Roscoe Mitchell & Mike Reed Seek Magic in Chicago
Posted 8/20/2014

On Aug. 16, two players deeply rooted in the fabric of Chicago music—reedist Roscoe Mitchell and drummer Mike Reed—performed an intimate concert at Constellation, the city’s improvised music-centric venue.

In the liner notes to Mitchell’s archival release Before There Was Sound (Nessa), drummer Alvin Fielder reminisced about their first encounter. It was in the early ’60s, when Mitchell played alto for several choruses on “Cherokee” at a West Side Chicago club. “I was plaing out of a Max Roach thing, but when Roscoe played, his rhythms were different, the way he was phrasing, 3 or 5 bar phrases, 3½ and 4½ … . Most bebop drummers can’t break up those phrases.”

A lot has changed in the ensuing half-decade. Mitchell, who turned 74 this month, went on to become a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He has acquired and mastered a vast array of woodwinds and percussion instruments. He has recorded in orchestral and electronic settings, and dealt with free-jazz, funk, theatrical and new-music styles on the way to developing a musical approach that is sui generis.

But even though it has been a long, long time since he played “Cherokee” onstage, the idiosyncratic perception of musical dimensions that turned Fielder’s head so long ago is still at the heart of the music he played with Reed at the concert, which celebrated the release of their duo CD, In Pursuit Of Magic (482 Music).

The 2013 performance which the CD documents also took place at Constellation, a music and dance venue that Reed has led in association with the arts organization Links Hall for the past year and a half. This alone must have gladdened Mitchell’s heart, since one of the original impetuses for founding the AACM was the lack of venues that supported or even tolerated serious, original music.

In addition to being a superb drummer, composer and conceptually minded bandleader, Reed is also a concert organizer. His band People, Places & Things has dealt with the hard-bop underground that existed in Chicago shortly prior to Mitchell’s advent on the scene, and he has played early Mitchell compositions in other ensembles.

While these commonalities may have set the scene for their partnership, the resulting music expresses a compatibility that is renewed second-by-second.

Over the course of an hour and ten minutes, Mitchell played a wooden flute and sopranino, soprano and alto saxophones. On each instrument he displayed a simultaneous command of sound at both the most minute and macro levels. He doesn’t just play a pitch; he carefully selects his attack, sometimes putting it under so much pressure that it shatters. At other times, he expresses notes so gently that they hang suspended, without weight. And yet his phrasing, enabled by a profound mastery of circular breathing, went beyond bars or choruses to express several minutes of non-repeating but rigorously constructed material at a stretch.

Reed played a standard trap kit augmented by handheld bells and a contact microphone, which selectively boosted and distorted the presence of his bass drum. With these resources he was able to keep multiple streams of rhythm and tone flowing, sometimes locking one into Mitchell’s playing while the other ranged free to comment upon it.

While the content of their playing was abstract, it was expressed with such transparency that the relationship between each part was always clear.

Bill Meyer


Roscoe Mitchell (left) and Mike Reed onstage at Constellation on Aug. 16. (Photo: Lauren Deutsch)

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