Art Ensemble of Chicago
Release date: April 29, 2002
The Art Ensemble of Chicago embodied a world unto itself filled with self-generating ideas, allusions to (if not also illusions of) popular culture, and a whimsy so poetic as to be divinely serious. Their traversal through ECM was sporadic yet legendary, consistent in quality yet varied in execution, intimate yet vastly extroverted. Such dichotomies, however, existed only to be exploded, so that by the time listeners came out the other end of an album’s tunnel, they did so as new creatures. The earliest excursion sampled here is 1979’s Nice Guys, of which “Folkus” combines winged debates, traffic jams, and post-sunset imagery in a twinkling blender of inspiration. The title track is an equally eclectic mix, a mission statement that simultaneously bows to and upends tradition.
Both “Prayer For Jimbo Kwesi” (The Third Decade, 1984) and “Odwalla / Theme” (Urban Bushmen, 1982) show the AOEC’s tendency to finish far from where it began, rendering at one moment an Irish jig and just as resolutely the next a downtown swing. Yet the deepest dives are to be found in Full Force. The 1980 masterpiece gives us “Magg Zelma,” a 20-minute epic that is a set unto itself. From its initial atomic stirrings to the full-blown galaxy it becomes, it’s a downright cosmic act. Everything from childhood lullabies to the dreams they continue to inspire in adulthood is articulated through the bassing of Malachi Favors Maghostus, the drumming of Famoudou Don Moye, and the Reeds of Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell. Add to that molten core the volcanic eruptions of trumpeter Lester Bowie in “Charlie M,” and you have a formula for profound disruption. Here, as often in their work, these mind-melded artists use humor as a means of understanding sonic production and the languages required to build it from phonemes to something with coherence and meaning beyond its utterance.
As it happens, “Charlie M” appeared on Lester Bowie’s “Works” compilation from 1988. Also included there was The Great Pretender, from which “Rios Negroes” is served up here like a confection. The montuno piano of Donald Smith sets up a groove with bassist Fred Williams—fantastically deep, deceptively simple. Bowie’s trumpeting is a sound of force but also kindness. Mitchell’s Nine To Get Ready is another viable satellite. That 1999 leader date’s title track is a brilliant conference of reeds, horns, piano, bass, and drums that elicits revelry of a higher order. Mitchell’s breathless playing is echoed by the ensemble and punctures the lid above with countless stars.
This collection, however, offers only a bird’s-eye view of a collective history. Better to immerse yourself in the fullness of the boxed set from 2018. Once you enter it, you’ll never want to leave.