It's ironic that the longstanding Art Ensemble of Chicago, reduced here to a trio by the passing of trumpeter Lester Bowie, can have such an expansive sound. It's not just that these musicians work with several instruments each, or that these pieces span the range from meditative music to swing to free bop and the wild beyond. I guess decades of combined experience means that everyone knows where to share space and where to blow it up.
The ostensible front man of the group is Roscoe Mitchell, who handles a variety of horns, most memorably the alto and bass saxophones. He's supported by bassist Malachi Favors Moghostut and drummer Famoudou Don Moye, a rhythm section that's thoroughly versed in styles from Africa to New Orleans to Chicago. They hint at a head-solos-head format at times, but mostly the music tends toward free-flowing evolution.
Favors' well-worn piece "Tutankhamun" starts out with a gentle swing, Mitchell reguarly emphasizing the root on bass saxophone and eventually stretching out with a relaxed melody. Next, Favors and Moye each come to the fore with a similarly warm message. Then, as the drums pick up the pace, Mitchell begins to travel outside (on sopranino?) and race along in a most urgent fashion. His relentless cycling, swirling washes of sound recall some of the brightest energy music of the '60s. No stops to overblow or shout, just a trip down the rapids with caution thrown to the wind. And then, seconds before the piece ends, everyone returns to earth to convene for a final shared statement.
As much as anything, that piece typifies this record. The official "Suite For Lester" carries on a low-key, mellow, meditative pace (odd percussion and flute demarcating certain passages) until a couple minutes from the end, when, in a very Lesterian fashion, drama emerges and everyone breaks out in a catchy, swinging groove, landing together in unison. "He Speaks to Me Often in Dreams" floats ethereally along on bells and light drums, moving toward gongs and deeper pitches and into a brooding sense of mystery. It's as free as music can get, without the head rush or high blood pressure that comes from so-called energy music.
Quite honestly, and with reference to everything else this group has done, Tribute To Lester stands at towering heights. You'll miss a lot of the drama, color, and excitement that Lester Bowie brought to the Art Ensemble, but the rest of the group does amazingly well at coming back together, without trying in any way to replace their far-flung companion. I think he would have liked it.