A European Proposal

a column by
Francesco Martinelli

Famoudou Don Moye
Famoudou Don Moye                                                          Gerard Rouy©2007

It's early 1970s, and we are a bunch of teenagers without driving licenses, taking trains and buses to reach a small town on the outskirts of Bologna where the Art Ensemble of Chicago will be playing in a small and ornate opera theatre. We know the music from the BYG records, with their distinctive white covers and photos; we read and heard about their fabled Paris concerts and their unique combination of music and theatre. We scan Downbeat and Melody Maker for news about them and about other exciting musicians, from Anthony Braxton to Chris McGregor. We arrived to their music through very different paths, some beginning with prog rock and some through “classic” jazz – at that age, we think it's Sonny Rollins. I personally found in improvised music the excitement of soul with the formal freedom of contemporary composed music. We are all starry-eyed in the audience, realizing how little the records and articles prepared us for their sheer sonic force and the double edge always present in the music – we are enjoying it, but at the same time it's questioning the way we listen, and the context we are able to put it in. In retrospect it's not so much the costumes, the “tribal” face paint and the ritual edge of the music that hit us, maybe because we were already influenced by artists like Don Cherry and Sun Ra. Rather, we were struck by the Art Ensemble’s relationship with sound, the different events and densities in the music, how powerful it is and at the same time how many delicate details are included.

This concert and others inspired us to form our own “jazz” festival in Pisa. The first edition of the Pisa International Jazz Festival in 1976 was supposed to have a climatic Art Ensemble concert in the historical Piazza dei Cavalieri (Knights' Square) in the University area. After an exciting afternoon spent moving equipment, watching preparations and worrying about the weather, a storm hit town and the concert had to be canceled. The night however had its bright moments that remain etched into the memories: at one point Famoudou Don Moye crept under the nylon sheets hastily thrown on the drums for protection and started to mimick and mock the rumblings and thunders of the sky, trying to exorcise them. Our dismay was lifted when they accepted to come back in a few days without further fees. The concert was held in a gym – with sun blazing away all day, of course – but the heat did not stop the audience from clapping and cheering throughout the concert, until the final rousing rendition of “Odwalla” faded out.

Perhaps by unconscious design, we would explore the different projects of the members of the Art Ensemble in the following three years. The first was the memorable duo of Roscoe Mitchell with Anthony Braxton, with all of their ultra-low saxophones and clarinets. Then, we presented Lester Bowie’s “5th Power” quintet with Amina Claudine Myers, Arthur Blythe, Malachi Favors Maghostut and Phillip Wilson. Finally, we presented a rare performance by the duo of Joseph Jarman and Moye in a local Abbey we could then use for concerts. After reading Jarman’s poem, “Non-cognitive aspects of the city,” and becoming aware of the range of his intellectual interests, I gave Jarman a copy of Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos; he reciprocated with his private edition of his poems and theatre texts, which I still own with pride.

But, the festival folded at the beginning of the 80s, so I had to limit myself to recordings and some concerts out of town. The group of ex-teenagers was now following different paths, some making music their profession, and some were prudently retiring into some professional mainstream. Others were going even wilder, becoming full-fledged artists who would try - not always successfully - to bring together their different interests (music, cinema, performance) in what we'd now call a multimedia approach, no doubt inspired in part by events like the Art Ensemble’s Bologna concert.

These experiences still charge me with a wide range of possibilities, and everytime I can manage with my own activity to give back a little to the musicians that inspired us, I feel an intense satisfaction. Now, these events have a symmetry. I realized this many years after the first Pisa festival during a chat with Moye under the porch of a Sardinian hotel. Moye, who speaks excellent Italian with a charming trace of Neapolitan accent, handed me a copy of Musica Jazz magazine with my own feature about the Art Ensemble for me to sign and be preserved in the group’s archives.

While rich with possibilities, that moment in Bologna was also fraught with misunderstandings due to a lack of information. During closer personal contacts in the following years I will have the chance to sort them out. To try and understand what was going on with this music, the most obvious approach in the 70s, especially in Italy, was through Italian politics. Cecil Taylor and Don Cherry were performing at the many festivals organized by what was then the Communist Party: a vast network of political, social and cultural groups whose contradictory aims were to establish a left-wing government and to transform society from within it, true to Antonio Gramsci's teachings. So, for us, jazz was first and foremost a socially relevant artistic gesture, a way of interpreting the entire spectrum and history of black music. This is of course one of the more obvious ways to listen to People in Sorrow; but, with Message to Our Folks, the group gave us another key to interpret older jazz styles.

