The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles (ECM 2630)

AEC Boxed Set

The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles
Recorded 1978-2015

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.

–Joseph Jarman

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”)

AEC Boxed 3D

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)

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.