Roscoe Mitchell has long been one of the more imperturbable voices on the avant-jazz scene, providing a impassive counterpoint within the often tumultuous Art Ensemble of Chicago and reasserting, in his solo work, the role of the composer in what is traditionally considered an improvisational form.
Although quite short — clocking in at just over 50 minutes — the first set of the band’s two-night engagement was densely packed with information and innovation. For the most part, the octet refrained from extensive soloing, concentrating instead on tightly woven collective playing that folded orchestral elements into a thick mesh of percussive hard bop.
The elegantly attired Mitchell moved gingerly into the opening number, a long dissertation based on the title track of Note Factory’s recent “Nine to Get Ready” album. He opened by sparring with Hugh Ragin, peppering the trumpeter’s long, legato lines with spry, fluid alto bursts. Several minutes later, Mitchell switched to flute, and he and Ragin switched roles — which wasn’t altogether successful, since Ragin, while vigorous, is not a particularly graceful player.
Individual performances didn’t seem to be the point of Note Factory, however. Mitchell’s group — short one reedman from the nonet that recorded “Nine to Get Ready” — employs a rather unique lineup, doubling up on piano, bass and percussion. At times, the kindred instrumentalists mirrored each other — pianists Matthew Shipp and Craig Teborn were particularly impressive in their unison work — and at times, they played contrasting roles.
Even though the performance was, to a large degree, scripted (sheet music stands were arrayed around the stage), a feeling of spontaneity pervaded the set. Credit Mitchell for composing mercurial pieces that display both intensity and humanity — and for displaying more sides to his own musical personality in one set than most musicians manage in a decade.