Art Ensemble of Chicago
Lester Bowie trumpet, bass drum, long horn, vocals
Joseph Jarman saxophones, vocals, clarinets, bassoon, flutes, percussion
Roscoe Mitchell saxophones, flute, percussion, clarinet, vocals
Malachi Favors Maghostus bass, percussion, melodica, vocals
Famoudou Don Moye sun percussion, vocals
Recorded May 1980, Amerika Haus München
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
While the breadth of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s palette is certainly astonishing, what distinguishes the group from so many others is not a matter of quantity but of stride. Like its acronym, the heart of the 1980 performance recorded here is a trio of creative shapes: Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, and Roscoe Mitchell are wellsprings of improvisatory energy whose intermingling at times describes an entire album’s worth of material in a passing exchange.
Much of the concert’s first half moves in an uninterrupted chain, of which “Urban Magic” is the summit. With requisite edginess, Bowie contrasts piercing cries and caramel echoes as megaphone-enhanced incantations gnaw at the shadows. These postulations tighten into some sweltering hard bop from Don Moye and Jarman, all the while offset by a mousy squeak toy and Bowie’s raw acrobatics. “Sun Precondition Two” opens another vast suite, this one clocking in just shy of 22 minutes, with an incendiary storm from Moye. It is a fearless moment, springing forth like some giant clock unwinding itself in fast-forward, and will win you over if the journey so far has only ticked a few of your tocks. This then morphs into what I can only describe as a Civil War-era Sephardic carnival ride.
To start us off on the second half, Bowie breaks out a slice of heaven in “New York Is Full Of Lonely People.” Its smooth backing of bass and percussion would be enough to put any beatnik poetry reading to shame. Yet this does little to set the tone for the remainder, which is for the most part contemplative and cerebral. Though the weighty darkness of “Ancestral Meditation” and the snail-crawl of “Uncle,” the music develops like slow, studied breathing.
A glossary of shorter collaborations fills out this hefty package, which contains the most well-rounded portrait of a group at the height of its soothsaying powers. These include the two tinctured “Promenades” and “Peter And Judith.” The latter is at once swanky and mystical in that way only the AEC can be, while the concluding “Odwalla / Theme” shows us a no less powerful straight-laced side of things.
Out of a discography of nearly 50 albums, some of the AEC’s best work can be found on its handful of ECM recordings. An ideal place to start for those who like to jump right into the deep end, this is an affirmational experience that deserves your ears immediately.