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.

Art Ensemble of Chicago: The Third Decade (ECM 1273)

 

Art Ensemble of Chicago
The Third Decade

Lester Bowie trumpet, fluegelhorn
Joseph Jarman reeds, synthesizer, percussion
Roscoe Mitchell reeds, percussion
Malachi Favors Maghostus bass, percussion
Famoudou Don Moye drums, percussion
Recorded June 1984 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Drawn from a wealth of sources and enhanced with the usual assortment of found sounds, The Third Decade is another solid outing from the Art Ensemble of Chicago that would be the group’s last on ECM for another seventeen years. One can always expect an eclectic experience on any AEC joint, and this one doesn’t disappoint.

From the snaking synthesizer lines and various nocturnal rustlings of Joseph Jarman’s “Prayer For Jimbo Kwesi,” which sound like the soundtrack to a home movie version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the freely improvised and maddening (traffic) jam of the title track, there’s bound to be something for everyone. The former, with its subtle horns and nascent bass, is especially fascinating and showcases the AEC’s ability to sustain itself through long, ponderous distances with unwavering interest. “Funky AECO” is just that, though always tempered by the percussive oddities that are the AEC’s trademark, and ever enlivened by inner fire. And speaking of fire, Lester Bowie positively dances on it here, carrying through his playing just the sort of uplift for which he will always be missed. Roscoe Mitchell counters with two mysterious constructions of his own, “Walking In The Moonlight” and “The Bell Piece,” each a link in a chain of good humor and transcendence. Bowie’s “Zero” is a more straight-laced affair and shows the AEC at its crowd-pleasing best.

As AEC efforts go, The Third Decade is relatively reserved and shows us a softer side of this powerful collective. By no means a detriment, it belongs with all the rest as a valuable creative archive.

Art Ensemble of Chicago: Urban Bushmen (ECM 1211/12)

 

 

Art Ensemble of Chicago
Urban Bushmen

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.

Art Ensemble of Chicago: Full Force (ECM 1167)

 

Art Ensemble of Chicago
Full Force

Lester Bowie trumpet
Joseph Jarman reeds, flute, gongs
Roscoe Mitchell reeds, percussion
Malachi Favors Maghostus bass, percussion, melodica, vocal
Famoudou Don Moye sun percussion
Recorded January 1980 at Columbia Recording Studios, New York
Engineer: David Baker
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Full Force begins in cool breath and ends in scalding heat, the inhalation and exhalation of its own mission. As one comes to expect from any AEC outing, tonal colors are on a mission to envelop us. Despite what the title would have you believe, this is an album of staggering subtlety and finesse. That being said, it is also an intense experience. The first such intimations appear early in “Magg Zelma,” which amid a delectable gamut of percussive signatures begins like an iteration of John Zorn’s Cobra—duck calls share the air with gongs, brass, and mysterious whistles—before the muddy bass of Malachi Favors is cross-hatched more regularly by cymbals and winds. Rhythmatist Don Moye keeps us in the loop as our reedmen crack a freedom egg. Big band horns carry us along through tight harmonies in “Care Free,” which lasts all of 51 seconds, prelude to the Mingus tribute “Charlie M.” Here, the mood and melody recall “A Sentimental Journey,” if through raunchier diction. An unhinged bass solo and some swanky sax from Roscoe Mitchell underline its narrative flow. “Old Time Southside Street Dance” christens itself with a bottle of fire. Laced with an incredible alto solo sustained by circular breathing and equally inexhaustible energy, this tune is perfectly programmed as the penultimate catharsis. A string of solos from trumpet, soprano, and bass skid into the finish line by the skin of their teeth.

These vagabond musicians prove their inventiveness at every turn, and nowhere more so than in via the Baroque chamber instruments woven into the prismatic title track. They hurtle forth with all the potential of a tornado compressed into a dot—a sweeping yet brief gesture, a calling out, a fluttering drum, a distorted voice, a bout of laughter, and a resolute twang running its fingernail around the edge of an enormous sonorous quarter.

Now occupying a well-earned place among ECM’s carefully chosen Touchstones series, this may just be the best entry point into the AEC’s fantastic ride.

Art Ensemble of Chicago: Nice Guys (ECM 1126)

 

Art Ensemble of Chicago
Nice Guys

Lester Bowie trumpet, celeste, bass drum
Joseph Jarman reeds, percussion, vocal
Roscoe Mitchell reeds, percussion
Malachi Favors Maghostus bass, percussion, melodica
Famoudou Don Moye drums, percussion, vocal
Recorded May 1978 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago, currently in their fifth decade of activity, ended a five-year studio silence with Nice Guys, their debut for ECM at the pinnacle of the label’s output. As children of Chicago’s groundbreaking Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM)—which also finds Jack DeJohnette, Anthony Braxton, and Wadada Leo Smith on its formidable roster—Ensemble members bring to every project a sound as eclectic as their technology. Theirs is simply positive music-making that is loads of fun and possesses much to admire. Free of dangerous philosophical trappings and illusions of space, it forges through the loose aesthetic of its performance a circle in which any and all listeners feel included.

The group’s noted fondness for “little instruments” adds color at every turn, as in the blown menagerie that is “Folkus,” the sole contribution from drummer Don Moye. Amid accents from parallel dimensions, winds and brass get locked in a cacophonous traffic jam—recalling the opening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend—before falling into shadowy gestures and other cosmic accidents. Out of this, we awaken with Moye’s footsteps as a flock of shawms flies overhead into a tease. Such enigmatic caravans are emblematic of the AEC at their most visceral. Leader and reed-meister Roscoe Mitchell delights with the title track and with “Cyp,” both likeminded forays into breath and time. In the latter, we get the first (and perhaps last) bike horn “solo” in all of jazz, as well as some powerful wails from trumpeter Lester Bowie, who also lures us in with the album’s opener, “Ja.” Here, we start in freefall, finding solid ground beneath our sonic feet as the group slips into a Jamaican free-for-all. Joseph Jarman brings his saxophonic skills to the tripping rhythms of “597-59.” Bassist Malachi Favors, who provides not a few captivating moments, is the bounding foil thereof. Yet it is “Dreaming Of The Master,” Jarman’s nearly 12-minute love letter to Miles Davis, that brings the album to its most emphatic conclusions. With more specific execution, it shows the depth and breadth of the Ensemble at their best. Moye kicks things up a notch or two, paving the way for star turns from Mitchell, so that when the vampy horns return we hear them not as a memory but as an entirely new collective experience. And in the end, this is what the AEC is all about.