The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles
As the peoples of the Earth move into the
21st century, where hi-tech moves them deeper
and deeper into realms of the unknown, visions
of the ancient chime and bell remind us of
the lyrical power that remains at the heart
of mankind’s quest for fulfillment.
If ever there was a boxed edition that needs your attention, it’s The Art Enemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles. If ever there was a boxed set that doesn’t need your attention, it’s also The Art Enemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles, because the music it contains exists on a level so far beyond us that the very universe is already listening to it in infinite regression. What we have in this 21-disc treasure trove is something as metaphysical as it is satisfying in the hands: a legacy made wieldable in crisp lines of typography and cardboard.
ECM Records and the Art Ensemble of Chicago were both founded in 1969, and so it seems inevitable that their kinship should extend beyond numerological coincidence into the realm of audio. In the words of multi-reedist and founding member Roscoe Mitchell, “It has been amazing to have taken this journey together,” and make no mistake: This journey can be savored however one wishes to approach it, inserting life experiences into the music’s nooks and crannies, just as the music leaves its traces in those experiences in return.
The recordings gathered here span from 1978 to 2015, and are accompanied by a 300-page book that contains all of the original album materials along with newly unarchived photographs, paratexts, and essays written specifically for the occasion. In a preface by Manfred Eicher, ECM’s founder and lead producer speaks of his first encounters with this “polystylistic” collective as both sonically and visually unforgettable experiences. Having wanted to record them for some time, it wasn’t until 1978 when, in a six-month flurry of activity, he recorded the AEC’s Nice Guys, Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions, and Wadada Leo Smith’s Divine Love, all of which revolved around the genius of trumpeter Lester Bowie. Vijay Iyer describes in a liner note the “disruptive vocality” of Bowie’s trumpet as “discursive, declamatory, mischievous, and yet welcoming, as though he were somehow speaking to and for everyone.” As such, it marks this collection’s topography with the itinerant precision of a cartographer whose only dream is to show and never tell.
Producer Steve Lake, in a heartfelt tribute of his own to this roving constellation, calls Bowie and Mitchell “two of the most strikingly individual players in creative music of the post-Coltrane era.” To make good on that statement, one could spin this set like a globe and land a finger anywhere. Lake discusses the significance of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and of what began as the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble (with Bowie, reedman Joseph Jarman, and bassist Malachi Favors) in particular to reveal its compositional acuity and vivid individualism. As the first AACM project to sink its teeth into Europe (by that time acquiring percussionist Don Moye), the AEC had a lot to say. As Lake so delectably puts it: “On any given night, a set’s components might include gong-splashed ancestral meditations and go-for-broke collective improvising, throbbing drum choirs, parodic parade marches, fiery post-bop, vertiginous silences, classical paraphrases, prayer meeting invocations, hints of Chicago blues and country blues and old timey folk song, down-home funk and radical urban sound-collage with impatient bike horns and sirens, all underlining the ‘ancient to the future’ claim which mighty bassist Malachi Favors, in a moment of inspiration, had appended to the Great Black Music slogan.” All the while, labels were trying to capture the uncapturable, but it wasn’t until ECM came along that the AEC’s sonic panorama could be set free.
Nice Guys, being the ECM debut of the AEC, is lacquered in legend. A Rolling Stone Guide capsule review describes it as follows: “A Miles Davis tribute, a hint of reggae, percussion labyrinths, formidable saxophone solos and incredibly sensitive group dynamics are some of the ingredients that make Nice Guys essential.” The keywords are “some” and “essential.” The first because the album is a mélange of old influences and new creations alike; the second because no one who appreciates jazz as a living history should be without this watershed record. In Moye’s words, “In the ancient tradition of art and black music, a musical presentation was not just about music. It was about all the different elements of life.” Indeed, what the AEC achieves, whether in the studio or on stage, is nothing short of life itself. As pianist Craig Taborn, heard as part of Mitchell’s Bells for the South Side, likewise says of Nice Guys: “The melodies moved through actual environments that seemed palpable and teeming with life and energy.”
While Nice Guys is certainly a keystone in the AEC’s discography, I cradle it as a compass through some personal favorites. Highest among those is Full Force, a ball of fire and ice wrapped in one engaging package. From the ephemeral to the everlasting, its moods span the gamut of human experience and etch the soul with its contrasts. Without hesitation, I would direct any and all newcomers to this album as a point of initiation. Another immutable entry into this canon is Smith’s Divine Love, which matches the trumpeter’s depth and breadth with a formidable lineup that includes Bowie, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, and bassist Charlie Haden. There is a muted quality to this album—both literally and figuratively—that hints at veils beyond veils to the emotional vibrations beyond them still. It is music as language, turned inward until it binds itself as a book of heartbeats.
