Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings

Various Artists
The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles
ECM 2630 679 2089

By 1977 the Art Ensemble of Chicago had been together for eight years and had established itself as one of the integral groups in the American jazz scene. They had recorded numerous canonical albums, became the AACM’s flagship group, and established a social and artistic model in which they balanced cooperation with individual autonomy. As Paul Steinbeck points out in his recent book Message to Our Folks: The Art Ensemble of Chicago, 1977 was a pivotal year for the group that marked the beginning of a fifteen-year run during which they achieved their highest level of popularity and prosperity. One of the year’s key events was the AEC’s signing with ECM – a deal that would help the group gain worldwide fame.

In May of 1978, while on tour in Europe, the AEC recorded Nice Guys, the first of what would be five albums they made for ECM. From then on the members of the AEC went on to record – either as leader or sideman – a number of classic albums for the label. These albums are collected in ECM’s new limited edition twenty-one-disc collection The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles. Spanning eighteen albums recorded between 1978 and 2015, it includes all of the AEC’s albums for the label: Nice Guys, Full Force, Urban Bushmen, The Third Decade, and Tribute to Lester; Leo Smith’s Divine Love (1979), which features Lester Bowie on one cut; four albums from Bowie; four from Roscoe Mitchell; three from Jack DeJohnette; and Evan Parker’s Boustrophedon (2008).

                                                                                                                                          ©Roberto Massotti

In addition to the set’s musical riches, it features an extensive booklet that is just short of 300 pages. It includes all the original cover art, liner notes, and discographical information, as well as photos, press clippings, and facsimile reproductions of ephemeral documents. There’s Joseph Jarman’s typed liner notes for Urban Bushmen, Mitchell’s handwritten list of instrumentation and solo details for Nice Guys, a letter by Famoudou Don Moye about using the group’s logo on the cover of Full Force, and much more. There’s also an introductory essay on the set by Steve Lake and short essays from Vijay Iyer, George Lewis, and Craig Taborn, who reflect on the group’s impact on their lives and careers.

Observed holistically, what is most impressive about this collection is the sheer breadth and depth of the forms that the AEC’s concept of Great Black Music could take. Steinbeck notes that “Great Black Music was at once a pan-African theory of culture, an expression of diasporic consciousness, a radical declaration that black music could be whatever the Art Ensemble wanted it to be” (Steinbeck, Message to Our Folks, 225). Those familiar with the AEC know that it could play in any style at any time to such an extent that it is arguably one of the most versatile musical groups of the twentieth century. From raggedy marches and circus music to bebop, funk, and freewheeling polyphonic free jazz blowing; thick churning percussion to sparse pointillism; spoken word to unabashed absurdity. In the AEC’s conception, Great Black Music – like any interpretation and performance of black music – is slippery, mercurial, and perhaps above all, impossible to define with any degree of certainty.

These characteristics are perhaps best observed in this set in Bowie’s solo albums. Over a period of six months in 1978, Bowie recorded Nice Guys, two albums with DeJohnette’s New Directions group, and appeared on “Tastalun (dedicated to Lester Bowie)” on Smith’s Divine Love. In addition to the next three AEC albums, he went on to record The Great Pretender (1981), the double album All the Magic!/The One and Only (1983), and two albums by his Brass Fantasy ensemble – I Only Have Eyes for You (1985) and Avant Pop (1986).

To the uninitiated, the musical range on Bowie’s albums is astonishing. Bowie’s Brass Fantasy – which recorded a total of nine albums over fifteen years – was the vehicle for Bowie’s pop sensibilities and his R&B background. Avant Pop is easily the most fun and entertaining album of the collection, featuring covers of “Saving All My Love for You,” “Blueberry Hill,” “Crazy,” and “Oh, What a Night.” His composition “B Funk” signifies on Parliament-Funkadelic while his “No Shit” – which features the group repetitively singing the title – may be the most infectious and dance-inducing song anyone might come across. And there’s dashes of Bowie’s absurdity sprinkled throughout his four albums, as on The One and Only’s “Miles Davis Meets Donald Duck” and most notably on “It’s Howdy Doody Time” from The Great Pretender. But he isn’t all pop hooks, dance grooves, and fun and games: The One and Only is a challenging and inventive solo album for trumpet “and other sounds,” while All the Magic! and The Great Pretender often explore similar terrain as the AEC.

Mitchell’s 2017 album Bells for The South Side and his albums with The Transatlantic Art Ensemble (Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2, & 3) and The Note Factory (Nine to Get Ready and Far Side) offer a counterpoint to Bowie’s aesthetic. With ensembles ranging from eight to fourteen pieces and often featuring multiple percussionists, pianists, and bassists, these albums foreground a compositional aesthetic that is quite often less “jazz” than it is chamber writing for a contemporary classical/new music group whose members happen to be world-class improvisers. And when things morph into a jazz mode, Mitchell is typically catholic in approach, writing music that ranges from poignant ballads (“For Lester B” on Nine to Get Ready) to moments reminiscent of Coltrane’s “Ascension” (Composition/Improvisation). These are as serious and heavy as any albums in the AEC or Mitchell discographies.

This collection also demonstrates the far reaches of the AEC’s world, as it branches out to embrace musicians that one might not associate with the AEC, such as Evan Parker and the members of his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble (his Boustrophedon is a companion to Mitchell’s Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2, & 3) as well as John Abercrombie, who was a member of DeJohnette’s New Directions.

The set’s book includes a quote by DeJohnette in which he explains that New Directions came about from his desire to “put together a cast of unlikely musicians.” Before this set I was unfamiliar with the band, and I was immediately surprised to see a group that featured Abercrombie, Bowie, and Eddie Gomez. Unlikely, indeed. As opposed to the rest of the set, New Directions (1978) and New Directions in Europe (1980) come pretty close to achieving the somewhat unfair stereotypical “ECM sound” (perhaps that’s partially due to Abercrombie’s presence, as well as the extra wash of reverb on the first album). For a group of musicians who may not have had another reason to come together, they have a cohesive group aesthetic, which, when compared to the other sixteen albums here, is fairly conventional, but no less vital.

The set’s capstone is DeJohnette’s Made in Chicago, which was recorded live at the 2013 Chicago Jazz Festival. Featuring DeJohnette alongside Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Larry Gray, Made in Chicago is a summit meeting of the music’s elders and pioneers. It is as much a celebration of their careers as it is a presentation by a dream team of master musicians continuing to pursue new forms of expression.

As this collection reminds the listener, one hears the influence of the AEC, their associated ensembles, and the AACM as a whole everywhere in today’s most vital music: Taborn, Iyer, Matana Roberts, Tyshawn Sorey, Mary Halvorson, Nicole Mitchell, and on and on. While the AEC’s importance and legacy cannot be overstated, this set offers a significant panorama of its output and reach for forty-one of its fifty years in existence. It is an epic collection that will surely not cease to surprise and enrich listeners for years to come. But above all, it demonstrates the numerous possibilities for what Great Black Music, was, is, and can be in the future.

And one final, crude note: as of this writing, the set can be found for less than $100. There might not be a better value in the world of avant-garde music. Jump on this essential collection while it lasts.
—Chris Robinson


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