Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy: Avant Pop (ECM 1326)

 

Lester Bowie´s Brass Fantasy
Avant Pop

Lester Bowie trumpet
Stanton Davis trumpet
Malachi Thompson trumpet
Rasul Siddik trumpet
Steve Turre trombone
Frank Lacy trombone
Vincent Chancey French horn
Bob Stewart tuba
Phillip Wilson drums
Recorded March 1986, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy is all about joy. The joy of making music, the joy of turning the popular inside out, revealing the beating heart of that which makes sound accessible. In this respect, the title of Avant Pop might as well mark the genre that this most talented trumpeter forged. And the sound? Aromatic, clean as a whistle, and affirmative. What with the heaping portions of brass sandwiched between Bob Stewart’s gorgeous tuba bass lines and Phillip Wilson’s otherworldly percussive colors, something’s bound to move you, sparking a dormant memory into animation.

Bowie pulls out all the stops on this album, blatting with ease through the opening waves of “The Emperor” and on into a lyrical rendition of “Saving All My Love For You.” The latter’s big band sound hits you right in the gut of your denial. Like a swing you never want to jump out of, it builds to a swooning climax. The vocal colors of “B Funk” add another spice to the stew and leave us spinning on “Blueberry Hill.” Stewart digs deep here and follows Bowie wherever he leads. Things get a little swanky in “Crazy,” while homage is the name of the game in “Macho (Dedicated To Machito),” which spins from a prayerful bell an infectious montuno vamp that would have made the Afro-Cuban jazz master proud. This is followed by “No Shit,” which besides having the honor of boasting the only curse word in the ECM lexicon (?) also gives us the album’s catchiest motif—a cross between “Pride and Joy” and a distorted C jam blues. “Oh What A Night” provides an irresistible and punchy conclusion.

Never has Bowie sounded so tonally corpulent, a feat only underlined by the superb engineering. And while he may blow shooting stars across a universe of familiar tunes, in this context we cannot help but hear them anew. The album is indeed a fantasy, not only in its backward glance but also in its very revival of popular song, which speaks to the sometimes-magical escapism of the form. Rather than enhance it, Bowie seems intent on bringing it down to earth in a crash landing of goodness. The breadth of idioms represented on Avant Pop is inspiring and barely scratches the surface of his legacy of wit and good cheer.

As epic as it is intimate, this is a sonic child that could only have been nurtured by a mind like his.

Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy: I Only Have Eyes For You (ECM 1296)

 

Lester Bowie´s Brass Fantasy
I Only Have Eyes For You

Lester Bowie trumpet
Stanton Davis trumpet, fluegelhorn
Malachi Thompson trumpet
Bruce Purse trumpet
Craig Harris trombone
Steve Turre trombone
Vincent Chancey French horn
Bob Stewart tuba
Phillip Wilson drums
Recorded February 1985 at Rawlston Recording Studios, Brooklyn, New York
Engineer: Akili Walker
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Lester Bowie

This debut album from Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy is still the outfit’s best. The moment those doo-wop horns saunter in for the title cut, you know you’ve come home. Bowie not only enthralls us with his fortitude, but manages to do so while keeping alive in his muted cone the dying flame of a bygone era. But here is where Bowie & Co. break from the formula that would shade later Brass Fantasy efforts: from hereon out we get nothing but originals. Trumpeter Bruce Purse’s “Think” is the densest of these and is anchored by Bob Stewart’s wonderful tuba lines. Stewart also leaves his mark with “Nonet,” a creeping leviathan of sound that surfaces with a vivacious sense of coalescence. Brother in arms Malachi Thompson offers his “Lament,” which begins in the darkest recesses of the assembled instruments, gurgling like didgeridoos behind Bowie’s freshly gilded warbling. Bowie himself rounds out the set with two tunes. “Coming Back, Jamaica” is a respectful taste of the islands, grafted by chanting voices and supernatural lines, not to mention a tuba solo to end all tuba solos. “When The Spirit Returns,” on the other hand, is a trudge and a half, but one that shoulders a burden of hope which it offers to us with mounting selflessness.

Bowie’s Brass Fantasy is one of the more compelling jazz configurations of the 1980s and holds its rightful place in ECM’s hallowed halls. Nowhere better to start than here.

Lester Bowie: All The Magic! (ECM 1246/47)

Lester Bowie
All The Magic!

Lester Bowie trumpet
Ari Brown tenor and soprano saxophones
Art Matthews piano
Fred Williams bass
Phillip Wilson drums
Fontella Bass vocals
David Peaston vocals
Recorded June 1982, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“This is for you, Louie.”

