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Experimental jazz great Roscoe Mitchell keeps pushing the bar

Roscoe Mitchell is one of the last surviving titans of a pioneering generation of fearlessly experimental jazz musicians. At age 82, this Renaissance man continues to push the envelope in several directions. Mitchell’s resumé as a musician is legendary among international connoisseurs of the avant-garde: he was a founding member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Sound Ensemble, and he’s played on so many other recordings that I can’t even scratch the surface here. Less well-known is Mitchell’s talent as a painter: his latest gallery exhibit, “Keeper of the Code: Paintings 1963-2022” (at Corbett vs. Dempsey through March 11), is his first solo show devoted exclusively to visual art, and its intensely detailed, vividly evocative pieces span his entire musical career. (Go see it at all costs.) At the exhibit’s opening event in January, Mitchell performed on saxophones, percussion, and various toys and devices with his long-running Space Trio (which now features reedist Scott Robinson and vocalist Thomas Buckner) and guest flutist Robert Dick. That group is one of many to which Mitchell has lent his visionary talents and creativity over the years. 

Mitchell even proved himself a polymath during a recent interview: he was painting at his home in Madison while we spoke. “There’s something going on in my life right now—it’s hard for me to keep up,” he said. “It’s like I need two lifetimes to do all I want to do, but I’m just going to go with it. I know it’s insane, but I can’t stop.” Mitchell also discussed his powerful friendship with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, which helped shape his philosophies around improvisation and the evolution of musical relationships. Abrams, who passed away in 2017, led a group called the Experimental Band that Mitchell joined in 1961; that ensemble formed the nucleus of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians at its launch in 1965. Mitchell marveled at how, even after long stretches apart, he and Abrams could always pick up where they’d left off musically. Mitchell has also been collaborating for decades with the members of the trio he’s leading here: percussionist Vincent Davis for 30 years or so and bassist Junius Paul for at least 20. (Mitchell doesn’t have a head for those numbers—and I feel that—so I’m relying on what his partner said in the background of the call.)

That trio’s Promontory set will combine Mitchell’s composed pieces with improvisation—not least because the music he writes leaves room for spontaneity. “I’m not going to try and do the same thing over and over again,” Mitchell said. “I fare better when I reach around to what’s floating around the night I am playing, and that is always changing—every minute is different.” Whether you’re a longtime fan or seeing the trio in action for the first time, you’re in for a cosmic voyage into the outer regions, grounded by the sort of solid foundation that sustains all the best relationships, musical and otherwise.

Ojai Music Festival 2017: The Trio, Sunday
Roscoe Mitchell performing at Ojai Music Festival 2017

Roscoe Mitchell Trio Junius Paul & Vincent Davis open. Thu 2/23, 7 PM, the Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park W., $22-$42, all ages

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