Monday, March 14, 2011

Art Ensemble of Chicago

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“With a mixture of parody and the obtuse, humor and intuition the Art Ensemble of Chicago combined their considerable skills to common cause and emerged as perhaps the most innovative group of the 1970s.”
- Stuart Nicholson, Jazz: The 1980s Resurgence, p. 129.

For a variety of reasons, some to do with preferences, but mostly to do with unawareness, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles, missed much of the Free Jazz movement at its inception.

Perhaps Free Jazz movements might be a better term.

But thanks to a variety of informative sources that have helped to educate us on the subject, it has been great fun to subsequently discover some aspects of this style of Jazz that suit our taste. [“one is never too old to learn something new?”].

One of these discoveries was the Art Ensemble of Chicago, whose music had to be seen as well as heard.

Although AEC did not travel very much during the latter years they were together, I was fortunate to see and to hear the group at the “old” Yoshi’s Jazz and Supper Club in Berkeley, CA in the mid-1990s.

You can get a basic “feel” for their music from viewing the following video tribute to them.

And here are some authoritative descriptions of what’s on offer in the AEC’s approach to Jazz.

“The Art Ensemble, like many other groups and musicians who emerged in this period, was an offshoot of the Chicago musicians' cooperative known as the Association for the Advancement of Crea­tive Musicians. Muhal Richard Abrams, who founded the AACM in 1965 and served as a mentor to a generation of avant-gardists, was a talented pianist and composer whose best recordings, among them Levels and Degrees of Light (Delmark) and The Hearinga Suite (Black Saint), manage a graceful balancing act between ensemble writing and unfettered improvisation.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago, consisting of saxophonists Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell, trumpeter Lester Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors Magoustous, and drummer Famoudou Don Moye, learned much from Abrams. But their approach probably owed even more to the otherworldly showmanship of the pianist-composer-bandleader Sun Ra, who had been a fixture on the Chicago scene for years and served as a kind of spiritual godfather to the AACM. Taking its cue from Sun Ra, the group enlivened its performances with costumes, makeup, poetry recitations, and even the occasional comedy routine.

If the Art Ensemble's music was sometimes in danger of getting lost in the shuffle, it was powerful enough to withstand the onslaught, and it was varied enough to hold audiences' attention. (Jarman, Mitchell, and Bowie were all prolific composers, and all three re­corded several albums as leaders in addition to their work with the Art Ensemble.) Indeed, with its mixture of free improvisation and complex composition, seasoned with an overlay of African and other influences, the Art Ensemble's music arguably merited the label "fu­sion" as much as anyone else's did—although the group itself pre­ferred "great black music." (And as if to suggest that categories are meaningless anyway, in the late seventies and early eighties the Art Ensemble made a series of outstanding albums, including Nice Guys and Urban Bushmen, for ECM Records, supposedly the most "Euro­pean" of all jazz labels.)” – Peter Keepnews in Bill Kirchner, ed., The Oxford Companion to Jazz, p. 494

“The Art Ensemble of Chicago was created in the mid sixties by Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors, all members of Chicago's Association for the Advance­ment of Creative Music (AACM). They recorded for Delmark and Nessa, two small independent labels. Later, during a two year stay in Europe, they made a dozen albums for various European labels.

This, I believe, is their most versatile and exciting album yet. It is the complete and unedited non-stop per­formance that they gave at the 1972 Ann Arbor festival. All the excitement, originality, tightness, and brilliance that this group possesses can be heard on this album. Please listen to this record in its entirety without interruption to grasp the full beauty and impact of their performance.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago may be the most sig­nificant and creative group in the new music since the original Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane quartets.”

Michael Cuscuna, original liner notes to The Art Ensemble of Chicago Bap-Tizum

“The Art Ensemble initially featured Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, and, for a brief spell, drummer Phillip Wilson. The band ig­nored the division of labor traditionally practiced by most jazz combos. True, Mitchell and Jarman could brandish their saxophones in the front line, but they were just as likely to be accompanists as lead soloists, just as inclined to play percus­sion or unusual wind instruments—conch shells or whistles—as the alto or tenor sax.

Lester Bowie could show off his mastery of a wide range of trumpet styles, covering the gamut from pseudo-early jazz growls and groans to up-to-date funk grooves. But he also might energize an Art Ensemble performance by pounding on the bass drum or engaging in offbeat on-stage antics. Malachi Favors served as bassist for the group, but almost any string instrument, from banjo to zither, might grace his hands, as well as the ever-present percussion instruments that became Art Ensemble trademarks. Indeed, the Ensemble reportedly brought some five hundred music-making implements with them when they moved to France at the close of the 1960s.

The Art Ensemble caught the attention of European audiences in this new set­ting. Within a few months of arriving, the band had recorded a half-dozen projects, including some of their finest work. Recordings were supplemented by frequent concerts, radio performances, and commissions for movie scores. During this pe­riod, percussionist Don Moye joined the band. Although this addition was lamented by some of the band's fans—who saw it giving a more conventional rhythmic foun­dation to the Art Ensemble's free-flowing sound collages—Moye's background in free jazz and his wide-ranging collection of percussion instruments fit nicely with the Ensemble's artistic impulses. By the same token, Moye added a more structured and overtly polyrhythmic, often more insistent, undercurrent to the band's sound. …

Concerts and club appearances conveyed the band's essence in a way that the group's later studio sessions often only approximated. In truth, this band needed to be seen as well as heard. Dressed in African garb, their faces painted or wearing masks, surrounded by their "little instruments"—so many that it took two hours simply to set up the bandstand—the Art Ensemble presented a striking appearance that had few precedents in the jazz world. The group's various live recordings, such as Live at Mandel Hall, Baptizum, and Urban Bushmen, may stop short of presenting the full experience of the Art Ensemble in performance, although they still manage to convey the band's vitality and unpredictability, as well as its kaleidoscopic range.”
- Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, pp. 357-358 [paragraphing modified].

“As a mix of personalities, the Ensemble has always been in a crisis of temperament, with Bowie's arsenal of sardonic inflexions pitched against Mitchell's schematic constructions, Jarman's fierce and elegant improvis­ing and Favors's other-worldly commentaries from the bass. Sat­ire, both musical and literal, has sustained much of their music; long- and short-form pieces have broken jazz structure down into areas of sound and silence. At their best, they are as uncom­promisingly abstract as the most severe European players, yet their materials are cut from the heart of the traditions of black music in Chicago and St Louis.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th ed.,
 p. 56.

“That generation of musicians, building on the achievements of post-bop apostates who questioned the rules and put their ids on the table, began with the assumption that playing free meant just that. It wasn't a matter of whether or not you used chords or swing rhythms or the tem­pered scale, or of how you measured improvisation against composition, but of having the options—of choosing to do with or without any of the tools of music in any given performance.

One measure of the Great Black Music vaunted by the Art Ensemble was embodied in the freedom to be or not to be free, and followed from a fundamental idea: Jazz is a classical music with an established yet expanding canon of masterworks, wed to a language of rules and structures. In playing off the acknowledged clas­sics, the shared postulates, the new jazz of the '60s kept the intrinsic aesthetic alive, demonstrating to the max that a worthy foundation can withstand every sort of experimentation, however adventitious or pro­vocative it may seem. The jazz avant-garde, like the classical avant-garde, is empowered by the fact that true classicism is impervious to anything but prostration. Imitation, as Emerson pointed out, is suicide.”
- Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz, p. 503 [paragraphing modified]

If you are looking for a gateway into the world of Free Jazz, the Art Ensemble of Chicago will serve as an excellent entry point.