The Return of the Art Ensemble

Rex  Butters By

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Even before the untimely death of trumpet virtuoso Lester Bowie, the Art Ensemble of Chicago had begun mutating. Joseph Jarman’s withdrawal from the group in ‘93 to concentrate on Buddhist and aikido studies put the band on hiatus. Bowie continued to record prolifically with his Brass Fantasy band, Roscoe Mitchell attended to health concerns and recorded sporadically (including a stunning duet with Matthew Shipp), Famoudou Don Moye worked on side projects, as did Malachi Favors Moghostut, the latter contributing to some major works by Wadada Leo Smith.

When the four reunited to record Coming Home Jamaica for Atlantic in ’99, the resulting collection showed the musicians maintaining their ferocity and playfulness within more tonal contexts than normally associated with their limitless explorations. But then Lester succumbed to liver cancer and it seemed as though that closed the book on these dauntless innovators and their illustrious 30 plus years making music history together.

What a propitious surprise then, to have two recent sessions by AEC configurations available, although both marked by the absence of Lester. A trio of Mitchell, Moye, and Moghostut recorded Tribute to Lester in the meltdown month of September 2001. The lean lineup requires more melodic interplay from Moghostut, who’s got ideas to spare. Mitchell’s use of little instruments (now, percussion cage) blossoms on both cds reclaiming some of the early AEC sound.

Moghostut roams loose and elastic through Mitchell and Moye’s drums and gongs on “Sangredi.” The tempo speeds up and Mitchell roars like a bison on bass sax. “Suite for Lester” opens with Mitchell on a sad soprano with Moghostut bowing and Moye gentle playing mallets on toms. Next, Mitchell on flute and Moghostut play Baroque counterpoint with Malachi phasing out of time. Mitchell picks up the bass sax and they’re straight ahead. “Zero-Alternate Line” flat out swings with Mitchell on tenor, and Moye and Moghostut keeping it old school.

Last heard on the Paris Sessions, Moghostut’s “Tutankamen” gets burnished in a new arrangement. Without Bowie’s fanfare or the theatrics of the original, Mitchell still states the theme on bass sax. Moye’s light brush and cymbal work keeps the beat. Gears shift into high and Mitchell runs it on soprano. “As Clear As the Sun” spins like a dust devil, an intense marathon workout with Mitchell pyrotechnic on sopranino. “He Speaks to Me Often in Dreams,” bookends the set with hand drums and gongs. Given Bowie’s love for early trumpet players, the omission of any New Orleans style funeral song is surprising.

While Jarman set up a dojo in Brooklyn, Leroy Jenkins persuaded him to return to playing. They’ve recorded together, and in January of this year Jarman rejoined the surviving AEC. Their release, The Meeting opens with Rev. Jarman leading the band in a song of praise that quickly reunites him with Mitchell on the front line, both on alto. Whispers and static introduce “It’s the Sign of the Times,” mainly a percussion piece joined late by haunting flute and a soprano/sopranino duet. “Tech Ritter and the Megabytes” serves a slice of sideways funk with Mitchell and Jarman back on altos. “Wind and Drum” features a variety of bells and gongs imitating a wind chime played with a large muffled drum. Bass recorder and flute close the evocative piece.

The title track displays an old fashioned Chicago blowing session with Mitchell on bass sax and Jarman on tenor. Moye and Moghostut churn beneath the twin winds. Except for visits from the flute family, “Amin Bidness” stays in the percussion cage. “Train to Io,” relies on a battery of small drums occasionally augmented by harmonica and soprano

It’s a different stew without the strong flavors contributed by Bowie, but with these chefs in the kitchen it’s still a savory treat.

Tribute to Lester (ECM)

Track Listing: Sangredi; Suite for Lester; Zero-Alternate Line; Tutankamen; As Clear As the Sun; He Speaks to Me Often In Dreams

Personnel: Roscoe Mitchell-alto, tenor, soprano, sopranino, and bass saxophones, flute, whistles, percussion cage (bells, gongs, chimes, drums); Malachi Favors Moghostut-bass, bells, whistles, gongs; Famoudou Don Moye-drums, congas, bongos, council drum, bells, whistles, gongs, chimes.

The Meeting (Pi Recordings)

Track Listing: Hail We Now Sing Joy; It’s the Sign of the Times; Tech Ritter and the Megabytes; Wind and Drum; The Meeting; Amin Bidness; The Train to Io.

Personnel: Roscoe Mitchell-piccolo, flute, bass and great bass recorders, sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor and bass saxophones, percussion cage; Malachi Favors Moghostut- bass, percussion; Don Moye-drums, African drums, congas, bongos; Joseph Jarman-wooden flutes, c-flute, Eb flute, Bb sopranino, alto and tenor saxophones, percussion, wooden stand drum, bells, gongs, table vibraphone, and whistles.


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