roscoe mitchell sextet | sound (1966)

soundSound was, and is, a tremendously important recording. It was the first document of the then-young Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), among the first recorded appearances for most of these musicians, and a first step towards the formation of the Art Ensemble of Chicago a few years later. Sound began the process of spreading the AACM aesthetic beyond Chicago, initiating what would become one of the most influential currents in jazz in the next decade. And though the AACM was by its nature aesthetically broad and eclectic, Sound does provide a satisfying cross-section of many of the innovations, ideas, and sounds that this collective introduced to the jazz lexicon.

Beyond its importance, Sound is simply a great record, the vibrant outpouring of a group of musicians who had spent the last few years experimenting and forming an expansive community of likeminded outsiders. Throughout, Mitchell and his group (including future Art Ensemble cohorts Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors) seem audibly excited to be making this music, finally getting their ideas onto tape.

The sessions were arranged through Chuck Nessa, a new arrival to Chicago who liked what he heard from the AACM musicians and convinced his employer at the tiny local Delmark Records – run out of a record shop – to let Nessa record Mitchell and some of the other AACM groups. Nessa’s interest led directly to the first three AACM albums on Delmark (Sound, Joseph Jarman’s Song For, and Muhal Richard Abrams’ Levels and Degrees of Light, all three of which I’ll be writing about this week) and from there to further sessions on Delmark and Nessa’s own startup label. The whole affair was strictly local and amateur – neither Nessa nor the AACM musicians had much experience in a recording studio before this – but the result was stunning.

The album opened with “Ornette,” a fitting tribute to one of the musicians who was most directly influential on the myriad activities of the AACM. With his keen sense of space and dynamics, idiosyncratic style, and ability to balance melody with abrasion, Ornette Coleman was an obvious inspiration for Mitchell and many of the other Chicago musicians of the time. It’s therefore exceedingly appropriate that, before moving on to ideas of their own, Mitchell and the rest of the sextet would nod to Coleman with this five-minute tribute, deliberately evoking Coleman.

Mitchell self-consciously pays homage to the master here, his alto sax alternately recalling Coleman’s upbeat staccato lines and his mournful, melodic ballads. Favors and percussionist Alvin Fielder form a solid, pummeling foundation for the squeals and rapid runs of Mitchell and tenor saxophonist Maurice McIntyre. It’s propulsive, frenzied, looser than Coleman’s own music, but capturing the spirit of it nonetheless. Fielder’s busy, rollicking drumming meshes seamlessly with Favors’ forceful bass, and at times a plucked cello (played by Lester Lashley, who also doubles on trombone) subtly adds further texture and density to the rhythm section. The released version of the track was a second take selected by Nessa, who realized that many listeners would need a gentle introduction to the AACM’s unusual music. “Ornette” was originally recorded without steady drums, with Lashley’s cello taking a more prominent role. It was Nessa who suggested re-recording the track with drums, giving it a more grounded feel and a greater connection to existing jazz forms.

If “Ornette” summed up where Mitchell and his collaborators were coming from, the next track suggested just as eloquently where they were heading. “The Little Suite” is the quintessential early AACM recording, an inventive and playful 10-minute piece that delves into the group’s concerns with space, instrumental variety, and genre pastiche. The AACM’s take on ’60s free jazz and the “new thing” differed considerably from other developments of the era, particularly in their concern for dynamics and texture as opposed to the over-the-top blowing sessions that otherwise dominated late ’60s avant jazz.

Mitchell, like many of the collective’s other members, aimed to shift emphasis away from the explosively emotive horn soloist, instead focusing on the totality of the music. There are emotional, fiery, explosive sections on Sound and other early AACM recordings, but they’re balanced by the spaciousness, humor, and variety of textures explored throughout the album.

