Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
As much as any recording of the time, Roscoe Mitchell’s The Solo Concert – originally issued on Sackville as The Roscoe Mitchell Solo Saxophone Concerts – and Evan Parker’s Saxophone Solos exemplify the experimental energies of the mid 1970s. Solo saxophone recordings were then rare and represented a genuinely new brashness. Only Anthony Braxton’s For Alto (1968; Delmark) loomed large on the US landscape in ’74 and ‘5, when the Mitchell and Parker albums were respectively recorded. Although it was recorded in ’72, Braxton’s Saxophone Improvisations Series F (America) didn’t really gain much stateside attention until it was licensed by Inner City five years later. While Emanem released Steve Lacy’s groundbreaking ’72 Avignon solo concert in ’74, it took many months for a few copies to surface in US record shops. Subsequently, the Mitchell and Parker recordings were initially received as being part of the same historical moment as the earlier albums.
Despite the paucity of solo saxophone recordings at the time, the Mitchell and Parker albums reflect the vast diversity of methods and materials that were already in play. Mitchell constructed his album from three concerts dating from late ’73 and summer ’74, and employed soprano, alto, tenor and bass saxophones, while Parker recorded the three soprano issued on the original Incus LP in a single session (the nine solos recorded later in ’75 that rounded out the program were added for the first CD issue on Chronoscope in ’94). The use and development of thematic materials and the durations of the solos are larger divides. Regardless of the forethought and design Parker may have brought to these solos – he began articulating the idea that improvisation was inherently a compositional process in ‘74 – the original three “aerobatics” registered at the time as free improvisations. Additionally, with the exception of “aerobatics 2,” Parker favored durations of approximately fifteen minutes. Mitchell worked at the other end of the spectrum, giving composed materials determinative weight to each performance; on some, like the versions of “Nonaah” that open and close the program, only seconds-long passages are improvised. He also tended to be as brief as he was blunt; four of the eight pieces clock in less than five minutes – the bracketing takes of “Nonaah” are both under 90 seconds – with the rest ranging from seven to slightly over nine minutes.
These differences frame the contrast between Mitchell and Parker’s temperaments. By this time, Mitchell was already recognized in the American New Music community as a composer; simultaneously, the stateside ascent of Art Ensemble of Chicago was under way. His solo repertoire played well with both constituencies; the short phrases, soft alto attack and pregnant silences of “Enlorfe” have a formal presence post-serialists would appreciate, while the avuncular, lumbering bass saxophone reading of Malachi Favors’ “Tutankamen” exemplifies the humor Art Ensemble jazz fans valued. The shape of Mitchell’s assembled program has something of a jazz record arc. A robust “Nonaah” that gives way to Favors’ tickling tune to open the album; the mid section is comprised of off-speed vehicles like “Enlorfe,” “Jibbana,” a soprano exploration of dynamics and timbres; and the two-part “Eeltwo,” a ruminative piece for tenor. The album ends with a build to a big finish with “Oobina (Little Big Horn,” which includes some Kirkish two-horn blasts on soprano and bass, and “Ttum,” a fierce alto work-out, before Mitchell ends the album with a furious take on “Nonaah”
While Soprano Solos is just the first of several albums on which Parker extended both the technical and aesthetic parameters of solo saxophone music, it is the predicate of each successive milestone. All of the technical and aesthetic qualities ascribed to the presumptive masterpiece, Monoceros (the ’78 studio session is in the psi queue), are already in place. Although his circular breathing was employed in shorter spans than on later albums, the overtone control which sharpens the rhythmic patters he creates with contrasting textures is in place. His bending and tinting of pitches within quavering altissimo clusters is finely calibrated, the double and tripled tongued squalls are riveting, and his pivoting between materials is quick and precise. Arguably, Parker’s formalism is emphasized more on later recordings like Monoceros, Six of One (1980; psi) and Conic Sections (1993; ah um), but there’s a compensating transparency to both sessions which now comprise Saxophone Solos, which crystallizes Parker’s conception of the saxophone as “a rather specialised bio-feedback instrument for studying and expanding my control over my hearing and the motor mechanics of parts of my skelto-muscular system.”
Despite their differences, these recordings should be heard in tandem, as they both laid down markers that saxophonists continue to reference today. Despite Mitchell revisiting the solo program much less frequently than Parker in subsequent decades, there are coincidental developments in their respective activities, like the forays into overdubbing in the ‘90s; Parker in ’91 with Process and Reality (1991; FMP) and Mitchell six years later on the Delmark 2-CD collection, Sound Songs. In recent years, their collaborative Transatlantic Art Ensemble has yielded a strong pair of albums for ECM, confirming their compositional voices to be are as distinguishable from one another as their saxophone playing. Even though history will consign them to different waves of musicians, Mitchell and Parker rode the same tide in the ‘70s, helping to make solo saxophone music a permanent, even prominent feature of the experimental music landscape.