A Fireside Chat With The Art Ensemble Of Chicago
“ We need a good, old-fashioned revolution somewhere to shake things up. There is not that much cutting edge. Everybody is afraid to take a chance. ”
I once read how Sam Rivers heard Billie Holiday and, listening to the anguish in her voice, wept. Jazz can be just that profound because it is history. But along with history comes the inevitable politics and prejudices. Jazz is not beyond such human frailties, but it can be. As exemplified by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, jazz can be more than individuality, more than self-aggrandizement, and more reflective of the times. Without Lester Bowie, the Art Ensemble didn’t relegate itself to becoming history – it evolved and continues to change history. Now, with the return of Joseph Jarman, the Art Ensemble (unedited and in their own words) is fulfilled and both jazz and history are better for it.
Fred Jung: Was there any doubt that the Art Ensemble would continue after Lester Bowie’s passing?
Malachi Favors: Oh, no, there was no question. The Art Ensemble and the AACM, we all started with that idea that if one can’t make it, we would just continue on. If somebody dies, we just continue on until we can replace him, if we want to replace him. In this case, the promoters seemed to demand a replacement. I think we would have went on with just the trio of Roscoe, Moye, and myself. And we did do that for a while. In fact, we have recordings coming out to that effect.
Roscoe Mitchell: The Art Ensemble is an institution. The way it was always run was that we dealt with whatever was there. You will notice that throughout our history, way back from when we had Phillip Wilson and he left to go with Paul Butterfield. We moved more towards the direction of developing as percussionists before we took on another drummer. Of course, it is what Lester would have wanted anyway.
Joseph Jarman: After Lester’s passing, the voice needed me back. After he made his transition, this year, 2003, ten years after I had left, I had a conversation with the other guys and they sort of convinced me that I should return. That was a worthy thing for them to do for me. I had not been with music and had been missing it because it had been a vital part of my whole life.
Famoudou Don Moye: We were committed to the Art Ensemble in whatever state it is in at the time.
Fred Jung: ECM is releasing the trio session, Tribute to Lester . Where does the recording stand in the epic that is the Art Ensemble?
Roscoe Mitchell: I think it was a good thing because we had to redevelop ourselves. It is different if you’re playing as a trio or quartet because as a quartet, we had harmony with two horns. After that, we didn’t have that. It caused us to be able to step up so that we’re not like piano, bass, and drums or something like that. It made the trio step up to the plate for that. It helped us to develop in that setting. We never have been a group that went out looking for people and certainly, we weren’t going to run out and try to replace Lester. From that standpoint of view, I think it was very important for us.
Famoudou Don Moye: The trio was what that formation represented at the time as the Art Ensemble. So it is not a headcount. It is whatever we say it is. We were committed to a trio, as opposed to how were we going to replace Lester. The trio record is reflective of our commitment to furthering the music of the Art Ensemble in that format. It is always a challenge because the music changes. When it was four people, there wasn’t the second saxophone. When it was three, it was a singular saxophone, so you didn’t have the same kind of voicings. We didn’t rework the music. We just had a different approach to the songs we always play anyway. Thirty-five years, where do we start?
Malachi Favors: We miss Lester now. I do.
Fred Jung: What do you miss most about Lester?
Malachi Favors: His whole general appearance. He was a buddy. He could play. He was just an all around good cat. He stuck with the music when he could have went on and did something else and left the group alone. He formed a band and he did things with Bill Cosby, but he was always there like day one. How can you get over a person like that?
Joseph Jarman: Everything really. We were neighbors. We lived very close together, so I saw him a great deal more than the other members of the ensemble. I miss his sense of humor, his sense of style, and of course, his wonderful music.
Roscoe Mitchell: It is so hard to say. When someone is gone, you think about all these different things. Someone was here and now they’re gone. You can’t replace them. There will never be another Lester Bowie. That part is over and you have to come to grips with it. A lot of times when people are around, a lot of things get taken for granted.
Famoudou Don Moye: I miss the sound of his voice as a human being. The voice of his trumpet is as unique as it is an extension of his personality. We miss his personality more.
Fred Jung: What prompted Joseph Jarman’s return to the Art Ensemble?