Release date: September 19, 1988
Trumpeter Lester Bowie, gone too soon but never forgotten, made his mark both within and beyond the borders of ECM, but we can be thankful that some of his most indelible impressions were archived on the German record label by one producer—Manfred Eicher—who understood his significance in jazz history in ways few others could. Given that Bowie was a cofounder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, it only makes sense that this “Works” compilation dedicated to him should open with “Charlie M” from the band’s 1980 classic, Full Force. In that context, Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell (reeds), Malachi Favors Maghostus (bass), and Famoudou Don Moye (drums and percussion) were more than fellow musicians; they were brothers at the deepest level. Biting into this slice of old school pie, Bowie brings his bluesy incisors into contact. Maghostus is also memorable, foregrounded in the mix and driving us asymptotically toward hope.
As expressive as he was among extended family, he was also given creative freedom by ECM to develop an impactful body of solo work. In 1981, his first foray into that self-directed realm, The Great Pretender, yields the enigmatic “Rose Drop.” Alongside Donald Smith on celesta, Fred Williams on bass, and Phillip Wilson on drums, Bowie looses barely a breath yet spins an organic segue into “B Funk” (Avant Pop, 1986). This one features his Brass Fantasy ensemble in a dissonant take on “We Want the Funk.” Playful vocalizations and even more playful spirit, combined with Bob Stewart’s distorted tuba and Bowie’s mounting wail, make it one brilliant cover. “When The Spirit Returns” (I Only Have Eyes For You, 1985) is more in that vein, building from a slow march into big band blowout.
But the most personal foray into his creative chambers is still to be found on All The Magic! The music of that 1983 album is worthy of the title, as it casts a consummate spell through barest of materials. Whether having a conversation with the self in “Deb Deb’s Face” or injecting a dose of whimsy via “Monkey Waltz,” unleashing a distorted call to arms in “Fradulent Fanfare” or crying for the season with church bells in the background of “Almost Christmas,” he reveals sides to his instrument that few have dared explore. Concluding the first half of that same session, as well as this collection so graciously sampling it, is “Let The Good Times Roll,” a dip into Dixieland waters featuring the operatic stylings of vocalists David Peaston and Fontella Bass in a setting of epic and joyful proportions.
Close your eyes and point to anywhere in Bowie’s discography, and you’ll find him to be a light in the darkness. The trumpet turned from brass to flint in his hands, his breath the spark giving it a voice. And here some of his brightest campfires have been gathered from the blazing trail he left behind.