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Af Robbins
orfi
Thomas Rayfiel
Jane Gang
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steve katz
sylvain flannigan
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reviews


In "Bap-Tizum", recorded at the Ann Arbor, Michigan Blues and Jazz festival on September 9th, 1972, the Art Ensemble are in a celebratory mood, and their performative gusto and vigor are unmistakable. After an introductory percussion piece, "nfamoudou-boudougou", and the vocalizations of "immm," the group runs through three pieces highlighted by solos from Favors, Mitchell, Jarman, and Bowie ("unaka," "oouffnoon," and "ohnedaruth," respectively), before closing with the solo-less "odwalla." This more traditional "alternating solosÓ approach of highlighting each player individually in his own somewhat clearly delineated space also extends to the vocals/percussion piece "immm," where each group member marks the ending of his vocal passage with an appropriately ceremonial gong crash. The "solos" approach of "Bap-Tizum" differs markedly from the overall modus operandi of "Art Ensemble of Chicago–Live", recorded at the University of Chicago on January 15, 1972. This performance is darker, murkier, and at times foreboding in its intensity. From the opening bars it is evident that the espirit de corps which would define their September "Bap-Tizum" performance did not come without itÕs hardfought "payment of dues," and communal struggle for a cohesive group identity. Aside from an extended bass solo by Favors–which also serves as a sounding board for various little instruments/guttural noise meditations–the January 15th performance is concerned more with the overall rumbling and apocalyptic fervor induced by collective improvisations than with the articulation of individual statements. That the potent, kinetic meltdown of the January performance and the buoyant clarity of "Bap-Tizum" were performed only nine months apart serves to underscore the thoroughness with which the Art Ensemble sought to express itself. This point is brought further into focus with the examples of "The Spiritual", and "Tutankhamun," both recorded in June of 1969. These two recordings exhibit similar contrasts as those that exist between the two live albums. In "Tutankhamun," there is more of an emphasis on highlighting each members contributions, even in the ensemble passages. A voice emerges, another recedes, and arrangements seem designed to draw attention to, or isolate, one member at a time. Appropriately, the group's enunciation is clearer, as the emphasis on melodic statements is strong. Listen to the 18 minute title track, an entrancing Favors' composition that manages to earnestly evoke Charles Mingus at his most sorrowful (perhaps unintentionally), while retaining the AEC's unmistakable voice. As the melody slowly subsides, Mitchell and Jarman's initial arrangement of bass saxophone and oboe (along with Bowie's trumpet, and FavorsÕ plucked bass) gives way to increasingly unusual combinations which build an ever-changing set of sound textures, each juxtaposed with the last (bass saxophone and flute, clarinet and plucked piano, and percussion, etc.). During "Tutankhamun," the playing of Favors and Bowie stands relatively firm amongst the ever-changing tapestries of sound which Mitchell and Jarman provide–corralling the piece, holding it together, and providing clear signposts for the listener–and their statements either support soloistic statements, or flesh out their own.

"The Spiritual", and a host of individual pieces throughout the AEC's discography, take a more communal approach to ensemble playing that is somewhat paradoxical to some people's notions of free jazz. In essence, though the entire group is playing freer (there is less that falls under the category of "support" or "accompaniment" of a soloist), they must all actively bring cohesion to each piece (ie, hold it together), and sacrifice anything that might be superfluous to the composition as a whole–freely imposing boundaries on each individual's momentary preeminence during any one passage. The proposition of the ACE during pieces like "The Spiritual" is one that seeks to de-emphasize the importance of linear/melodic playing, and is is more interested in discovering new textures and in the idea of balanced ensemble politics. Although the tonal and compositional qualities are often similar between these two approaches (it is easily conceivable that a new listener would simply be overwhelmed by the barrage of peculiar sounds to notice these distinctions), the implications of both methods are vitally important.

When it comes to questions of group dynamics, the Art Ensemble's methodology differs essentially from that of their most oft-compared contemporaries–and virtually all their predecessors since the '20s–by the absence of having any clearly defined leader. All five men seemed to share equal musical responsibilities, and all of their aesthetic principles seem evenly balanced. This kind of complementary relationship is rare in any artistic collaboration, especially when one considers each player's strong individual personalities of such musicians as Bowie and Mitchell. When one thinks of musical collaborations as stable and long-running as the Art Ensemble's (regardless of the musical idiom), it is nearly impossible find examples that aren't under the leadership of one or two undisputedly predominant voices. The Ellington orchestras, the long-running ensembles of Mingus, Coltrane's quartets, even the Modern Jazz Quartet–all are clearly under the direction of one or two men. To hear the AEC for the first time can be an epiphany of sorts when one comprehends the kind of paradigmatic break their assertion of four-way (and eventually five-way) leadership has in the context of the history of jazz for 50 years prior. The balance struck between each member while playing a supporting role or moving into a starring role, indicates an uncommon selflessness and, more importantly, a commitment to the notion of jazz as spontaneous composition.

The almost telepathic interplay between these has been able to sustain itself through the group's minimal personnel changes (the addition of Moye 30 years ago, and the departure of Jarman in the mid-'90s). While the Art Ensemble continues to perform as a trio (with Mitchell, Moye, and Favors), BowieÕs contributions–with all their artful irreverence and piercing virtuosity–will be sorely missed, regardless of how many times we are able to revisit the recorded evidence of his singularly irrepressible contribution to the art of improvised music.

Alex McGregor

Brooklyn, New York 1999