In this ever present political context, the Art Ensemble started to ask us questions: “Is Jazz Dead?” was the most obvious one, clearly articulated by Lester's mocking voice. Yet, another important one came when the planned soundtrack for Les Stances à Sophie expressed a wide-ranging statement about European musical and cultural subjects: the interpretation of an aria from Monteverdi's Lasciatemi Morire aria. This opened new avenues of research and was as influential as Miles' “Dear Old Stockholm” or Coltrane's “Olè” in shaping how the then new generation of European musicians and listeners thought about European music. While committed to something close to what Braxton has termed a trans-African aesthetic, the Art Ensemble collectively and individually articulated in deeds and words the pithy Dizzy Gillespie observation - “You cannot steal a gift” - goading musicians from all over the world to find their own sound and their own real or imagined tradition.

The more we listened to their other recordings of the time, the more we got involved with sound as a wider notion than music, a more radical criticism of our classical tradition and the way jazz was accepted, as well. This pointed to an apparently impossible connection between the indeterminacy of John Cage and the more physical forms of rhythm and blues – something that we tended to consider outdated, or a guilty pleasure at best. In interviews and articles we'd later learn about these connections from Taylor and Braxton; but at the time was the Art Ensemble who puzzled us first and foremost about this, until we finally asked ourselves if we really were the entertained – and by definition superior – audience. Or, were we some kind of bacterial culture created by the mad scientists’ sonic experiments with multi-instrumentalism and the vague category of “little instruments,” which covered any sound producing device, coupled with the fiery improvisations by the saxophones, and the low tones of trumpet. Their all-embracing concept of music and performance was in direct contrast with the black and white, still life image of perceived “coolness” which previous generations associated with jazz.

In time, the members of the Art Ensemble developed a complex set of relationships with Europe and with its jazz musicians. In 1969, Bowie composed “Gittin’ To Know Y’all,” which was performed by a 50-person orchestra of both American and European jazz musicians at the Baden-Baden Free Jazz Meeting, a testimony to the difficulty of communicating between different cultures even with similar, or should I say parallel, musical goals (but then, as the ill-fated European tour of the Sun Ra All Stars later demonstrated, the possibilities of misunderstandings are almost infinite even among African-Americans). Bowie and later Moye were especially open and inviting collaborations, especially in Italy, due to the work of longtime friend and manager Isio Saba.

As a group, however, the Art Ensemble is at its best undiluted, as the relatively rare collaborations – with Cecil Taylor, with the Brass Fantasy – were not as satisfiying as the group alone, at least on recordings. When Atlantic issued those spectacular LPs of the Art Ensemble in the 70's, and the record industry seemed interested in cutting-edge jazz, we thought – looking from Europe – that the group had finally found its well-deserved place in front of the audience, but it was not to be. Despite a grass-root activity celebrated in words and pictures in Julio Finn’s book, it took ECM to bring the Art Ensemble up front again, with a series of records that at the time seemed to lack the raw urgency of the early recordings, but that withstood the test of time and are now a finely detailed memory of the music in its maturity.

On those Atlantic LPs – interesting that I cannot bring myself to consider pianist Muhal Richard Abrams on Fanfare For The Warriors an outside collaborator, which he technically is - the signatures of each member of the group could be heard in each tune. For the next 20 years, the life of the group became more and more a balancing act between different projects, personal agendas and different network of collaborations, until finally Jarman split in the early 1990s. But, when you have shared such an amount of time, fights, and joys there's no way to completely cut the bond, and Jarman came back in 2003, four years after Bowie’s death, and just after Mitchell, Favors and Moye recorded the emotionally charged Tribute to Lester in 2003 for ECM. The AEC’s Reunion 2003 tour included different guests like pianist Baba Sissoko: at a Turin concert, the group seemed to revolve around the twin saxes and the piano, rather in the way of Fanfare for the Warriors; but the live album recorded in Rome has a widely different palette.

In 2004 we also lost Malachi Favors Maghostut, and the musicians who were called then to join the ranks appear only as “guests,” even on the AEC’s website. The charter members can't be replaced, like all true originals; but at recent appearances I was lucky enough to witness that the spirit and inventiveness of the music shined through the combination of the work by younger musicians and the mastery of the initiators.

As a jazz history lecturer I never miss the chance to talk about the AACM and the various musicians who developed in that environment. Performances like the “Monteverdi Variations,” “Barnyard Scuffle Shuffle,” “Odwalla” or “A Jackson in Your House” never fail to move young listeners, born years after the demise of LP. During Siena Jazz each year, these tunes send students to the sound library where they can discover by themselves the longer suites and the different personalities from the AEC, spinning a magic tale that continues to inspire.

Francesco Martinelli©2007

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