Negotiating "The Maze" | Post No Bills | Chicago Reader

April 23, 1998 Music | Post No Bills

Negotiating "The Maze" 

Roscoe Mitchell/ Paragon of Pure Sound

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In a photo taken in 1978 at the recording session for a Roscoe Mitchell piece called "The Maze," the assembled pioneering jazz giants look small and lost in a sea of drums, gongs, congas, conch shells, marimbas, and other, more mysterious percussion devices. Chuck Nessa, who produced the recording and released it, along with the brass and woodwind trio "L-R-G" and the soprano sax solo "S II Examples," on his Nessa label, then based in Chicago, remembers that it took the musicians more than four hours just to set up all those instruments, but that they nailed the 22-minute piece in one live take.

Still, it must have been an exhausting task, because in the two decades that followed, "The Maze" would never be performed again--until this weekend. Tonight and tomorrow night at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Mitchell and a slightly revised lineup will re-create all three pieces from the groundbreaking L-R-G/The Maze/S II Examples album, a belated but much anticipated world premiere.

A cofounder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Mitchell has built a rich career on puzzles like "The Maze," which he composed for eight percussionists. Rather than solo over a rhythm section, as even radicals like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler did at the time, the Art Ensemble members developed a style of collective improvisation that would eventually change the face of jazz, disregarding accepted notions of structure in favor of intuitive interaction. Like other members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians--the collective from which the Art Ensemble sprang--Mitchell developed a highly personal musical vocabulary that emphasized pure sound over melody, harmony, or rhythm.

Following a successful three-year stint with the Art Ensemble in Europe, in 1971 Mitchell came back to Chicago, gathered up his belongings, and moved to a farm in Bath, Michigan, just northeast of Lansing. "It was necessary for me," he says. "I had gone through a long period of living in cities and I felt that I wanted to go off by myself." By then, he had the name recognition and the financial security to woodshed, though he would come back to town to record and tour when the opportunity arose. In 1976 he found a happy medium between city and country in Madison, Wisconsin, where he's lived ever since. L-R-G/The Maze/S II Examples brought sound explorations he had made in Michigan together with the earlier innovations made by the Art Ensemble.

For "L-R-G"--which featured Mitchell on piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, and the whole range of saxophones; George Lewis on sousaphone, tuba, and alto and tenor trombones; and Leo Smith on trumpet, pocket trumpet, and flugelhorn--and "The Maze," Mitchell took inventory of every possible sound the musicians could produce, then organized the sounds into pieces based on texture, without the restriction of fixed tempos. "We cataloged different sounds, different types of melodies, experimented with intonation, different fingerings," Mitchell explains. "These pieces were sound collages, careful examinations of each player's vocabulary that I matched together." Adds Nessa, "We spent over a year preparing for that record. I went up to Roscoe's place in Wisconsin every weekend to go over that stuff."

Interestingly, most of the musicians Mitchell used on "The Maze" weren't known as percussionists. He and fellow reedists Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Joseph Jarman, and Douglas Ewart, as well as bassist Malachi Favors, rattled, rang, scraped, and thwacked right alongside drummers Thurman Barker and Don Moye. But rather than an all-out bash fest, "The Maze" is a beautiful, subdued investigation of color and density, performed on everything from standard drums to something Threadgill called his "hubkaphone" and Braxton's "garbage-can machine."

"L-R-G" was performed once more, not long after the album came out, at New York's Public Theater. But the caliber of musicians and the number of instruments involved made performing "The Maze" again for an audience too costly a proposition. Then last year, when the Jazz Institute of Chicago began talking with Mitchell about doing a concert in town, members Steve Saltzman and Art Lange suggested he play the 1978 album in its entirety. Mitchell said he'd be delighted, then embarked on a series of logistical hassles, tracking down musicians and scheduling rehearsal time. The players and their gear had to be transported from New York, California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, a dauntingly expensive undertaking. Lauren Deutsch of the Jazz Institute declined to reveal the budget but did say the performances would have been impossible without funding from several sources and the cooperation of the MCA. Even if both nights sell out, which is likely, the event will lose money.

Mitchell did an impressive job rounding up most of the original participants, including Nessa, who'll record the proceedings again. Only Braxton and Moye, who already had other engagements scheduled, and Threadgill, who lives in India, sent their regrets. They'll be replaced by regular Mitchell percussionists Tani Tabbal, Gerald Cleaver, and Vincent Davis; Mitchell has written new material for all of them. "I'm glad to be able to do the pieces now," he says. "They've all evolved and I've been given an opportunity to put them together in a slightly different way. I think I have a much better point of view now than when I wrote them. Sometimes I look at it as if this is the time they were supposed to be done."

The ensemble will play at 8 PM Friday and Saturday at the MCA, 220 E. Chicago--call 312-397-4010 for tickets--then head to New York for a Monday-night show at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. Mitchell will also give a free solo performance and discuss his work from 2 to 3:30 PM Saturday at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Randolph. Call 312-744-6630 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Roscoe Mitchell photo by Joseph Blough.

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