Recorded in the year prior to his groundbreaking Congliptious but not released until 1975, Old Quartet captures the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble (which would later coalesce into the Art Ensemble of Chicago) on a clear pathway toward the later album's majestic heights. In fact, it leads off with "Old," which closed the other album, and this performance is arguably superior both in its greater expansiveness and in Lester Bowie's incredibly poised trumpet work. That they slightly flub the ending (and joke about it) only adds to the relaxed air of the piece. "Quartet" is in two lengthy parts, and is a loose, somewhat rambling exploration that anticipates the title track from Congliptious less, perhaps, than it does Mitchell's quasi-narrative epic "The Spiritual" from two year later. The amount of freedom already at hand in 1967 is breathtaking, however. The group never meanders aimlessly; each little sound or moment of silence contributes to the flow. Vocal hums, whistles, harmonica tootles, and struck bells share equal footing with the more "traditional" instruments. Early on, Mitchell had realized that "free jazz" didn't only mean screaming at the top of one's lungs; there was room for quiet. The group would mature greatly over the next year, but all the seeds are clearly here. The album ends with a solo performance by Mitchell, augmenting his alto with bells, harmonica, and percussion. It's almost frightening how he's able to seesaw between delicate, music box-like melodies and the most harrowing slabs of sonic assault possible. As of 2002, Old Quartet was available on disc only as part of a wonderful limited-edition five-CD box set, The Art Ensemble 1967/68 on Nessa. While perhaps a small step below Congliptious, it is nonetheless a beautiful album in its own right and one that ranks very high in Roscoe Mitchell's discography.
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AllMusic Review by Brian Olewnick