One look at the lineup for this date on the back of the slipcase is enough to raise the eyebrows of and create anticipation in any avant jazz fan, given that some of these names and their instruments are associated with so many fine recordings that it's difficult to keep track of them all: Roscoe Mitchell playing soprano saxophone exclusively; Evan Parker as his foil on tenor and soprano; a rhythm section of drummers Tani Tabbal and Paul Lytton; bassists Jaribu Shahid and Barry Guy; Craig Taborn on piano; a string trio that includes Philipp Wachsmann, Nils Bultmann, and Marcio Mattos; flutist Neil Metcalfe; Anders Svanoe on alto and baritone saxophones; Corey Wilkes on trumpet and flügelhorn; and John Rangecroft on clarinet. The players come from both the United States and the U.K., and are comprised (mainly) of members from Mitchell's Note Factory and Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. Collectively they are known here as the Transatlantic Art Ensemble. The connotation with Mitchell's legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago is no mistake. Recorded live in 2004 in Munich -- ECM's home base -- Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 is divided into nine sections, and offered 25 years after the Art Ensemble recorded here for ECM. The pieces begin quietly and deliberately, feeling more like contemporary classical music; space is at a premium as strings, piano, and the roll of a timpani usher in the proceedings. There's no fire breathing here; it's all of a piece, restrained yet relaxed, full of mystery and deliberation yet wandering toward something over the introduction's 13 and a half minutes. Abstraction begins in earnest during the short second section when the drummers begin improvising together in near counterpoint precision, but the feel is more complementary.
The entire band enters in short -- slightly swinging, even -- melody lines that get punctuated by brief silences and announcements of a tension between themselves and the strings in the third section where, eventually, the fire breathing does begin in earnest. It's so wonderfully drawn out of each player and the ensemble moves as one toward the ledge, the musicians inching each other on and toward something far grander over its boundary. Tensions are collected, parceled, and released as individual players engage one another and Taborn grounds them all with his percussive chord voicings in a section over 18 minutes in length. The shorter interludes, of four and five minutes, serve to create new phases, and while illustrating the same general direction, seduce the listener into Mitchell's underground well of sound and inquiry. The rest of this "scored" improvisational work follows suit. In another pair of long sections -- "Movement VII" and "Movement VIII," respectively -- instruments such as piano and violin, baritone saxophone and double bass, or soprano and clarinet are offered opportunities to engage one another in elongated lines and sequences, giving the rest of the band definite points of entry in the work. The final piece, at just under six minutes, begins appropriately enough with strings, solo and in harmonically assonant and dissonant dialogue. Taborn and Tabbal enter sparely just before the entire work whispers toward mystery at its nadir. And when it's done, it feels finished but somehow not truly ended, as if there is an open space of indeterminate length to recall the experience of what one has just heard and carve a place for it in the space of each listener's chamber of sound and echo, endlessly falling, a phrase, a note, and engagement at a time into silence.