Wealthy Theatre in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The quintet's performance was recorded for future broadcast by Blue Lake Public Radio and GRTV/The Community Media Center of Grand Rapids. The concert tapes will be archived at the Jazz Institute of Chicago collection at the University of Chicago.

The following interview with Roscoe Mitchell at home (near Madison, Wisconsin), May 8, 2002, was excerpted for radio broadcast over WBLV FM 90.3 (Muskegon and the Lake Michigan shoreline) and WBLU FM 88.9 (Grand Rapids) prior to the concert. Lazaro Vega is Blue Lake Public Radio's jazz director since 1983.

LV: When you come in with Fred Anderson, one thing I think people who study the evolution of jazz in the last 40 years realize about Fred Anderson is that he's one of the few players in the saxophone tradition developing with the AACM who doesn't rely as much on overtones or extending the range of the saxophone through effects. Not as much as you have. That seems like something you've embraced and made virtuostic: the use of overtones, split tones, you might say false fingerings and false registers, circular breathing, glissandos. You yourself have expanded the range of the woodwinds capabilities of sound making through those devices, whereas Fred has found another way that doesn't emphasize those as much.

It seems to me to be a perfect match. I think that saxophone-wise you come from two different directions that are very, very personal. I was wondering if you might comment on that having played with him recently at the Velvet Lounge and Hot House in Chicago.

Well, that's one thing that I've always enjoyed about the A.A.C.M., is that you have individual players. You could go to almost anybody, to (Henry) Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, or Joseph Jarman in terms of saxophone. Everybody always developed his or her own style. That's what has inspired me over the years: is always going to people's concerts and being excited by the music and wanting to come back and work hard for my next concert.

That's the grand tradition of African-American music, isn't it? to find your own voice and pretty much stick with it?

Yes it is. The people that I admire in music are the ones who have their own individual voice. You always go back to that, anyway, in terms of listening to music and so on.

(Record producer) Chuck Nessa has described Fred Anderson as one of the "great meanderers" with his style producing long rambling solos of intensity and beauty. Do you find that to be true when you're standing next to him? that he'll take off like that?

Oh, Fred has always had his own way of playing the saxophone, even before the A.A.C.M. When he was living in Evanston we used to go down there to play with him, and Billy Brimfield. Fred has always had his own way with the saxophone. I love the way he plays, he's a great musician and he continues to develop his style. He hasn't wavered from one point to the other in terms of what's popular and what's not popular. So, yes, he's a very strong saxophonist.

Right, he started before the A.A.C.M. and probably before the over-riding influence of John Coltrane. It seems like Fred Anderson was developing his voice before 'Trane was playing his long extended solos; in the period that Coltrane influenced you.

Well, I don't know. I mean, like 'Trane influenced all of us. (Laughs). He influenced us all. I'm sure Fred's a big fan of Coltrane, also. In the study of the saxophone there's so many, many, many great, great examples of different ways to play the saxophone. I would say it probably has one of the largest vocabularies of styles than any instrument. If you think of all the different people that played it and what they brought to it.

From the most beautiful Johnny Hodges created rhapsodies to even some of the European free players who followed in your footsteps. They don't necessarily admit it, but players such as Evan Parker, they wouldn't be possible without some of the things that you, Joseph Jarman and Anthony Braxton did in the immediate post-Coltrane era.

That's true, to some degree. When we went to Europe in the '60s. Europe has good players, though. I've known great players all through the years. But our style, the A.A.C.M. style of music was a little different, and even different than the style that came from New York. It's interesting how these different factors have developed all at the same time. As you become older and you're able to reflect on the music then you really can have a broader scope of the ways that you can use the music.

So the '60s I would say was really a learning period, a period of taking in, taking in a lot of music. Then now as we're in the 2000s, that's a lot of vocabulary. I believe musicians who are serious about their music and studying music will develop into what is maybe called the super-musician. This is what I'm striving for.

What does that mean to you, a super-musician?

