Photo: Joseph Blough
"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 until they respected me, until they realized that I wasn't going anywhere, and if someone was going it would have had to be them."—Roscoe Mitchell, from the liner notes to Nonaah (1977)
Roscoe Mitchell faced an unruly crowd in Willisau, Switzerland on August 23, 1976. Thus, as he describes above, he spent the first eight minutes of his performance waging sonic warfare. (Hear for yourself via the two-disc Nessa reissue of this stupefyingly great album.)
Mitchell didn't have to worry about audience flak last night at his belated 70th-birthday concert at Roulette (TONY preview here). If anything, he was fighting the opposite battle: What's a lifelong experimentalist to do once their work has been embraced? How does a maverick become a master?
Mitchell's answer is to never let go of "the tension thing." If it's not coming at you from without, impose it. About an hour into last night's all-improv headlining set—a quartet with Dave Burrell, Henry Grimes and Tani Tabbal, each in excellent, highly engaged form—the music was ready for some punctuation, an exit hatch. Mitchell put down his soprano, adjusted his alto strap, brought the horn to his mouth and the vortex opened: a death-ray of circular-breathed WIND, noise, lava, light, pick your elemental metaphor, his face and neck bubbling as though in a horror-movie mutation scene.
The other players flurried around this writhing column, this straight-out-into infinity blast, and the whole room was fixed, right there. Who knows how long he kept it up? Was it two, three, five minutes? Far less? More? I have no idea. But I was gripped, and judging by the ovation that came when Mitchell signaled the final downbeat shortly afterward, so was everyone else. The coup was that he'd summoned the beast, invited the tension thing in. As Jack Black once said, "Sometimes you have to manufacture Inspirado."