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Out of Chicago: Maghostut Trio, Roscoe Mitchell Trio, Hamid Drake

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Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) started as an outgrowth of pianist/clarinetist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams' Experimental Band in the mid 1960s. Back then few domestic labels were willing to take a chance on this sparse, tense variant of free jazz, with its radical instrumental combinations. Chicago blues and traditional jazz imprint Delmark and the small Nessa label (then based in Madison, Wisconsin) were ready and willing, but their distribution was then minimal outside the Midwest.

By contrast, when Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors left the States for France in 1969, initiating the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC), they received a warm welcome. Other AACM figures like Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith and Steve McCall followed suit, aware of the AEC's reception.

French and other European labels jumped at the chance to record the AACM—BYG, America, Galloway, Polydor/Intercord, MPS, Pathé and Decca all offered recording dates and contracts to the Chicagoans in 1969-1970. Upon their return to the US, of course, it wasn't long before AACM artists were picked up by larger record companies stateside. Atlantic recorded the AEC and Arista offered Braxton carte blanche and also recorded Abrams.

Now, over 35 years after the first Paris recordings, another French record company, Rogue Art, is giving recent and veteran AACM artists a chance to explore all facets of their work. In 2005, the label made its way onto the scene, subtly but with style, via three austerely packaged discs—Chicago drummer Hamid Drake's first album as a leader, Bindu (the third disc reviewed here), and one each by the Roscoe Mitchell Trio and New York altoist Rob Brown.

With 2006 over halfway to a close, the label has now released a double-disc set of Mitchell's trio music, with drummer Vincent Davis and bassist Harrison Bankhead, and some of the last recordings of Malachi Favors Maghostut, in a trio with Davis and reedman Hanah Jon Taylor.

Maghostut Trio
Live At Last
Rogue Art
2006

Live At Last features stalwart AEC bassist Maghostut in a format he is rarely associated with, but which suits him extremely well—the "power trio" of saxophone, bass and drums. One has only to look back to the close of the 1960s, when Favors was in Paris recording for the BYG label, to see prime examples—tenor man Dewey Redman's Tarik, with Favors and Ed Blackwell, is a cornerstone of the subgenre. Favors also cut trio tracks with Archie Shepp and Philly Joe Jones ("Touareg," on Blasé) and with Sunny Murray and tenor man Ken Terroade (the mind-melting "Real," on Sunshine) during his stay in Paris.

With Tarik somewhere in the background, the trio starts off in a lilting Afro-Latin mode with "Talkin' To You," Taylor's brusque tenor chopping angles like Roscoe, but with enough new-Newk in his cadences that he's obviously aligned with tradition. Similar to many doublers of the past few generations, Taylor has also developed a flute language wholly independent of his tenor, classically intoned but obliquely non-Western.

Charlie Parker's "Au Privave" is given a husky workout, Davis lighter and more open as Favors provides density and harmonics in a constantly varying array of colors and shapes. Favors' solo here recalls the stubborn propulsion of tunes like "Tutunkamen" while referencing the jaunty cadences of Bird's theme. The phrase "larger than life" may be a cliché, but for sure Favors' playing here is huge.

Dichotomy, specifically that of space/sound, is something commonly associated with AACM music and Live At Last has it in "Maghostut." Yet, where prime tone poems like "People In Sorrow" and "As If It Were The Seasons" are imbued with tension and mass in their delicate sounds, and their wide-open spaces frighteningly claustrophobic, it appears in this case like too much waiting for another's sound, rather than the collective experience of opening up. When Taylor's tenor erupts in gruff, long lines (a la Cliff Jordan), it's almost as though the action the trio was waiting for had arrived. Though Davis might be heavy-handed in this context, his rhythm-sound approach is as powerful as any, and his cyclical rendering of agitated sound-shards works well in propelling the music forward.

The only aesthetic dud occurs when Taylor employs keyboards, which disrupt the organic, acoustic flow of the music and aren't applied in as broad a canvas as AACM music requires. As far as it may seem from the Art Ensemble tradition, where this group excels is in wide-open blowing and funky free-bop (check the raw skronk and loping earthiness of "My Babe.") But looking at Maghostut's pedigree, such a form is validly "Ancient to the Future," as the AEC definition has it.

Roscoe Mitchell Trio
No Side Effects
Rogue Art
2006

Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman were (and are) two opposite poles on the AEC's front line—Mitchell is characterized by a certain cerebralness that is the antithesis of Jarman's ecstatic, gruff yawp. Certainly, Mitchell tunes like "Nonaah" are imbued with dry specificity as he states and elaborates on thematic fragments, their repetition and intense abstraction derived from Coltrane but playing out almost like post-minimal process music.

Mitchell's groups outside of the AEC have, naturally, adhered to his "draw a straight line and follow it" aesthetic, and though they are ostensibly playing Mitchell's music, his groups regularly point to a collective cooperation wholly part of the creative-music spirit. This new trio employs Vincent Davis and bassist/cellist Harrison Bankhead for a set of pieces that reflect the cerebral and the visceral as equally as a prime Mitchell alto solo, yet a solo that would not function without a trinity.

Held tones and silences have long been a hallmark of Mitchell's music as much as gut-wrenching density, and No Side Effects starts off with what made the AACM so sonically different and special in the late 1960s. "Poem" recalls Levels and Degrees-era Richard Abrams or the opening phrases of Braxton's Silence, a tautly delicate vibrato moving through tone-rows alongside Bankhead's arco and Davis' distant, gauzy cymbal work. As AACM-music moved into areas akin to Henry Threadgill's game-like pieces, it's valuable to hear sounds explored for what they are rather than for outside purposes.

