It seems like only yesterday when the groundbreaking Art Ensemble of Chicago burst onto the scene as the second wave of free improvisers carrying the torch lighted by Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and others. Their music had infectious qualities that made it impossible to typecast and impossible to ignore. Of course, it wasn’t yesterday but the mid-1960s that found the five Chicagoans making their entrance on a world stage. They gained hope for acceptance by inspiring European audiences much more open to innovation and creativity than were their native countrymen
While every member of the original quintet made a decided and unique contribution to the total acoustic effort, Lester Bowie’s was the most pronounced and individualistic. The trumpet player brought humor, joy, and a touch of tangibility to the seemingly oblique sounds 1960s ears were unaccustomed to hearing.
Four decades later, the AEC (an acronym universally recognized by all new music lovers) performs as a trio. With the departure from the group of Joseph Jarman in 1993 and the death of Lester Bowie on November 8, 1999, the band has been pared, but certainly there remains its vibrant sound, original way of integrating rhythmic passages with freeform improvisations, and astounding musicality coaxed from a wealth of divergent instruments.
Percussion is still a standard resource for the AEC. Every member has always displayed abundant talent at driving the sessions with the heartbeat of Africa at the core. On this tribute acknowledging Bowie and his significance, all members of the trio make substantial use of percussion to convey the message that still remains vital and alive after all these years. The opening Moye tune “Sangredi” particularly exemplifies the AEC’s power of percussion.
While the tradition of joyous celebration by the band remains, the poignancy of this album renders heartfelt emotions. Mitchell excels on his composition “Suite for Lester,” where his saxophone and flute passages touch emotional veins. It is followed by a medley of two tunes – the first being Bowie’s recognizable “Zero,” where Mitchell takes the theme line, expands on it, and glides gracefully into his own equally well-known composition “Alternate Line.” One can visualize these brash guys from Chicago traipsing about Europe and developing a fan base that would endure unabated up to the present.
The trio’s refreshed version of Favors’ “Tutankamen” rekindles the fires of the walking lines that grew into abstract angles of inspired improvisation. Mitchell’s solo on bass saxophone is especially telling, and Favors’ solo captures the full dynamic of the piece.
The closing two lengthy selections are joint compositions by the trio. They vividly reflect the interactive intricacies of these players. Mitchell excels in a circular breathing display on soprano, and the band simply clicks with the intensity that has burned inside them since the start. Both pieces are pulsating examples of their authoritative collective improvising.
This recording is not a retrospective. It is a fresh and gratifying look at improvised music in the 21st century as portrayed by seasoned veterans of the avant-garde who were there when it all started. It acknowledges its past but more importantly, it has a keen eye on the future. At the same time, it says goodbye to a member who crystallized the spirit of the band. Whether you are new to the AEC or a lifelong advocate, this tribute will prove to be a rewarding listening experience.