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The Art Ensemble of Chicago, c1973

Lester Bowie • The Art Ensemble of Chicago

"Unless a writer is extremely old when he dies, in which case he has probably become a neglected institution, his death must always seem untimely. This is because a real writer is always shifting and changing and searching." –James Baldwin, on the death of Richard Wright

To those familiar with his work, the passing of trumpeter Lester Bowie on November 9, '99 will most likely resonate as a severe loss to the world of jazz, experimental improvisatory music, and most especially to the venerable Art Ensemble of Chicago. In the context of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, as well as in his extensive work outside of that lineup, Bowie was an exceedingly original and challenging soloist, with a formidable and varied technique that could be adapted to most any style–from be-bop, to crazed free-jazz explorations, to latin-tinged rhythms, african-inspired funk, calmly sprawling soundscapes, New Orleans-style jazz, and most anything in between. But to receive the impression of Bowie and the Art Ensemble as a genre-hopping, chameleonic group would be greatly inaccurate. Despite the numerous styles and large number of instruments they employed, the most cursory listen reveals a group that is not just investigating (or creating) "styles" or "genres," but a group steeped most deeply in the exploration and expression of their personalities, their individual and collective identities, and musical heritage. The Art Ensemble of Chicago–Joseph Jarman (reeds, percussion, etc), Roscoe Mitchell (reeds, percussion, etc), Malachi Favors (bass, percussion, etc), and Don Moye (drums, percussion, etc)–were a group whose sound was in a state of constant flux, and who never grew complacent in their search for new musical directions. And upon reflection, it becomes clear that their impulse towards "shifting and changing and searching" was so intense, so essential, that it may yet become their most lasting characteristic.

The elasticity of their playing, and the diversity of styles employed by them, was never a means unto itself, but originated as a means of survival. All the players in the Art Ensemble, and Bowie in particular, had had to play in other groups–dance bands, R&B groups, and other jazz lineups–to subsist financially, especially in the climate of early and mid-'60s Chicago. Bowie made a point of it in interviews–saying that he would have gone so far as to play in country and western bands to be a working musician–that these types of musical apprenticeships were in no way detrimental to the development of his music, and provided invaluable experience, and a broad musical lexicon which the Art Ensemble would reinterpret many times over in their own inimitable fashion. However, to flourish into maturity, and to retain some sort of commercial viability, the Art Ensemble relocated to Paris in 1966, to a more receptive audience, and in this environment made some of their biggest, boldest strides. Although the AACM (The Association for the Advancement of Creative Music, an influential, groundbreaking institution committed to Chicago's more experimental musicians) had provided the Art Ensemble with considerable support during their nascent stages in Chicago, they have the giddy aura of freed men on their first recordings abroad. In 1972 (like Baldwin 10 years prior, but not Wright), these expatriates returned home, having established a sizable reputation, and altering many critical notions of jazz, and all improvisatory music, along the way.

The Art Ensemble has been famous for their use of "little instruments"–a practice which could most basically be described as the periodic use of hundreds of incongruous instruments (everything from tambourine, banjo, harpsichord, log drums, gongs, bells, sirens, whistles, harmonica, car horns, and large array of percussion) used extensively despite (often) a lack of virtuosity or traditional "mastery" of these instruments. Their temporary relocation to Paris, in which they lost their loose stable of drummers (most notably Philip Wilson), solidified the importance of the little instruments. This lack of a drummer (Famadou Don Moye did not join the group until 1971) also forced them to develop some of the tenets of their new group language. Often the "little instruments" were used to create a setting for vocal or spoken passages, as well as for added tonal color, but their significance goes beyond aesthetic tweaking and tinkering. The political impulses of using these non-traditional instruments seem to have both democratic, Dadaist, and non-hegemonic implications. The use of non-traditional instruments tacitly criticizes the static stable of sound most popular musicians make available to themselves. The percussive rhythmic flexibility offered by their ever-shifting arrangements also enabled the Art Ensemble to create very personal, and specific notions of structure–in regards to both tempo, harmony, and group's sound. With significance to traditional jazz structures, the little instruments also represent a turning away from jazz's tendency of celebrating individual virtuosity in favor of group dynamics. If early jazz had helped set European standards of technique on their head through the use of new tonal colors, the Art Ensemble had raided the attics, toy chests, and junk shops to collapse jazz's "gunslinger" competitiveness onto itself. Additionally ,the little instruments are also a call to a type of sonic multi-culturalism, or a non-Eurocentric approach to sound–using Western as well as, Latin American, Eastern, African, or "non-Western sounding" instruments in a ritualized, spiritually charged fashion. Pieces such as "The Spiritual," often conjure images of ritualistic, ceremonial episodes, underscored further by the vocalized incantations provided by the group. Fulfilling a similar structural function as the little instruments, these vocalizations are often teamed with the group's more unorthodox instrumentation in a complementary, non-dominant fashion. These vocalizations are sometimes poetic, sometimes political, and in multiple languages (as well as indecipherable tongues), and are rarely easily decipherable. These vocal outbursts are rarely, if ever, presented as "speeches," "poems," or "lyrics," meant to accompany any one piece. The vocals are, in a sense, an extension of their arsenal of instruments. Tellingly, the little instruments and vocalizations often speak most powerfully to the group's non-hierarchical, democratic "melting pot" ideology–wherein musical power structures are usurped, to be supplanted by a simple openness, and joy, in the presence of sound.