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Art Ensemble of Chicago: After Lester Bowie

Clifford Allen By

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After Lester Bowie, renowned trumpeter and regular Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) member (daresay frontman) passed away in 1999, there was some question as to what the fate of the group would be. Of course, many lesser groups have folded with fewer catalysts than the death of a major contributor. But continue the group did, as a trio composed of Roscoe Mitchell, reeds and percussion; Malachi Favors Maghoustut, bass and percussion; and Don Moye, percussion. Now, as of The Meeting, the AEC has welcomed saxophonist Joseph Jarman back into the fold and the group is soldiering on as a quartet. The Art Ensemble is now in its 35th year, and sad as the loss of Bowie may be, the group may be a unit at its most “crack” in quite some time.


Art Ensemble of Chicago
Tribute to Lester
ECM
2003

Tribute to Lester captures the AEC in its brief foray as a trio, and is one of the finest albums from the group since its heyday in the early '70s. For the most part, the group avoids the sometimes-hokey historicizing numbers (questionable bop melodies and funky blues ditties) and the meandering jams that the quintet often turned out in later years. Here, we almost have the precision of the early AEC, as heard on such albums as Bowie's Numbers 1 & 2 (Nessa, 1968), also a trio disc, cut when the group hadn't yet formulated its signature sound and was onto something entirely new.

The moody sparseness of small percussion instruments and found sounds, a foggy stew out of which occasionally rise deep bass and piercing reed streams, is by now a certified mode of working in free jazz, but to hear it done by those who did it first – and done with both old-shoe perfection and the “throw sh*t at the wall to see if it sticks” youthful experimentalism of early AEC – is a wonder to behold indeed. The final two tracks, collective improvisations by the trio entitled "As Clear as the Sun" and "He Speaks to Me Often in Dreams," are perfect examples of this aspect of the group. There are also the usual funky African-tinged percussion pieces (Moye's "Sangaredi", which eats its own tail after Mitchell's bass sax enters) and boppish tunes ("Zero"; "Tutankhamun"), but these sound tighter and more lively than similar excursions of the past 20-odd years.


Art Ensemble of Chicago
The Meeting
Pi
2003

In league with the ECM date, and following Jarman's return, The Meeting is another return to form for the AEC. The centerpiece of the album is Favors' "It's the Sign of the Times," a sparse, moody piece fit for the group's annals. Though billed on the back of the CD as a succession of solo fragments, it actually begins with unaccompanied percussion, gradually adding reeds and bass. The most haunting (and perhaps telling) moment of the piece occurs towards the end, when Jarman blows into an inverted saxophone to produce trumpet-like growls and slurs in homage to the departed Bowie. For it seems that, though eclecticism is a sure hallmark, the group's strength definitely lies in the Afro-Asian tone poems that have so often signified AACM music, of which there are a fair number of examples here.

Of course, there are deviations from this formula: Mitchell contributes a tight, post-Ornette barnstormer in the title tune, but his "Tech Ritter and the Megabytes," though warmly off-kilter is nevertheless a lackluster number that lessens the album's momentum a bit. So too the first track, an unfortunate combination of bop melody and Jarman's off-key devotional lyrics. However, these are minor quibbles on what is generally a solid album of "Great Black Music."

Sometimes the trauma of loss can make people more close-knit than ever before; this is certainly true in familial situations, so why not a regularly-working jazz group? It seems that, with the passing of Lester Bowie, the Art Ensemble of Chicago has re-evaluated its direction as a group, and despite a few missteps, they have come out sounding leaner and stronger than they have in years.


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