The Art Ensemble of Chicago is clearly unlike any other collective in the modern history of music. Its musicians sing of the traumatic experiences of slavery and the ever-present discrimination that has shaped their lives and artistic outlook. But unlike others who have been similarly affected and permanently scarred, the African-American emerged out of this trauma with the soaring hope of the Blues and the Spiritual. As the music of the Ensemble grew more erudite and the collision of Jazz and contemporary Euro-centric forms grew more combative a more unique music and contemplative emerged.
So while the music of the Ensemble still held a considerable degree of balance and integration of melody, harmony and rhythm, of composition and improvisation, of exploration, individuality and tradition, but it also grew more monumental and pulseless, seemingly made up of great blocks of seemingly static, but subtly changing, textures whose component parts flowed seamlessly in and out of each other. Roscoe Mitchell’s Bells for the South Side (2015; Vol. XV of this set) is a remarkable example of this. Texture is everything: sounds are punctuated by sometimes by silences and at other times by enormous crescendos. Rippling percussion forms overlapping layers with chord clusters and closely adjacent notes. Still, however, there is a sense of sculpted sound but the combination of instrumental timbres is often radiantly beautiful, suggesting something bejewelled and glowing.
The final part of this box set comprises music created by Jack DeJohnette and his New Directions. A contemporary of Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell – and a musician who learned at the feet of Muhal Richard Abrams, DeJohnette moved the dial somewhat further – and differently. Much of this music virtually reinvents the group dynamic, creating the effects of complexity which is all the more compelling for being produced by a relatively small group of instruments – principally piano, winds, brass, bass and drums. All of the works are founded on the complex interplay of rhythms and tempi. Many pieces are fast and furious, with conflicting rhythmic layers emerging out of a flurry of notes. Other music is more reflective, radiant and even haunting. Finest of all is “Ten Minutes” from Made in Chicago (2013/15; the final Vol. XVIII of the set) in which multiple overlapping tempi are used to conjure up a mistily impressionistic veil of sound – a marvellous union of poetry and technique, at once beautifully evocative and utterly original.
This voluminous set; an enormous undertaking by any standards, despite the fact that some of the Ensemble’s other great undertakings – such as Fanfare for the Warriors (1974), Art Ensemble of Chicago Soweto (1990) and Fundamental Destiny [with Don Pullen] (1991), are (naturally) “missing” as they are on Atlantic, DIW and AECO labels respectively, the latter being the Ensemble’s own label. Still, it is a fabulous collector’s item with 18 CDs (23 if you count all of the double albums contained within). There is also a 295-page book exquisitely illustrated and essays by Steve Lake, Craig Taborn, George Lewis (who has also written the most definitive history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. [University of Chicago Press, 2008]) and Vijay Iyer add much in the way of impressions, history and guidance, and make essential reading when all is said and done. Liner and booklet notes to all the albums (where applicable) have been reproduced. All of this adds up to making this colossal boxed set a truly historic testament to one of the greatest of modern music ensembles as it gathers together five decades of work that came out of a seminal movement in Chicago that has ended up impacting all of modern music even if some refusniks still do exist.
