For most jazz fans, the multi-instrumentalist and composer Roscoe Mitchell is best known for his work in the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the influential and dynamic group formed in the late ’60s. The Art Ensemble offered a uniquely broad range of styles—”great black music from the ancient to the future” was their motto—and a rare theatricality; three of the five members dressed in flamboyant robes and painted their faces, and a fourth wore a physician’s lab coat. Mr. Mitchell, on the other hand, appeared in street clothes with a focused, taciturn look that suggested he was about to give a lecture. Yet he played with both precise control and powerful abandon; his compositions and improvising are a cornerstone of the group’s legacy. Apart from the Art Ensemble, he released “Sound” (Delmark, 1966), “Nonaah” (Nessa, 1977) and “ Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancin’ Shoes” (Nessa, 1981), each a landmark in the Chicago school of jazz’s avant garde, which favored an austere meditative sound, a stark contrast to the intense and often dissonant approach found in New York and Europe.
Mr. Mitchell just released a new recording, “Bells for the South Side” (ECM), a two-disc collection that documents a September 2015 concert held during the 50th anniversary celebrations in Chicago for the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective that supports and presents nonmainstream musicians. The concert amounts to a retrospective of Mr. Mitchell’s work; it features several associates who have worked with him since the ’80s.
The recording opens with a sparse but demanding piece, “Spatial Aspects of the Sound,” that is heavier on space than notes, but things pick up with “Prelude to a Rose” and “Dancing in the Canyon,” which are fuller and richer and feature stellar improvisations by percussionist Kikanju Baku, trumpeter Hugh Ragin, percussionist, pianist and trombonist Tyshawn Sorey and pianist Craig Taborn. The music grows increasingly diverse and complex and concludes with “Odwalla,” the hard-bop theme Mr. Mitchell composed for the Art Ensemble that usually closed their shows.
The range of sounds found on the new recording underscores that Mr. Mitchell’s music is equally at home in contemporary classical and jazz circles. His solo and composing style is marked by a sober restraint. In the ’90s, Mr. Mitchell formed bands with new-music stalwarts Pauline Oliveros, Gerald Oshita and Thomas Buckner. His work has also found followers in rock; in 2012, Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel invited Mr. Mitchell to perform at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival.
Mr. Mitchell, who is 76 years old, was born in Chicago and grew up there. He began playing saxophone when he was 12, and he played in a band that included saxophone great Albert Ayler while stationed in Germany during a stint in the Army in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Upon his return to Chicago he began playing in Muhal Richard Abams’s Experimental Band, a group that led to the formation of the AACM. Mr. Mitchell’s career may be following the paths of fellow Experimental Band members Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Threadgill, both of whom are enjoying career renaissances in their 70s. The celebration of the group’s 50th anniversary may have proved to be as much a look forward as a remembrance.
— Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.