A hop and skip bring us to Bowie’s All The Magic!, which blends tributes and the tribute-worthy, culminating in a fascinating solo session that approaches resonance and whimsy with equal sanctity. Peter Kemper characterizes this unusual album as a space in which “[c]areful movements must be made, with small steps forward and a watchful eye to the rear. The investigation of the path being taken appears more important than the goal at the end of the path.” In light of this apt description, and because Bowie is such a primary force, I bow to the dedicatory charisma of the AEC’s Tribute to Lester, which unfurls from every strike of the gong a spirit of undying breath.
Among the Mitchell outings included, I would uphold Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 as a vivid example of what he is capable of in his element. Like a strand of DNA broken and regrown into a widening family, every note births another by grand experimental design. That Mitchell makes it all sound so intuitive is testament to his ability to reign forces as a precondition for liberating them.
The self-titled effort from DeJohnette’s New Directions receives a welcome reissue among these other gems. Featuring guitarist John Abercrombie, drummer Eddie Gomez, and a perennial Bowie, it frames the trumpeter as lyrical griot and takes full advantage of the afforded space. All of this and more funnel into Made In Chicago, in which DeJohnette joins saxophonist Henry Threadgill, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, bassist Larry Gray, and Mitchell. Jack DeJohnette was never part of the AACM proper, but his introduction of Abrams to Mitchell was the first sneeze in a creative avalanche unlike any other. Like old friends turning the same page, this live document rejoices in the very act of rejoicing and yields one of ECM’s most masterful turns in recent memory.
Music is, as Thomas Staudter phrases it, “the human experience in its full glory.” In the hands of the AEC, music means also a dance between the symbiosis of structure and freedom. In absence of said dance, we can make no truth claims about the AEC and its offshoots, for we are nothing more than the wind shaking the boughs of a tree whose fruit is forever ripe.
Tell of the rustling. Speak of horizons. Practice, practice the strength of beautiful telling from one generation to another so that the beautiful does not pass again into oblivion. Tell each other of life’s scenes. What was good shall be. Slow down to enjoy with the help of colors—and discover. See the greenness and hear the droning and transform your spontaneous sighs into a powerful song.
–Peter Handke, “Über die Dörfer” (“On Villages”)
Below is a list of all 18 albums contained in this essential collection, linked to my full review of each. Keep in mind, however, that no matter how many words I and others have spilled in honor of this hallowed assembly and its tandem galaxies, there’s nothing so cosmically rewarding as opening your ears and letting these lightyears of creative spirit flow where they will.
ECM 1126 Art Ensemble of Chicago: Nice Guys (May 1978)
ECM 1167 Art Ensemble of Chicago: Full Force (January 1980)
ECM 1211/12 Art Ensemble of Chicago: Urban Bushmen (May 1980)
ECM 1273 Art Ensemble of Chicago: The Third Decade (June 1984)
ECM 1143 Leo Smith: Divine Love (September 1978)
ECM 1209 Lester Bowie: The Great Pretender (June 1981)
ECM 1246/47 Lester Bowie: All The Magic! (June 1982)
ECM 1296 Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy: I Only Have Eyes for You (February 1985)
ECM 1326 Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy: Avant Pop (March 1986)
ECM 1808 Art Ensemble of Chicago: Tribute to Lester (September 2001)
ECM 1651 Roscoe Mitchell & The Note Factory: Nine To Get Ready (May 1997)
ECM 1872 Transatlantic Art Ensemble/Mitchell: Composition/Improvisation 1, 2 & 3 (September 2004)
ECM 1873 Transatlantic Art Ensemble/Parker: Boustrophedon (September 2004)
ECM 2087 Roscoe Mitchell & The Note Factory: Far Side (March 2007)
ECM 2494/95 Roscoe Mitchell: Bells for the South Side (September 2015)
ECM 1128 Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions (w/Lester Bowie): New Directions (June 1978)
ECM 1157 Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions (w/Lester Bowie): In Europe (June 1979)
ECM 2392 Jack DeJohnette (w/Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill): Made In Chicago (August 2013)