While John Coltrane and Albert Ayler were developing the raucous screech of high-energy expressionism, multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell was experimenting with silence and inner space. Alongside his mid-1960s Chicago colleagues, he brought the techniques of folk and experimental classical music into jazz, albeit with a somewhat icy logic – Mitchell was a founder member of both the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
Now, multi-phonics, microtones and long-sustained notes are benchmarks of free jazz virtuosity, but at this rare London appearance, Mitchell still seemed to be probing the possibilities of his many saxophones and flutes. There were uninterrupted streams of chromatic scales running the full length of his alto sax, a continuous, unaccompanied breath on soprano that gradually acquired an indefinite, barely audible pitch and quivering quarter-tones on wooden flute.
It was demanding stuff, and groundbreaking in its day, but a little dry-edged when contrasted with his warm-hearted and sensuous UK accompanists, bassist John Edwards and long-time associate Tony Marsh on percussion. While Mitchell slowly slurred a long-held note out of pitch, Marsh and Edwards rumbled and swished underneath, complementing each move with a bent bowed note or an answering twang, bang or skitter.
Both sets were through-improvised, the first uninterrupted, the second partitioned into three, and each was a master class in instant rapport. Dynamics declined to a breath or peaked at a shout, the pulse was spacey and strong, and rare snippets of melody were picked up and passed around. Mitchell’s first cue was two confident notes on alto sax. Soon, he was manipulating a sustained tone out of pitch – Edwards bowed rich harmonies in support – and cascading uninterrupted through his saxophone’s range, buoyed by thrumming bass and rattling drums.
Edwards’ bass tone is beautifully rounded and his dexterity almost frightening. At one moment he fills the room with a resonant walk, the next he’s bowing like a demon or slipping well-timed slaps into a dazzling wide-intervalled run. And Marsh, here standing behind an augmented drum kit, delivered a highlight solo, a sensuously rhythmic, continuous one handed swish interjected by full-volume smashes on cymbal or timpani-tuned drums. With such support Mitchell could hardly fail.