Roscoe Mitchell Conquers UCSD

Long awaited return by composer, saxophone master.

UCSD embraced a bit of history on March 2 when they welcomed the legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago and Association of the Advancement of Creative Musicians co-founder Roscoe Mitchell into the Experimental Theater to premiere his latest orchestral work “Cards in the Faces of Roses for Eleven,” (which he didn’t perform on) as well as pieces for a quartet featuring Mark Dresser on bass, Mike Reed on drums, and Anthony Davis on piano and an improvised piece for the large ensemble.

That ensemble was loaded with serious musicians, including Dresser, Davis, and Reed, plus Nicole Mitchell on flute, Drew Ceccato on saxophones, Stephanie Richards on trumpet, Kjell Nordeson on vibraphone, Sean Dowgray on marimba, Judith Hamann on cello, Kyle Motl and Tommy Babin on bass with Matt Kline conducting. 

“Cards in the Faces of Roses for Eleven” began with soft sounds swirling around the stage as tinkling piano, mocking muted-trumpet, moaning contrabasses, rich alto-flute and gorgeous cello all seemed to vie for attention with considerable stretches of silence -- creating a dark stream of agitated flow interrupted by short bursts of creative energy from all concerned.

Mitchell came to the stage to lead the quartet through an improvised tour-de-force that almost tore my head off. Initially, his strangled warbling on alto saxophone caused the audience to lean forward -- an impulse that was rewarded by a Herculean, nonstop circular-breathed solo that spanned 10 minutes and only relented during the time it took to change from alto to sopranino and back again. Davis, Reed and Dresser ebbed and flowed with the organic energy of the master, each finding moments to shine and contribute as the dynamics shifted from raging surges to pianissimo sighs as Mitchell dialed down into a series of prescient long tones.

The improvising orchestra returned for an uncharted exploration led off by the call-and-response between Nicole Mitchell’s flute and the trumpet/piccolo trumpet of Richards, which soon drew the liquid flow of Hamann’s cello. Ceccato then engaged the leader in a locked-horns embrace that illustrated the long relationship they share (Ceccato studied with Mitchell up the coast at Mills College). Throughout the evening, Reed proved himself to be the perfect drummer for the occasion, stoking the fires when necessary, but mostly providing a wonderful series of tiny gestures that encouraged the music to develop at its own pace.

It was inspiring to watch the music unfold from wispy clouds of dissonant harmonies to breathtaking moments that celebrated the listening virtuosity manifested in Davis’s rumbling left-hand, Nordeson’s blurred mallets and the dizzying double-handed glissandi of Dresser, plus the ebullient cacophony of 12 independent, yet vitally linked voices.

Amazing music from amazing musicians, and it was especially gratifying to see the Experimental Theater absolutely full of committed listeners -- deservedly so. Bravo, UC San Diego. Bravo, Roscoe Mitchell!  

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years. Follow him on Twitter @robertbushjazz. Visit The World According to Rob.

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