Roscoe Mitchell and the Path of Most Resistance

Ken Vandermark

On August 28th of 1976, Roscoe Mitchell played a solo concert at the Jazz Festival Willisau in Switzerland, a couple of days after a performance with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. This set was not the one originally planned. Anthony Braxton was scheduled to play, but cancelled at the last minute, and Roscoe was asked to perform in his stead. A recording of this concert was included on the Nessa Records album, Nonaah, originally released in 1977, and re-issued in 2008 with added material. Mitchell’s description of the experience is quoted in the liner notes:

I went out there and got this tension thing. It was a battle. I had to make the noise and whatever was going on with the audience part of the piece. The music couldn’t move till they respected me, until they realized that I wasn’t going anywhere, and it helped to create the environment the piece was to take place in . . . building tensions . . . and when I finally did release it my alto had just given in to me (it said, “OK, you can play me now”). I started to open it up soundwise by putting in smears and different sounds, and by the time it finally reached the end at the encore piece it all pulled together.1

The tension and battle Roscoe describes on that occasion is not exaggerated. Listening to the recording makes it clear how contentious the circumstances were. Immediately before the concert began the audience was told by a Swiss announcer that Anthony Braxton was not going to appear, and Roscoe Mitchell would be playing instead. The crowd audibly voices its disappointment before Roscoe starts a 22:39 musical tour de force, which begins by repeating Nonaah’s short, angular melodic line while members of the audience shout and whistle their displeasure. At 5:20, the performance of that phrase begins to come apart at the seams as Mitchell starts to improvise more and more freely, pushing the material to the breaking point. By the end of the piece, he has not defeated the crowd, he has won them over. He accomplishes this not by pandering to whatever expectations the audience may have had, but by getting them to listen to his music on his terms; not by “replacing” Anthony Braxton but presenting Roscoe Mitchell in full force.

The connection between Mitchell and Braxton adds another layer to Roscoe’s momentous and legendary performance. Throughout the history of jazz and improvised music, there have been creative dynamics between certain pairs of artists that helped shape the course of the music’s history, such as the relationships between Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, or between Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Though there were a number of brilliant, innovative, and essential reed players that were part of the watershed period for Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a unique creative association existed between Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton. Roscoe’s album, Sound (Delmark Records, 1966), is credited as the first document of music created by the AACM; Anthony’s initial recording as a leader, 3 Compositions of New Jazz (Delmark, 1968), came two years later, and heralded a new compositional voice for the international scene. Mitchell traveled to Paris with the Art Ensemble in early 1969; Braxton arrived with members of the Creative Construction Company a few months later. Both artists are staggering multi-instrumentalists, utilizing the entire family of reed instruments and—in the case of Roscoe—also “little instruments” and percussion. And, like Rollins and Coltrane, who recorded Tenor Madness together, they also collaborated on an album, called Roscoe Mitchell: Duets with Anthony Braxton (recorded in 1976 and released by Sackville in 1978) that featured Roscoe’s compositions on Side A and Anthony’s on Side B.

Though the entire range of music produced by Mitchell and Braxton has had a profound impact on me, it is their investigation and development of solo material that has been perhaps most significant. This creative legacy goes back to the very beginning of their careers; is an essential aspect of their concert and recorded output; and has a level of invention and innovation that is remarkable for any composer/improviser from any time period on any instrument. Anthony Braxton led the way on this path, recording the seminal album For Alto in 1969 (Delmark, 1971). Roscoe Mitchell’s first foray of this kind, Solo Saxophone Concerts, was documented in 1973 (Sackville, 1974). As with the Willisau concert, Roscoe’s composition, “Nonaah,” plays a key role on his initial solo recording, with versions of the piece opening the album and concluding it. That composition’s significance in regard to Mitchell’s creative arc has a parallel with the pieces Braxton documented on For Alto: Both of these sets of material lay the foundation for a collection of independent vocabulary and grammar that each musician has continued to develop for decades. In George Lewis’ book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, Muhal Richard Abrams stated that his “initial advice to Mitchell concerning composition was to ‘write down what you’re playing on your horn. He proceeded to do that—that’s where “Nonaah” and stuff like that comes from—and he’s never looked back since.’ ”2

