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The average jazz listener's evolution into jazz-fan-dom might start in New York with Charlie Parker and Ellington, then fly across country to Los Angeles for Birth of the Cool and Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan, sticking with the major label offerings based on the two coasts. Chicago (or Madison, Wisconsin today) can slip under the radar of less devoted music fans.
Which is a shame, because the Art Ensemble of Chicago is an essential experience.
Trumpeter Lester Bowie of the AEC passed away in 1999, leaving a void; but Pi Recordings has brought the remaining members of the band back together again for The Meeting, with multiple reedman Joseph Jarman – who hadn't played with the band since '93 – back in the fold.
The Meeting eschews the covers of pop standards the band has done in the past. It offers a reed and percussion fest full of serenity, spirituality and shimmering harmonics, with dozens of time-stretching percussion modes and a score of ethereal and otherworldly reed sounds from Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman. Perhaps the word "otherworldly" is inaccurate here, though. The sounds the reeds make are nothing if not of this world, as organic and natural as wind whistling through the twists and turns of deep canyons, or whispering through the canopies of tall trees.
The Roscoe Mitchell-penned title tune is a garrulous, hard-driving piece; and the opener, Jarman's "Hail We Now Sing Joy," with vocals by Mr. Jarman, is joyous and serene, in a beautifully melodic, up-tempo way, that reflects Joseph's studies in Buddhism. Mitchell's "Tech Ritter and the Megabytes" marries the Art Ensemble's organic grace with in-the-groove hip hop rhythms. But the highlight is the near nineteen minute "It's the Sign of the Times," full of wind chime perucussion, contrasting textures and metal collages, with each member of the band taking a solo followed by an ensemble close.