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Lester Bowie: American Gumbo

Jim Santella By

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This two-disc package from 32 Jazz includes two fine albums from Muse Records: Fast Last! and Rope-A-Dope, which were recorded in 1974 and ’75 respectively. Both albums reflect the style of an emerging leader, a founding member of the AACM & Art Ensemble of Chicago, and a champion of the jazz avant-garde. Specific elements such as fingers running across the piano’s inside strings, scratchy bowed bass melodies, horn squeals and random squawks reflect the changes brought about in the name of creativity. It’s often stated that yesterday’s avant-garde is today’s mainstream; yet, Bowie’s thirty-year-old creations continue to stand at the fringes of jazz.

Acknowledging a deep respect for "the beat" or "the groove" in his work, Bowie has always provided something pleasant and familiar along with the unexpected. The albums contain some noise, such as on Julius Hemphill’s "Banana Whistle." Ornette Coleman’s dirge-like "Lonely Woman" bogs down and weighs heavily as a ballad sometimes can. Bowie’s up-tempo "Fast Last" with Hemphill’s "C" affords each member of the small ensemble an opportunity to engage in individual creative improvisation. Both "Fast Last" and "Mirage" contain reflections of a late 1950s Miles Davis along with lighthearted melodic lines that resemble Gershwin’s "An American In Paris." The title "F Troop Rides Again" has all the earmarks of a comedy number, but that’s not the case here. The trumpeter works alone with three drummers to create a serene offering akin to the cavalry’s bugle calls with crisp snare drum military cadence. "The St. Louis Blues" is performed with its easy-to-recognize-anywhere melody, but Bowie has his ensemble add percussion hijinks. "Hello Dolly" is performed with nothing more than John Hicks’ straight-laced piano accompaniment alongside Bowie’s unique half-valve voice. "Rope-A-Dope" paints the dramatic portrait of a Muhammad Ali championship bout. The rhythm section members, headed up by Don Moye’s conga drums, move mechanically back and forth, back and forth, waiting for the right moment. Periodically, trumpet and trombone push the opponent up against the ropes in anguish. Near the end, you can hear the loser saying, "I quit!" Fortunately, Lester Bowie hasn’t quit. His Odyssey Of Funk & Popular Music, Volume 2 is expected to be available later this year.


Title: American Gumbo | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Jazz Anthology

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