It is Abrams’ compositional advice to Roscoe Mitchell, to “write down what you’re playing on your horn,” that became a guiding principle for the development of my own solo music system. This process began in the 1990s when I realized that nearly all of the contemporary composers and improvisers that I admired had created unique solo music. This is especially true of the musicians in the United States from the Midwest—in the AACM (Chicago) and Black Artists Group (St. Louis)—and in Europe, particularly from the scenes based in the Netherlands, Germany, and England, all of whom became established in the mid-to-late 1960s. In terms of early conception and creative impact—both for reed players and anyone interested in creative music—Roscoe Mitchell was at the forefront as a composer and improviser for unaccompanied instrumental material. 

Since the start of the millennium, I have pursued a variety of strategies to build my own viable solo music by utilizing musical “templates” without conventional notation; attempting to work in a completely spontaneous manner like the English trombonist, Paul Rutherford; and recording in spaces with extreme acoustics. When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, I took a hard look at what I was trying to accomplish with my solo material because, in isolation, that was all I could really do. 

From the beginning of my search in the 1990s, I was troubled by two factors. The first was a paradox: If only one person was generating all of the material, how would it be possible to create the necessary spontaneity and surprise connected to improvised music? 

The second issue was related to a statement attributed to the English guitarist, Derek Bailey, who said, “The problem with the saxophone is that every time you pick it up, it’s jazz.” As I considered the commonalities between the types of music that I enjoy the most, and how I might be able to convey these elements in my solo compositions, I reflected on how I got into experimental jazz and improvised music in the first place—through hearing Joe McPhee’s solo album, Tenor, (Hat Hut Records, 1977) as a teenager. That recording, with its combination of melodicism and extended saxophone techniques, permanently altered my perspective on what music could be. 

As I re-examined my goals for creating a personal solo music I realized the direct connection between Joe McPhee’s approach and that of Roscoe Mitchell. Both had found ways around the enigma of creating improvisational surprise in their solo material, and both had circumvented Bailey’s dilemma. For example, the intensity with which Roscoe pushes against sonic conventions, heard so readily in the above-mentioned performance of “Nonaah,” goes beyond the limits of control to create a vibrating environment of unpredictability. And a listener would be hard pressed to include Roscoe’s Willisau performance of “Nonaah,” though played on alto saxophone, as being emblematic of the jazz mainstream. Those references provided guidelines that helped free me from conceptual issues I had been contending with for almost three decades. Coupled with reflections on Muhal Richard Abrams’ advice to Roscoe Mitchell to “write down what you play on the horn,” these factors gave me a sense of self-determination that enabled the creative breakthroughs needed to compose and improvise the music for the solo album The Field Within A Line (Corbett vs. Dempsey: 2021), recorded in September of 2020. 

Mitchell was on a panel discussion with me that took place at the Chicago Cultural Center on April 17, 2013. Bassist Joshua Abrams, who was in attendance, asked Mitchell what he did to prepare for a solo concert. I found his answer to be both surprising and highly informative. He simply said that he first needed to know how long he was expected to play, then he’d practice solo material leading up to the performance for twice that duration. Mitchell cited the work ethic of Michael Jordan as his reasoning behind that strategy. How hard does an athlete like Jordan work to maintain the conditioning needed to play basketball at the highest level? The message I understood through his answer was this: to meet the physical demands of a solo concert at Roscoe Mitchell’s level, it’s necessary to be able to go twice as far as anyone else to do so. When I think about the work it will take to compose and perform the music I want to play, solo or otherwise, that communiqué from Roscoe is always on my mind.

1Terry Martin, Nonaah (Michigan: Nessa Records, 1977 and 2008), 4 and 5.

2George Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 70.

Roscoe Mitchell and the Path of Most Resistance