Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Heavy Cats

The Art Ensemble of Chicago

By Jon Garelick

MARCH 1, 1999:  Let me tell you something: in the '70s and early '80s, the Art Ensemble of Chicago were it. Rock had jazz on the run and the mainstream was in disarray. The Art Ensemble, who had emerged from Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, were a quartet originally formed in 1967 who moved to Paris in 1969, picked up a drummer, and returned triumphant to the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival of 1972. Like their fellow travelers of the era (the Revolutionary Ensemble, Air, etc.), the Art Ensemble married free-jazz energy and radical politics to rigorous group arrangements and collective sensitivity. Their live shows were informed by ritual theater. Three members dressed in tribal face paint and costumes. Trumpeter Lester Bowie -- who provided much of the band's humor -- wore a white lab coat (music as science?). Reedman Roscoe Mitchell appeared as "himself," often simply in jeans and dress shirt. The band experimented with dynamics, texture, spontaneous improv-as-composition, the emphatic uses of silence, sound-as-sound, African percussion, sweet blues, high-velocity screech fests. They were conversant in a multitude of instruments (including an array of percussion and "little instruments" that included electric buzzers and bicycle horns), and part of their theatrical presence was embodied in all that gleaming brass lining the front of the stage. They were not only versatile but masterful. ("It's one thing for someone to double on different saxophones, or even saxophones and flutes, but that guy's a really great oboe player!" a friend of mine said of Mitchell after one concert.)

Bap-tizum, from that 1972 Ann Arbor show, is finally back in print, along with the AEC's second album for Atlantic, Fanfare for the Warriors (both reissued by Koch Jazz). What's more, the band (minus saxophonist Joseph Jarman) are back on Atlantic with Coming Home Jamaica, and Lester Bowie also has a new Atlantic album out with his long-running band Brass Fantasy, The Odyssey of Funk & Popular Music.

Bap-tizum is daunting, but as good a place as any for the uninitiated to start. It begins with some full-on West African-style ensemble percussion, followed by breaks for much random vocalizing and little instrument noise. But soon a blues moan emerges, there are guttural cries and stylized sobbing, there's some spoken-word French, some mystical poetry of liberation ("The sun done got mad; the moon is sad"), and a bit of R&B parody ("You know I love you, baby"). Brass and reeds find consonance in a tuning note (an A?), the vocals fade, the horns hold and build. A lovely ballad melody emerges from the horns, and Malachi Favors strums a two-note pedal tone. Against the bass pedal and the moaning of horns, Mitchell develops one of his one-note-at-a-time cubist sax solos. Eventually, it's just him and Favors. The phrases become longer, more elaborate, like the discovery of speech. As the intertwining bass and sax become more rhythmically agitated, and Favors moves from pizzicato to bow, it's as though the players had, in the midst of discovering how to talk, discovered what to say.

The album is full of such narrative development -- and this was the special joy of the Art Ensemble in concert, when the gods were in their favor. There are triple-time, triple-fortissimo passages; there's Lester Bowie's mix of blats, smears, growls, bugle calls (at one point of ecstasy/anger, he removes the trumpet from his lips and breaks into what I can only call cursing in tongues). And there's the band's traditional closer, the strolling, benedictory "Odwalla."

Bap-tizum is sophisticated in all its parts, but the overall effect is of a continuous narrative arc that describes the emergence from the primordial mud of that open-air festival (crowd noises, including a dog barking, are prominent) to drums, and speech, to disciplined consortium, to communal transcendence.

The Art Ensemble's motto is Great Black Music Ancient to the Future. The truth is, their more serious stabs at R&B and reggae aren't always convincing (this is especially true on Coming Home Jamaica). They trace musical evolution without being didactic. Their disembodied musique concrète, their Afrocentric poetics, work with their more radical compositions as part of a wholly imagined musical world.

I know of no AEC album as sustained as Bap-tizum, despite its rough recording quality. Fanfare for the Warriors also has wonderful moments, plus Muhal Richard Abrams on piano. AEC's ECM albums are recommended for the depth of detail they offer (1979's Nice Guys will always be a personal favorite). The new Coming Home Jamaica is, I'm afraid, a bit wan, despite Mitchell's lament, "Jamaica Farewell." For something almost completely different, check out The Odyssey of Funk & Popular Music, from Bowie and his large-scale Brass Fantasy. They cover, among other things, "The Birth of the Blues," the Spice Girls, the Notorious B.I.G., and Puccini; there's a particularly chilling version of Marilyn Manson's "Beautiful People." Now that's something I'd like to hear live.

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

Music: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics . Search

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . The Boston Phoenix . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch