Roscoe Mitchell

interview by Lazaro Vega

In honor of Roscoe Mitchell's appearance at Hot House in Chicago in June 2000, here is a partial transcription of Lazaro Vega's nuts and bolts conversation with Roscoe Mitchell from April 10, 2000.  Lazaro Vega is jazz director at Blue Lake Public Radio, serving all of western lower Michigan with fine arts programming.

Roscoe Mitchell:  People are looking for something different now, in a way.  I mean people are coming more back to wanting to get out there and be involved in some real art.  It's an interesting period.

Lazaro Vega:  So you just finished a month of touring in Europe, is that right?

Mitchell:  Yeah, just about.  I started off with four concerts in Spain with the Note Factory.  We started out in Seville, then Grenoble, Barcelona and Madrid.  Then I joined up with the Art Ensemble.  We did this tour that Lester [Bowie] set up before he died, The Art Ensemble of Africa.  We did several concerts in Spain, Italy and Turkey.  So I just got back from that.

Vega:  It looks like you're working with large forms and ensembles there.

Mitchell:  Yeah, I've got few different pieces going down.  I have my piano piece, "8-8-88," we're going to perform it there.  And then I'm doing a piece called "Concerto Grosso" which is for five strings, percussion, and the three soloists are flute, oboe and bassoon.  Then I'm also doing a piece with my daughter and a poet, Martha Stahl from here [Madison, Wisconsin].  She's a dancer and will have one other dancer with her.  Then on the second half I'm doing pieces with drummer Vincent Davis and bassist Harrison Bankhead.  So it's an exciting event, I'm trying to get it all organized now.  Then I'll have Wendy Nelson of Kali Mom Productions come down and shoot that [on videotape] too, so I'll have footage of that, also.

Vega: I'm not familiar with Martha Stahl.

Mitchell: She's from around here.  We've worked together a long time.  She's a very good poet and writer.  I've done a few things with her around here.  The year I was honored as Jazz Person of the Year by the Isthmus Jazz Festival we did this large project called "The Light Eternal."  We set a piece by her to two bass players, synthesizer, sopranino, this one woman Judy Dunaway who plays, like, balloons and so on and so forth.  I don't remember exactly, but it was a nice piece that we did.  And we also did "Prelude," that low piece I did with Varton Manoogian on violin, Peggy Choi (sp?), dance, and also Dane Richeson and myself playing percussion. Tom Gurallnick, too:  he's the guy who's out in New Mexico who has hooked up his horn in another kind of way so he can play all these different sounds.  It was nice.  We had a good time.

Vega: So is this concert you're doing at Hot House in the arena of the music you create with your ensemble Space?

Mitchell:  It's going to consist of some things that are written, too.  Of course the piano piece is totally notated.  The "Concerto Grosso" has improv but it's like a fixed improv or "scored improv" is what I call it:  Because the improv sections are on these cards.  [Note: the musicians choose which
cards they want to play in what order and for how long].  With the poet and dance it will be an improvised piece on my part and I'll improvise to the poem and the dance.  The pieces that I do with Harrison and Vincent will be improv pieces based on different concepts that I'm going to put together for the concert.

Vega:  I'm sorry we haven't spoken more often, but I did have a chance to hear you this winter at the University of Chicago concert tribute to Lester Bowie that Kahil El'Zabar put together, and you were still playing the "Le Dreher Suite" [see In Walked Buckner Delmark DE 510].

Mitchell: That was really beautiful what Joel Brandon [Note: he whistles] did on that. He's an incredible musician, man.  And we played "'Til Autumn," which is a piece I'd written last year.

Vega: You were working on that material when you played in at Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor last time, too.  I'm sorry I missed you at the Detroit/Montreux Jazz Festival with A. Spencer Barefield last August.

Mitchell: That was great, man, and plus I saw Kim Heron.  He was there.  People that I hadn't seen for a long time and stuff. That's always nice.

Vega:  With the Note Factory in September [at the Chicago Jazz Festival], is that going to be the same instrumentation as on the ECM record Nine to Get Ready?

Mitchell:  The only person that won't be on there will be George Lewis.  He did the recording, but George is doing his own stuff, too.  So Spencer [guitarist] is the logical guy for that.  That's who I've been working with, Spencer and Hugh Ragin.

Vega:  Well, hopefully more and more people will become aware of the Chicago jazz scene in the next few years.

Mitchell:  Hopefully more of that will get ironed out as we go into this next period, because there definitely seems a renewed interest in the music out there, I mean, amongst a lot of people I see at talk to.  I'm riding on that one.  It seems like this is probably one of the best periods for me for learning.  Not to mention it takes awhile just to learn how to learn, you know what I mean?  It's a very exciting period musically.

Vega:  Did you hear about Cecil Taylor coming into Chicago?  He played at Symphony Center this winter.

Mitchell:  Oh no, I didn't hear about that.

Vega:  It was supposed to be a trio, but they were snowed in, so it was solo.  It was beautiful.

Mitchell:  Yeah, yeah: he's a hell of a musician.  He's always had his own way of putting his music together and everything.  I think these are the people who are going to (pause) survive (laughs) the whole thing, are the people who really developed their own concept in the music, because it's really much easier to be yourself than somebody else.  So it seems like all of these people now are just coming back to the top again.  Because you listen to the records, you put them on, and they sound just as fresh as they were when they were recorded.

Vega:  Sure, Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton and even Sun Ra are like that. But Cecil's solo thing was incredible. The more time I spend listening to improvisational music, you can tell he's playing areas of exploration that are very apparent: it's not just free.  There are structures and certain techniques he'll use until they're developed to the point where he feels like moving on.

Mitchell: That's right.  That's right.  I mean, what really helps improvisors is that they know something about composition.  Because you can't really just walk on the stage with a couple of measures (laughs) and the concert's an hour long.  You can't really do that!  You know, so, I think it really helps you if you know how composition is put together.  It helps you become a stronger improvisor. There're all kinds of exciting things happening.  That's what I'm seeing as I go along.  Time is definitely going on by:  none of us are getting any younger, that's for sure.

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