For his second ECM album as leader, the late trumpeter and all-around wise guy Lester Bowie presented us with this intriguing twofer. The A session is dominated by two longer cuts. The first, “For Louie,” is an ode to Satchmo to end all odes. Clear and present trumpeting wails and jackknifes against the fluttering keys of Art Matthews (who also enlivens the runaround of Bowie’s “Spacehead”) as soul man Ari Brown finger-paints with his charcoal tenor. As if that weren’t enough to whet your appetite, vocalists Fontella Bass, Bowie’s wife and co-writer of the hit “Rescue Me,” and her younger brother David Peaston lay on the gospel. Incidentally, the b-side to “Rescue Me” was a song called “Soul of the Man,” and this is exactly what we hear. The school band feel of Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts” then haunts us only briefly before plunging us into the album’s second major opus. The “Trans Traditional Suite” is a sultry nod to transience in a rolling tide of brushed drums and cascading piano. This opens halfway through into a free-for-all of convoluted joy, as if to flesh out these songs’ essential message to embody in sound what it claims through word. Brown’s tenor solo speaks loudest here. The band caps things off with a legato version of “Let The Good Times Roll.” Bowie spits fire, fluttering and soaring by turns alongside that same heady tenor. Bass and Peaston reappear, matching Bowie’s penchant for humor tit for tat.

The B session, though bound by the same spirit, couldn’t be more different in execution from its counterpart. Here we find Bowie in a 35-minute solo excursion that reveals his artistry in the flesh. From the flying harmonies of the two Organic Echoes (for which he plays into an open piano) and the tongue-in-cheek ceremony of “Dunce Dance,” and on to the experimental whimsy of “Thirsty?” (in which he blows as if through a drinking straw) and “Miles Davis Meets Donald Duck” (exactly what it sounds like), Bowie abides by a richness of color that is uniquely his own. Other highlights include the church bell sweep of “Almost Christmas” and the affectionate “Deb Deb’s Face.”

This album is so rich that you may not feel a need to listen to it often, but when there’s room for it, it’s sure to hit the spot and then some.

Lester Bowie: The Great Pretender (ECM 1209)

 

Lester Bowie
The Great Pretender

Lester Bowie trumpet
Hamiet Bluiett baritone saxophone
Donald Smith piano, organ
Fred Williams basses
Phillip Wilson drums
Fontella Bass vocal
David Peaston vocal
Recorded June 1981 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The title cut on Lester Bowie’s The Great Pretender comes of course from The Platters, the influential vocal group whose other hits, “Only You” and “The Magic Touch,” catapulted the group’s success through the rock n’ roll charts of the 1950s. Bowie’s investment in popular music’s connections to jazz set him a world apart. Second perhaps only to 1978’s The 5th Power, his debut for ECM as leader works wonders with its namesake. Where the original opens with quiet fortitude, this massive 17-minute rendition does so even more, the pianism of Donald Smith breathing a soulful mist upon a landscape that sometimes swirls with unanticipated gales. Fontella Bass and David Peaston are our doo-wop backups, their presence making the music that much more phenomenal. From Hamiet Bluiette’s heady baritone solo to the swampy rhythm section, Bowie has plenty of gum to chew in his horn.

No Bowie experience is complete without an inoculation of whimsy, and this we get in his rendition of “It’s Howdy Doody Time.” Phillip Wilson’s bright snare and Bowie’s fluttering elaborations share the air with Smith’s long slides. These morph into an evocative Fender Rhodes in “When The Doom (Moon) Comes Over The Mountain,” a wild chase backed by Fred Williams’s popping electric bass and the late-night sprawl of Bowie’s blatting. What begins as an overused Latin riff in “Rio Negroes” quickly transforms into a foray of architectural proportions secured by solid improvisational beams. Rich bass lines and rim-work carry us out in style. “Rose Drop” again looks through a glass playfully, only this time with a deeper drop. The tinkling of toy piano sparkles in Bowie’s waning sunlight, overflowing with half-remembered sentiments, each a photograph pasted in a scrapbook like no other.

Lester Bowie is like the moon. His is a field that waxes and wanes, haunting us with intimations of a distinct face, even as it harbors a dark side that we never get to see, except through the grace of studio technology, which allows us a glimpse the deeper intimations of his craft. We get this most readily in “Oh, How The Ghost Sings,” which from the evocative title to its flawless execution rings with the after-effects of a temple bell, the actual striking of which we never hear, and ends on a protracted, distant wail.

The material on The Great Pretender is all great and lacks a single pretender, and has been deservedly consecrated among ECM’s Touchtones.