It takes a while to become that. You could have a few lifetimes and still not learn everything you want to learn about music. If you look at our generation of musicians in perspective you'll see that we've actually been around a long time. You're looking at a generation of musicians that have had this experience of playing together all this time, and developing.

Whereas, maybe in one era of the music it was maybe o.k. to do this, but in this next area, as you live longer, there's a lot to explore. Not that before, especially with woodwind players, you found a lot of woodwind players that doubled in the large bands and so on. Even from band to band the make-up of the band was different, the percussion, or whatever.

Now you've got another generation of musicians that have explored music from a sound aspect. Not to mention that people have had time to really grow in their music, and really study it. So, at this point, the only way to go is the super-musician. Like I say, that's what I'm striving to be.

In talking about the concept of the super-musician it sounds to me like you're talking somebody who has come as close as they can in their lifetime to mastering their knowledge of the history of music, their capabilities with their own instrument, as well as a unique and personal approach to composition. Is that it?

Exactly. Exactly. And then also to really be an accomplished improvisor. And to really be an accomplished improvisor you have to know all these things. It's definitely a lot of work. It's a lot of work, but it's fun. That sums it up pretty good.

With the two performances you and Fred presented over the last few months, at the Velvet Lounge last fall and recently at Hot House for Fred's 73rd birthday party, I'm curious to know how you deal with it from a compositional point of view? (You've defined several clear compositional areas), and Fred's numbers include "Dark Day" and "Ladies In Love." I wonder about the meeting of minds there: Rehearsal leading to pieces chosen beforehand, a regular repertoire? How does that go?

No, not necessarily. We make them up, too. See that's where your composer skills come in, because you can make up the pieces. The once you start knowing how music works, you could make up several pieces. We've been working from the stand point of mostly its improvised sets. Maybe every now and then something will come up, and if it does Fred's got a good ear, he can pick it up. That's it: making them up, too.

The concerts we've been doing have been mostly improvised with the exception of maybe a piece here and there? Like I'm saying, this is where your composer chops come in, and your experience at improvising comes in. A lot is in those words. You were speaking earlier about Fred and his development of the saxophone, how he's developed his own area that he plays in. This is like a built foundation of music that has been taking place for, oh; I mean a really long time.

Then, from my side it's just the same thing. And from our studies of music you know if there's a certain sound you want to work with, if you're developed as a composer then you know how to develop that [certain sound]. Improvising really is just spontaneous composition, and that is being aware of everything that's happening, being able to define it musically in your mind, and being able to work with it right there, right on the moment that you're working on it.

Now this works well depending on the level of improvisors. In this case, Fred and I both have been at it for a really long time. There are different levels of things that go into it, years and years of development.

If you look at the whole picture of it [the band], you look at Craig Taborn who is one of the pianists in the Note Factory. His experiences, what he can do, our working together over a period of time. My working together with Vincent Davis over a period of time. It's no different than any other thing. You can develop any area of it as long as you're aware that it's happening. If you know that it's happening, then you can develop it. This is really the thing that you want to be able to do as we move into this next period of the music.

If you look at the Note Factory, for instance, that's a whole development: from the Sound Ensemble and even before that, the Creative Arts Collective. What's exciting about music now is that you've got all these people who have had this time to develop, and it's developed on a lot of layers.

The first thing you have is the A.A.C.M., the Chicago development, and the people that were there at that time. Then the branching off of those people into smaller groups and then the branching off further into groups developed by different personnel within that structure. Then you've got a lot of layers going on.

You've got the people that were there inventing the music, you've got them movin' off and developing that music with younger people that were coming along. But these younger people are not that young anymore. Because if you look at the Sound Ensemble you're looking at 30 years, or 25 years or whatever, in the development.

It's an interesting picture when you look at it. This music takes a long time to develop. This is a music that's supposed to keep you on your toes; this is music for thinkers. It's not for people that can't really think. To be able to think and feel comfortable you have to be able to have a lot of things at your fingertips that you can deal with.

Now it's different than it was back in the '60s. In the '60s it was great, but as we move on we move on to develop these things, to develop those concepts. To me it is all study. Everything's a study. Because you're never really going to get there totally.

