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Af Robbins
orfi
Thomas Rayfiel
Jane Gang
warren Isensee
steve katz
sylvain flannigan
angus ivy

tracy nakayama
simon periton

reviews

Lester Bowie, c1970

While Jarman, Favors, Mitchell, and Moye are sometimes listed as playing upwards of ten different instruments each on a single record, Bowie is usually credited with trumpet, flugelhorn, bass drum, and perhaps some percussion. Bowie's relative lack of reliance on the "little instruments," and his more steadfast commitment to his primary role as "horn player" is in no way indicative of an aversion to the Art Ensemble's more unorthodox methods, or a more conservative methodology overall. While Jarman, Favors, and Mitchell would at times focus their expressive energies externally–relentlessly exploring new sounds and modes of articulation through the use of different instruments (not only through the little instruments, but through the large number of reeds they both employed, including tenor, alto, soprano, and bass saxophones, flutes, oboe, clarinet, piccolo, and bassoon–Bowie's tendencies were more internally concentrated, and he searched endlessly for new sounds on his horn. He would often remain on the trumpet during some of the group's flexible, little instrument-based pieces. However, he would rarely use the group's shifting sound structures of bells, marimbas, gongs, and percussion as a backdrop for his solos, but chose instead to mutilate his trumpet technique in these settings–emitting guttural, speech-like sounds, atonal growls, melodically ambiguous figures, and simple melodic fragments, all of which added invaluably to the unlikely stew his bandmates brewed. At times, Bowie's playing added cohesion to the mix, often a good deal of humor, as well as a striking melancholic beauty. When playing in a more linear fashion–in contrast to some of Mitchell's more detached, regal musings, and Jarman's enigmatic persona and idiosyncratically haphazard improvisations–Bowie could at times sound like a soulful and direct shot in the arm. But hearing Bowie's playing (or Favors' tonal, solid basswork, for that matter) as simply the group's "traditionalist element" would be a gross simplification of his role in the Art Ensemble, and would be a limiting reading of his communicative range and aesthetic discipline. In the company of a flightier improviser such as Jarman, and the more probing approach of Mitchell, what differentiates Bowie is his unwavering conviction, and his aplomb. It is hard to qualify how important Bowie's brash, direct delivery was to the paths of some of the Art Ensemble's unshackled improvisations, but it seems a safe bet that that his playing removed any potential "preciousness" from the proceedings, while giving the group one of it's most distinctive, confident voices.

By the late '60s and early '70s, the "new music" in jazz (categorized variously as "energy playing," "free jazz," and a cachet of other terms) which had been most famously advanced by the stunning, new-found expressive capabilities of the saxophone–by Coleman, Dolphy, Coltrane, Shepp, Sanders, Ayler, Braxton, and others–had reached an apex. It became quickly apparent that all too few trumpet players had yet to contribute anything as comparably indispensable to the musical advancements of the "new music" (at least in terms of technical/instrumental innovation). Bowie's playing is, in many ways, an exuberant penetration into that void. With an extraordinary technique, rhythmic dexterity, and sharp tone, Bowie forged his distinctive style not by imitating the incendiary, screaming technique of a saxophonist, but by cultivating a halting, and vocally-tinged sense of humor. Additionally, Bowie developed a kind of aggressive tone that enabled him to compete with the ferocity of his saxophone counterparts. It has been an oft-made point–and one I will not dwell on–that Bowie's staggering technique, expressiveness, and commitment to an experimental sensibility made him the preeminent master of avant-garde trumpet playing (with, in my eyes, only Wadada Leo Smith and Don Cherry contributing as fully to the new music). These kind of individual accolades and technical breakthroughs must have seemed incidental to Bowie, for at the core of the Art Ensemble's character was a commitment to the spirit of the communal statement. It is necessary to mention that, although Mitchell and Jarman did in fact make their share of innovations, and added significantly to the canon of modern jazz saxophone playing, the conversation was crowded, the competition stiff, and many acknowledged masters (or were they still regarded as revolutionaries?) already dominated the dialogue. Along with their bandmates, Bowie, Mitchell and Jarman de-emphasized these questions of individual expressive brilliance, siphoning these energies towards the creation of their group identity.

The extraordinary verve, playfulness, humor, and the overarching beauty which has distinguished Art Ensemble's music for over 30 years, is in many ways due to the freedom each personality within the group has to express himself fully, while rejecting any notions of individual grandstanding. One of the most striking qualities has been the mutable nature of their group dynamics, and the differing permutations of collective/individual identity from performance to performance and record to record. Two sets of comparisons are particularly fruitful when discussing this point: "Tutankamun" and "The Spiritual," both recorded in a Parisian Polydor studio in 1969, and "Bap-Tizum" and "Art Ensemble of Chicago–Live", both live recordings from 1972 performances in America.