At this stage in his career, Roscoe Mitchell—who did pioneering and irreplaceable work with both the AACM and the Art Ensemble of Chicago in addition to his own boundary-pushing solo efforts, not to mentioning finishing a respectable 15th in this publication’s list of the 50 greatest saxophonists of all time—certainly has nothing to prove. But that very accomplished career marks him as a relentless worker, a restless inventor, and a man very much concerned with not resting on his laurels. February 2014 will find him in London, where he will oversee a full production by the BBC Orchestra of a new piece tentatively known as “Agave in Full Bloom,” but while that ambitious project is still being written, Mitchell visited Seattle’s Benaroya Hall on Friday, June 7, to present five versions of his legendary piece, “Nonaah.”
First appearing as one of the most striking pieces on the AEC’s Fanfare for the Warriors album in 1973, “Nonaah” has been painstakingly workshopped by Mitchell ever since. Its first section lulls the listener with hypnotic repetition of spiky blasts of atonal sound, marking itself as a product of Mitchell’s rigorous avant-garde tendencies, but its remarkably expressive middle stretch slows things down and introduces passages of bluesy swing that reflect his stated desire to create “the sound of one big alto.” This all gives way to a quick, aggressive final movement, blending the two approaches into a furious burst of warring tones before coming to a softening, contemplative finish. Though he’s arranged “Nonaah” for many different methods of presentation, from solo saxophone to full orchestra, the Seattle performance was the first time it was played in so many different ways in a single setting.
The performance was organized by Table & Chairs, a local record label focused on new music with a progressive bent that represents everything from avant-garde jazz to improvised electronics. (It’s also familiar to locals, as it grew out of the Racer Sessions, a weekly spotlight of free music at the legendary Café Racer, and players from the scene were well-represented on stage.) Local composer Jacob Zimmerman—a former student of Mitchell’s at Mills College—hosted a Q&A before the music started. The origins of “Nonaah,” Mitchell explained, began when “I was trying to exploit the three registers of the alto saxophone, and I wanted it to sound like there was more than one instrument playing.” Eventually expanding the piece to include a broader harmonic range, he found that the piece lent itself easily to a variety of compositional and performance modes. “I’ve worked with this piece so much, it’s almost like a color palette that I can expand or reduce depending on what I want to do,” he said of arranging “Nonaah” for the ten-piece Lawson ensemble. “It represented a challenge, but a nice challenge.”
The three passages of “Nonaah” represent Mitchell’s three main musical obsessions: improvisation, pure sound, and opposition. These qualities are essential to any performance of the piece, he explained, but beyond that, “the character changes from the versions that are arranged and the versions that are improvised. This (performance) is a situation where every one is a composition, but there are elements of improvisation that let it remain true to its origin. When you’re at home composing, you have ideas that you think are going to work in live performance, but you can’t on the face of it think, oh, I know this will work out in a certain way until you hear it happen. Likewise, you can play a certain way in a live setting that you’ll never capture through notation.”
The opening performance of “Nonaah,” by a cello quartet made up of Sonja Myklebust, David Balatero, Maria Scherer-Wilson, and Natalie Hall, was the piece at its most intellectually focused, lacking almost all elements of free play or swing and honed to a laser-like precision. As such, it worked for me the least; while it was evocative of some of Mitchell’s better concert music (and owed an extreme debt to both Milhaud and Bartók), it lacked some of the unexpected elements of his best work. Some of the mournful passages of the middle section worked best, while the keening wails leading up to the late conclusion came across as rather subdued rather than subtle.
Any nitpicking vanished when Mitchell himself took the stage afterwards, to present two selections for solo saxophone. Looking dapper and showing a remarkable physical presence for a man of 72—his elbow jutting out at stabbing angles for on-a-dime tonal shifts, his fingers arched like a gentleman at tea, and his head rolling loosely around his neck in moments of astonishing breath control—he ran through the first, a previously composed piece titled “The Cactus and the Rose,” on the soprano saxophone before switching to the alto for the second, completely improvised, piece. Mitchell’s precision on “Cactus” was murderous, throwing his whole weight into a series of colorful tonal leaps and precisely developing a series of thematically linked musical patterns over time to a faint, broken conclusion. Reaching the limits of the instrument, he reduced it to wheezing, almost soundless breaths punctuated by keen foghorn cries at the end of the selection. The second piece began with a series of almost Eastern chord progressions before shifting into a creepy, insinuating riffs interrupted by skronky blats and crystalline grace notes. Its middle passage perfectly illustrated his process of making the alto sax sound like a half-dozen other instruments, at times creating an almost minimalist drone. It concluded with some deep bluesy lowing, reaching higher and higher to achieve a harsh cawing familiar from his later work.
After a brief intermission, it was back to “Nonaah,” this time performed by a saxophone quartet featuring Jacob Zimmerman, Ivan Arteaga, Andrew Swanson, and Neil Welch. Still using major elements of Mitchell’s original composition, enough looseness crept into this version that it seemed better suited than the cello version. The four saxes made for a hulking storm of sound in the opening passages before settling down to the more languid, bluesy elements of the middle. Of course, it’s easy to spot how the material differs in the hands of a real virtuoso; it often took all four players to register the same sounds that Mitchell had just managed to create all on his own just minutes before. But it was still a very strong interpretation of the material.
Next up was “Nonaah Re-Imagined,” performed by saxophonist Neil Welch and drummer Chris Icasiano, better know to the jazz world as Bad Luck. Their arrangement of “Nonaah” was both exacting and full of surprises, extremely powerful and aggressive at times but fully capable of quiet when the passage demanded it. It started out with the sharp jabbing notes dropped down to a low ominous range by the pedals and effects arrayed around Welch’s sax, accompanied by rumbling percussion and faint looped electronics, before bursting into some cleverly arranged swing driven by Icasian’s hot-shit drumming. He used his kit edges and all, playing every available surface like a Plains Indian making use of a dead buffalo, letting no part go to waste. The bluesy passages were filled with a sonic intensity that recalled Albert Ayler to my ears, with plenty of room for free play and loads of rhythmic intensity. By far the best performance of the night not involving Roscoe Mitchell himself, Bad Luck justified its strong reputation with this searing tear-through of a very new “Nonaah.”
The final piece was “Nonaah” as arranged for Lawson, a new music ensemble headed by Zimmerman and featuring alto and tenor sax, clarinet, trombone, cello, double bass, guitar, double bass, electric organ and synthesizer. The riskiest performance of the night, it proved to be perfectly serviceable, though it’s easy to see why Mitchell found it such a challenge to put together. The electric elements were actually fairly non-intrusive, letting the acoustic instruments do the heavy lifting, but the entire ensemble played in lockstep, with practiced familiarity, and managed to pull off the difficult task of making a piece we’d heard four times in succession sound relatively fresh. As a group of individual performances, the night of “Nonaah” ranged from adequate to spectacular, but its real value was as a tour through the styles and capabilities of Roscoe Mitchell, a man who can still bring more variety and texture to a single piece than many players and composers can to an entire career.