Art Ensemble of Chicago: Tribute to Lester (ECM 1808)

Tribute to Lester

Art Ensemble of Chicago
Tribute to Lester

Roscoe Mitchell reeds, flute, percussion
Malachi Favors Maghostus double-bass, percussion
Famoudou Don Moye drums, percussion
Recorded September 2001 at Chicago Recording Company
Engineer: James A. Farber
Mixed by Manfred Eicher and Roscoe Mitchell
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In 1999, jazz lost in Lester Bowie more than one of its great trumpeters; it lost one of its most charismatic voices. Deeply set in the blues yet flushed by affirmation, this celebratory album references the legacy of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s frontman via languages of his surviving cohorts. Yet while the music has a deep history and pins acupuncture points across the body of the AEC’s vital discography, this experience is self-contained. It is neither a swansong nor a requiem, but an entity that has gained wisdom in passing and uses that wisdom to make most of the here and now. The moment matters.

Although of course Bowie’s charismatic trumpeting is sorely missed, revelations abound in hearing the AEC as a trio. Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors, and Don Moye each foment an entrancing sort of cacophony, building unrepeatable chemistry from base elements. Indeed, Moye’s “Sangaredi,” with its guttural reed work and driving percussive force, is a ritual all its own—a mode of summoning born through loss. That said, to call this a catharsis would be a gross reduction of what’s going on. It is instead a call to spirit, an invocation and teasing of the sutures that keep souls communicating across celestial phases, of which life and death are but two of infinitely more. Overlapping gongs hold us close to that resonant bosom of the cosmos, bow their heads in prayer, and open onto the brief vista of “Suite for Lester.” Its composer’s soprano saxophone blusters through a maze of footsteps, each a gift to which these three wise men give unconditional attention. A switch to flute cuts a swath of sunlight across the darkness. The feeling of hope, by way of classical reference, shines a beacon not of high art but of clarity in the void, not pure but speaking of purity.

In the wake of this rumbling bop, “Zero/Alternate Line” pairs respective tunes by Bowie and Mitchell. The effect is evolutionary, the feeling at once mathematical and diagrammatic. Mitchell’s improvisatory turns flow into the gaps Bowie has left behind like molten titanium into a ring mold. Imperfections become mission statements within a fierce optimism. A solo from Favors against Moye’s cymbal backdrop lends sanctity to the urban pall and gives name to the art of exchange. Moye then takes up the call in monologue, throwing all manner of sprigs onto the water to see what sinks (answer: none of it). Mitchell walks the very line he draws as he goes, touching flame to torch at every turn. Favors counters with “Tutankhamun.” Here bass saxophone gouges out the tiles and makes music of what lies under the floorboards, while a costume change to soprano gives the light a broader spectrum. The rhythm work is straightforward and holds Mitchell to a virtuosic standard he surpasses with gusto. This is the height of the spirit, spoken from the depths of the soul.

The album closes with two freely improvised pieces. The color tracings that open “As Clear as the Sun” betray nothing of the display about to ensue as Mitchell flutters on his soprano like a moth trapped in a street light designed by Evan Parker. It is as if the pick of the previous track has tapped a wellspring of technological exactitude. The shawm-like tone of Mitchell’s playing only serves to distance the music in time. After these powerful 13 minutes of thick description, “He Speaks to Me Often in Dreams” implies transcendence in a characteristically down-to-earth style. Consisting mostly of percussion, with a few breaths expelled for good measure, it pulls the group into its origins, where sound and space pass through one another and back again. From ambient solitude to whiffs of village life, earthen solitude to dream-like contacts, the prophecy proves itself alive and well.

Bowie once said, “We’re just beginning to learn the importance of jazz in our society.” Listening back to his music, and to this made in his honor, it’s clear that his statement still applies. We might also extend his notion to encompass the world, to the universe, to the blush of all existence which dances across the skin of some unknowable divine. Whatever cosmologies we may bring to his altar, we can be sure his electricity still dances somewhere.

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