But I do know from dealing with certain things if I have a string of concerts where I'm doing a whole bunch of fast notes, it starts to get to be a thing. You know, you're really excited at the end of the concert, and all you're thinking about is how you can go back and do some things differently and go off into some other area and so on and so forth, and how are you going to use arpeggios? How are you going to use scales or sounds? And developing that at a rapid pace.

It's really time that this music should be hittin'! Like a lot! That's what it needs now—it needs to have a real music scene going on for this music to really develop. Because there's no way, really, to even be able to play it without spending some real time on it.

[Jazz] is on the move, it's constantly moving. It is really on the move. The only thing that slows down is us as individuals. But this thing is not slowing down. It's got a lot to talk about. We've slowed down, perhaps, in the things that gets promoted and so on. But the music itself has not slowed down.

One of the things I was reading in Alyn Shipton's recent "New History of Jazz" was that some of the developments in the evolution of jazz have happened in a sense out of boredom. For the bebop era, for instance, with people playing in dance bands every night, playing theater shows every day, day in and day out, the same material, they may have grown tired of doing that and may have thought, well, let's try something new musically. Let's try these changes or this rhythm, or let's speed it up, try this other stuff, and maybe that's how bebop developed.

Oh, of course. In the history of bebop and (music), it's always been on the move. There's a clear example of that just from one person to another. It's always been on the move.

Today, at this juncture, it's not 1966 anymore. Looking at your recent output it may seem as if classical music has much of your attention, touched you deeply and become more ingrained in what you project these days.

Of course, yeah. I'm interested in all kinds of music. What I do is I get myself out there and then I get committed to it with the instruments and different things that I play. You have to know all these things for the big Improv. Ok? For the big Improv you have to know everything.

I was just thinking of "The Le Dreher Suite" and "Off Shore" on the recording "In Walked Buckner" where you're playing baroque flutes and the bass recorder. You know, Alyn Shipton makes another good point in mentioning that as an instrumentalist you not only added different woodwinds, ones not often heard in jazz, but you've also added different emotions. Sarcasm, lyricism and irony usually don't exist simultaneously in a jazz solo, but in some of your music they do.

Well, you have to stay focused on the big picture and that's music. That's music. I've always looked at music as something to be learned. Certainly the things that are there for us are there for us to learn from. Even Charlie Parker says this, and I've heard this so many times so he must have said it, that he wanted to study with (Paul) Hindemith. So you never know which direction somebody is going to go in if they're living long enough. Because, as you know, life is short so you have to be right in the middle of it.

Certainly it takes a lot of knowledge. What I've found is that you stay with these things and then gradually you get better, and you get better, and you get better. It really is an inspiring time in music just all the way around, the whole scope of it all. You get players from all different walks of music coming together wanting to know about improvisation.

If you look at it in perspective, we've had the period of composers. Composers are great: I'm not saying they shouldn't be there. But I mean there's also that level of, everybody's a composer. But you have to know what composers know. You have to be able to do that. I think it's a good thing for a musician to study composition as a parallel to the study of his or her instruments.

Do you mean by the 'time of the composer' European history, or are you talking about Duke Ellington?

No, I'm just saying if human beings are to develop to that next level we should all look at the examples of what was before us, and then we should go on beyond that. As musicians grow as improvisors we will eventually reach this state.

I like this concept of the super-musician.

Yeah, that's the only way to go. I think a lot of people have fallen down, man. You go to a lot of concerts and are disappointed. I think musicians should have more time to get together, work on the music and really do some challenging pieces. This whole thing about everybody's coming around with this baby Jesus; and everybody's supposed to go, Hooray.

These opportunities have to be created for musicians so that they can get together and have the time that they need to really dig into some nice pieces. You know how it is when you go to a concert and you hear something and you're excited! This is what you want to get to.

This whole thing—a lot of people, 'I've got to be here' and 'I've got to be there' and so on —everybody running around to nowhere, so to speak. So it's time to get back down to brass tacks and get to some real music.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.


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