Not that space cannot be filled—an eminently revolving dialectic such as that of space/sound needs dense flurries and sinewy runs to be defined, and the following "Flash" shows what Mitchell can do with circular breathing. Mitchell's cadences can be lilting or dense, spare things that open up like a Lacy canvas (but from Coltrane, less Monk/Nichols/Taylor) only to allow rhythmic eddies to surge and swell around them ("From Red To Rusk"). Sounds in-themselves, as central as they are to Mitchell's art, do not have to be pure; Mitchell finds the broken harmonica in his soprano, and the Old World classicism in keyed metal tubing.

It's interesting to put the Mitchell trio and the Maghostut Trio side by side, for they share a drummer and instrumentation—yet Mitchell's group is decidedly controlled, an overarching structure carrying the proceedings alongside openness and freedom. Davis' percussion work here is more subtle and, though loose, often placed spatially exactly where it should be. He can produce a thrashing whirlwind of sound, and as Mitchell's flights are imbued with rigor, the very contrast between horn webs and rhythmic sand-traps is an engine driving No Side Effects.

It may not "swing" traditionally, like the power-trio format often calls for (you haven't lived until you've heard cello and bass saxophone joust over Davis' copper mesas), but the circles, arcs and dives this music takes are as direct a path as Bird's immortal lines.

Hamid Drake
Bindu
Rogue Art
2005

Percussionist Hamid Drake isn't exactly a newcomer to the AACM, though by the same token he's not regularly thought of as part of that coterie. Nevertheless, he was an integral part of tenor man Fred Anderson's groups of the late 1970s and early 1980s (and to an extent still is), swinging the Velvet Lounge while also playing in reggae groups and, beginning in the early 1990s, working inter-continentally with German reedman Peter Brötzmann.

Oddly, in all these years of gigging and recording, Bindu is Drake's first as a leader. He's joined here by AACM regulars, reedman Ernest Dawkins and flutist Nicole Mitchell, Chicago altoist Greg Ward, and New Yorkers Daniel Carter and Sabir Mateen.

The opening "Remembering Rituals," with Drake on frame drum in duet with Mitchell, is a staggering exploration of her humming, buzzing birdsong culled from Andean and island motifs, wild bent tones and hushed chatter that might align her with Jeanne Lee as much as James Newton. Drake's unrelenting circular rhythms provide the perfect support for her flights, goading ever so slightly with a turn of phrase, following her soulful excavations wherever they might lead. This might be one of the greatest duets in the history of improvised music, and words can't do justice to what is certainly the high point of Bindu.

The remainder of the disc is without Mitchell, and features a four-reed front line coupled with Drake's kit. "Bindu #2 For Baba Fred Anderson" begins with a measured shout, a brief but urgent head that recalls Clifford Jordan, Frank Strozier and the strength of the Chicago hard bop school, as much as the ensuing collective improvisation affirms new ground. In essence, it's the perfect homage to the leader's longtime mentor.

Drake's frame drum returns on "A Prayer For Bardo, For Baba Mechack Silas" as the grounding for a dark, sinewy piece for clarinets, a lilting Salome dance of wood and skin. Late 1950s Sun Ra appears to be the impetus for "Meeting And Parting," as tabla grounds an Eastern-flavored theme, Carter's declamatory alto fireworks leading into an earthy alto clarinet solo from Mateen, rising in tones both smooth and unkempt from the swaying horn-tabla rhythm, keeping the South Side and South India together.

The jubilance of New Orleans (hometown of the tune's namesake) holds up "Bindu #1 For Ed Blackwell," Drake channeling the full, loose swing and subtle cross-rhythms of Blackwell as altos scream out of the gates, insistent riffing carrying the processional through the alleyways. Bindu is music of history, calling up Chicago's jazz past and future in parallel with creative music's ancient traditions. What could be more aligned with the AACM mission than this?


Tracks and Personnel

Live At Last

Tracks: Talkin' To You; Au Privave; Maghostut; Electric Elephant Dance; Beware Of The Wolf; My Babe.

Personnel: Malachi Favors Maghostut: bass; Hanah Jon Taylor: tenor and soprano saxophones, flute, keyboards; Vincent Davis: percussion.

No Side Effects

Tracks: CD1: Poem; Flash; From Red To Rusk; Broken Pictures; Shake-up; Trio Four; No Side Effects; Frame Three; Shag Bark Hickory; Let's See; Ruddy; Vermillion; When The Wind Blows. CD2: Parched Plain; Shore Line; An Afternoon Walk; Enfold; Frame Two; They Danced; Ride; Here We Go; Rolling; Yellow Night; Sway.

Personnel: Roscoe Mitchell: soprano, alto, tenor and bass saxophones, flute, piccolo, percussion; Harrison Bankhead: bass and cello; Vincent Davis: percussion.

Bindu

Tracks: Remembering Rituals; Bindu #2 For Baba Fred Anderson; A Prayer For the Bardo, For Baba Mechack Silas; Meeting And Parting; Born Upon A Lotus; Bindu #1 For Ed Blackwell; Bindu #1 For Ed Blackwell, From Bindu To Ojas; Do Khyentse's Journey, 139 Years and More.

Personnel: Hamid Drake: drums, frame drums, tabla, voice; Nicole Mitchell: flute (1); Ernest Dawkins: tenor and alto saxophones, percussion; Daniel Carter: tenor and alto saxophones, clarinet; Sabir Mateen: tenor and alto saxophones, alto and bass clarinet, voice; Greg Ward: alto saxophone and clarinet.


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