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Almost 20 years after their last studio album for ECM, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, one of the most influential collectives in jazz history, return with “Tribute to Lester”, paying homage to the memory of their good friend and colleague, Lester Bowie, who died in 1999.

The original alliance of the Art Ensemble and ECM resulted in the now-classic albums “Nice Guys”, “Full Force”, “Urban Bushmen” and “The Third Decade” – all recorded between 1978 and 1984. In these discs (as the press and the group members themselves concurred) the AEC’s cutting-edge improvisations benefitted enormously from Manfred Eicher’s input as producer. At last the listener could hear all the rich and complex detail of the Art Ensemble’s sonic world and follow all aspects of the musical argument, whether they were playing lyrically, dreaming up visions of Africa in spontaneous drum choirs, or locking horns in full force blasts of untrammelled sound-energy.

After a momentous Art Ensemble Munich concert in 1995 with a quartet line up of Bowie, Mitchell, Favors and Moye, plans for a new round of collaborations with ECM were drawn up. (For most of the previous decade, contractual obligations with a Japanese label had prevented the group from recording elsewhere.) The first outcome of the renewed alliance was Roscoe Mitchell’s award-winning “Nine To Get Ready” album, recorded in 1997.

With the death of Lester Bowie two years later, the Art Ensemble lost a flamboyant frontman, a charismatic performer and the participation of one of the most creative trumpeters in the music’s history. His trademark smears and slurs and growls, his half-valve effects, his wide vibrato and his anarchic humour brought new colours and ideas to jazz. Bowie, not given to false modesty, saw himself as a link in a tradition that extended from Louis Armstrong through Dizzy Gillespie to Miles Davis and Don Cherry and was outspokenly impatient of musicians who settled merely for historically correct re-creation of jazz styles. The Art Ensemble’s very motto and rallying cry “Ancient to the Future” implied that study was meant to bring a musician forward, not mire him in the past, a point that is still worth emphasizing.

Correspondingly, “Tribute to Lester” touches on the spirit of the blues that was Bowie’s first inspiration – he came up playing with the bands of Albert King and Little Milton among others – and also reflects upon the AEC’s own history. Mitchell ably carries the “frontline” role by himself, a reminder that the AEC was originally his group (in the early years it was the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble). The juxtaposing of space with high intensity playing recalls the era of Roscoe’s landmark album “Sound” (1966), which also marked the first collaborative recordings with Bowie and Malachi Favors.

Malchi Favors’ tune “Tutankhamun”, meanwhile, was a staple of the band’s set in their formative Paris years, when the AEC’s famously theatrical performances – as well as their musicianship – made a profound impact on European players.

Bowie’s “Zero” a “freebop” tune which first surfaced on “The Third Decade” is interwoven here with Mitchell’s composition “Alternate Line”. A centrepiece of the album is Mitchell’s concise yet wide-roving “Suite for Lester” which works a range of moods and colours which are as unpredictable as its subject. Roscoe moves between plangent soprano sax, pretty neo-baroque and a booting blues-blasting bass saxophone line that recalls the AEC’s signature tune “Odwalla”. Here and elsewhere Malachi Favors and Don Moye offer the empathetic, near-telepathic support honed through so many years of playing together.

“Sangaredi”, which opens the disc, is a jungle of interlocking tribal beats, in the tradition of earlier AEC percussion workouts like “Bush Magic”. This “Tribute to Lester” concludes with two collective improvisations – “Clear As The Sun”, with superb circular-breathing-powered soprano saxophone from Mitchell, and “He Speaks To Me Often In Dreams”, a beautifully detailed developmental percussion piece with bells chiming magically and “little instruments” (the use of toys, whistles, bike horns and co was another AACM innovation) providing indeterminate asides, like a window open onto the street…

Lester Bowie’s message, and the Art Ensemble’s, will continue to speak to improvisers everywhere for generations to come.

***

Art Ensemble founder members Roscoe Mitchell and Malachi Favors met in the early 1960s. Favors was already a veteran of the Chicago scene, having worked with Andrew Hill in the 50s.

While stationed with the US army in Germany, Mitchell had met and been highly impressed by Albert Ayler and his revolutionary playing. On his return to Chicago, he and Favors convened a rehearsal band to study the music of Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey. They were soon joined in these exploratory endeavours by multi-disciplinary artist Joseph Jarman, already making waves as both poet and saxophonist.

By 1965 all three players were affiliated with Muhal Richard Abrams’s Experimental Band, out of which developed the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, whose early members also included saxophonists Fred Anderson, Henry Threadgill and Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, trumpeters Billy Brimfield and Phil Cohran, trombonist Lester Lashley, guitarist Pete Cosey, pianist Jodie Christian, bassist Fred Hopkins and drummers Steve McCall and Thurman Barker. These were some of the musicians Lester Bowie encountered on his arrival in Chicago in 1966, prompting his now-famous remark, “I never in my life met so many insane people in one room!” Bowie fit in very quickly, and was working with Mitchell within a matter of days, his deep knowledge of blues and early jazz an important part of the embryonic Art Ensemble’s stylistic mix.

Mitchell billed his group, as it was then, as the Art Ensemble from December 1966 onward. It became the Art Ensemble of Chicago in June 1969 when a French promoter added the geographical qualification to an advertisement for a concert with the quartet of Mitchell, Bowie, Jarman and Favors. Their two-year European residency (1969–71) is now the stuff of legend. In this period they recorded prolifically, placing more than 15 albums with a welter of labels including BYG, America, EMI France and Arista/Freedom, all of which were carefully studied in Europe and elsewhere. They gave unforgettable performances in which music, ritual and Dadaist theatre were interwoven. In Paris, the group also met resourceful percussionist Don Moye, who had been playing with Steve Lacy, Pharaoh Sanders and Sonny Sharrock amongst others. He became the Art Ensemble’s fifth member.

The group began to record for ECM in 1978, with Lester Bowie also recording concurrently with Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition band, and with fellow AACM trumpeter Leo Smith. In the 1980’s Bowie also recorded a series of very popular albums as a leader for ECM: “The Great Pretender”, “All The Magic!”, “I Only Have Eyes For You” and “Avant Pop”.

The Mitchell-Bowie-Jarman-Favors-Moye line-up of the Art Ensemble was to survive unchanged for more than two decades. In 1993, Joseph Jarman began a ten-year “sabbatical” in which he devoted himself to Zen and martial arts studies, performing only occasionally. From 1993 to 1999 the Art Ensemble was primarily a quartet. After Bowie’s death, the remaining members experimented briefly with different guest musicians, including Lester’s brother, trombonist (and Defunkt leader) Joe Bowie and saxophonist Ari Brown, before settling on the trio format.

Alongside their Art Ensemble activities group members pursued solo activities, with Mitchell the most prolific, in both jazz and contemporary classical circles. Apart from leading his Note Factory band, and playing in duos and trios with Borah Bergman, he premiered new compositions for chamber orchestra, for alto saxophone and gamelan orchestra as well as other instrumental configurations.

Don Moye’s extracurricular activities have included leadership of the pan-African-American drum group the Sun Percussion Summit. Outside the AEC, Malachi Favors’ major commitment has been to Kahil El Zabar’s Ritual Trio.

In January 2003 Joseph Jarman returned to the Art Ensemble on a full-time basis.

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