“The Little Suite” is a perfect showcase for what the early AACM was all about. The piece opens with a sing-songy theme statement from Bowie on harmonica, one of the many minor instruments, previously not much used in jazz, that the AACM brought into play. Multi-instrumentalism was common: Mitchell plays clarinet, flute, and recorder in addition to his alto sax, Bowie plays both harmonica and trumpet, and Lashley switches between trombone and cello. Moreover, everyone uses the percussive “little instruments” (bells, maracas, any other unusual sound-making objects at hand) that would become a staple of AACM and Art Ensemble performances.

The piece takes its time coming together. Bowie’s harmonica is at first accompanied mainly by percussive scrapes and cranking noises, and the texture of the music keeps shifting unpredictably, alternating spacious sections with isolated pinprick sounds and cacophonous ensemble playing. A shrill whistle occasionally squeaks out a comical sound effect, while Bowie’s harmonica playfully riffs on Western campfire singalongs. After a couple of minutes of this, the more traditional horns enter, with Bowie switching to trumpet to lead the way in a freewheeling march anthem, sounding for a few moments like Albert Ayler’s then-recent recordings with his brother Donald. It’s ecstatic and joyous, and anarchic, too: Bowie states a relatively straightforward march theme, and then the saxes stomp all over it, swirling and honking until the music can’t seem to bear the strain, collapsing into discrete sound events once again.

In this way, “The Little Suite” perfectly encapsulates so much of what these musicians were up to. The music strenuously resists the idea of forward momentum or a steady pulse. Fielder’s drums roll and pick up steam, but then fall silent. Favors plucks out funky figures on the bass, but often in isolation, accompanying goofy whistles and shaking percussive accents. The horns contribute short solo lines and interjections. The musicians seem in no rush to fill the space or to cohere towards familiar song forms; there are few real silences or pauses of any length, but there’s a constant sense of space and dynamics.

That sensibility also drives the side-length title track on the record’s flip side (assembled, on the original LP, from parts of two takes, but split into its composite tracks on CD reissues). This piece opens with a mournful melody, stated at various times by all three horns, that gradually grows more strident as it progresses, eventually verging into shrill, screeching sax tones. From here, the music moves subtly and patiently through many different territories. Things build slowly, as Mitchell’s recorder gives way to breathy long tones on the sax. There’s a wavery quality to the playing, with tones unpredictably shaking between fully sounded notes and scratchy, textural blurs in which the sound of breath rushing through metal creates staticky white noise. The sax plays a capella at times, but is also joined by delicately rolling drums, Favors’ bass, bowed cello scraping, and vocalizations as the rest of the ensemble hums along with the sax.

Only gradually does the sax begin playing slightly more conventionally, and soon after hands the spotlight over to Bowie, who similarly crafts a spacious, abstracted line. Notes are truncated abruptly, left hanging in space, and Bowie switches his attack between odd noises, throaty low notes, and the sound of breath whistling through the instrument’s body. The other musicians join in, then drop out, and space is left for another sax solo, this one more honking and abrasive, with audible gasping and moaning filling in the momentary breaks between squawks.

Throughout all these shifts, the music continuously retains its unpredictability and tension. There’s no grandstanding soloing here, even though the horn players are given ample solo room – often even literal solos, with no one else playing, or just occasional interjections in an empty sound field. Each player seems concerned primarily with extracting the most interesting possible range of sounds and textures from his instrument, from whispery gurgles to explosive farting outbursts. The music demands attention and patience, but it’s far from self-serious, open to all manner of “low” sounds and references to popular music genres. Even now, it is provocative, engaging music, rewarding the attentive listener with a series of inquiries into the pure sound-making possibilities of jazz instruments.

Indeed, it’s startling how self-assured Mitchell and the rest of this group was in making music that broke so decisively with the trends and conventions of the time. Sound not only broke from jazz tradition, but even mostly eschewed the relatively more radical structures and aesthetics of then-state-of-the-art free jazz. This was – and still is – bold, exciting music that recognized that even greater freedom, and a broader range of expression, could be found in the examination of extreme dynamics (the very quiet as much as or more than the very loud) and the full, delightfully weird range of various instruments’ sounds. These musicians de-emphasized virtuosity and individual egos in favor of a collective sound that still has the power to surprise and inspire many decades later.

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