It almost begs a slight re-write of the quotation on the back of the box from Nat Hentoff which reads “The Art Ensemble of Chicago is alone in jazz history for reaching back conceptually to long before there ever was anything called jazz and moving toward a future beyond category” because if all sound came from the dawn of man and all man came from Mother Africa, then The Art Ensemble of Chicago have captured its much more than its essence through fifty years of mind-bending music that is analogous with human history, because so it sounds…
Art Ensemble of Chicago: and associated ensembles (Recordings 1978-2015)
Track lists – Disc I – Art Ensemble of Chicago: Nice Guys 1: Ja; 2: Nice Guys; 3: Folkus; 4: 5 9 7 – 5 9; 5: Cyp; 6: Dreaming Of The Master. Disc II – Art Ensemble Of Chicago: Full Force 1: Magg Zelma; 2: Care Free; 3: Charlie M; 4: Old Time Southside Street Dance; 5: Full Force. Disc III – Art Ensemble Of Chicago: Urban Bushmen (disc one) 1: Promenade: Cote Bamako I; 2: Bush Magic; 3: Urban Magic – (a) March (b)Warm Night Blues Stroll (c)Down The Walkway (d) Rm Express; 4: Sun Precondition Two / Theme For Sco – (a) Soweto Messenger (b) Bushman Triumphant (c) Entering The City (d) Announcement Of Victory Art Ensemble Of Chicago: Urban Bushmen (disc two) 1: New York Is Full Of Lonely People; 2: Ancestral Meditation; 3: Uncle; 4: Peter And Judith; 5: Promenade: Cote Bamako II; 6: Odwalla/Theme; Disc IV- Art Ensemble Of Chicago: The Third Decade 1: Prayer For Jimbo Kwesi; 2: Funky Aeco; 3: Walking In The Moonlight; 4: The Bell Piece; 5: Zero; 6: Third Decade. Disc V – Leo Smith: Divine Love 1: Divine Love; 2: Tastalun (Dedicated To Lester Bowie); 3: Spirituals: The Language Of Love. Disc VI – Lester Bowie: The Great Pretender 1: The Great Pretender; 2: It’s Howdy Doody Time; 3: When The Doom (Moon) Comes Over The Mountain (a) Doom? (b) When The Moon Comes Over The Mountain; 4: Rios Negros; 5: Rose Drop; 6: Oh, How The Ghost Sings; Disc VII – Lester Bowie:All The Magic! (disc one) 1: For Louie; 2: Spacehead; 3: Ghosts; 4: Trans Traditional Suite (a) All The Magic! (b) Everything Must Change (c) T. Jam Blues; 5: Let The Good Times Roll. Lester Bowie: All The Magic! (disc two) 1: Organic Echo; 2: Dunce Dance; 3: Charlie M. (Part II); 4: Thirsty?; 5: Almost Christmas; 6: Down Home; 7: Okra Influence; 8: Miles Davis Meets Donald Duck; 9: Deb Deb’s Face; 10: Monkey Waltz; 11: Fraudulent Fanfare; 12: Organic Echo (Part II) Disc VIII – Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy: I Only Have Eyes For You 1: I Only Have Eyes For You; 2: Think; 3: Lament; 4: Coming Back, Jamaica; 5: Nonet; 6: When The Spirit Returns. Disc IX – Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy: Avant Pop 1: The Emperor; 2: Saving All My Love For You; 3: B Funk; 4: Blueberry Hill; 5: Crazy; 6: MacHo (Dedicated To Machito); 7: No Shit; 8: Oh, What A Night. Disc X – Art Ensemble Of Chicago: Tribute To Lester 1: Sangaredi; 2: Suite For Lester; 3: Zero/Alternate Line; 4: Tutankhamun; 5: As Clear As The Sun; 6: He Speaks To Me Often In Dreams. Disc XI – Roscoe Mitchell: Nine To Get Ready 1: Leola; 2: Dream And Response; 3: For Lester B; 4: Jamaican Farewell; 5: Hop Hip Bip Bir Rip; 6: Nine To Get Ready; 7: Bessie Harris; 8: Fallen Heroes; 9: Move Toward The Light; 10:. Big Red Peaches. Disc XII – Roscoe Mitchell: Composition / Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 1: I; 2: II; 3: III; 4: IV; 5: V; 6: VI; 7: VII; 8: VIII; 9: IX. Disc XIII – Evan Parker: Boustrophedon (In Six Furrows) 1: Overture; 2: Furrow 1; 3: Furrow 2; 4: Furrow 3; 5: Furrow 4; 6: Furrow 5; 7: Furrow 6; 8: Finale. Disc XIV – Roscoe Mitchell and The Note Factory: Far Side 1: Far Side 2: Cards 3: Far Side; 2: Quintet 2007 A For Eight; 3: Trio Four For Eight; 4: Ex Flover Five. Disc XV – Roscoe Mitchell: Bells For The South Side (disc one) 1: Spatial Aspects Of The Sound; 2: Panoply; 3: Prelude To A Rose; 4: Dancing In The Canyon; 5: Ep 7849; 6: Bells For The South Side. Roscoe Mitchell: Bells For The South Side (disc two) 1: Prelude To The Card Game, Cards For Drums, And The Final Hand; 2: The Last Chord; 3: Six Gongs And Two Woodblocks; 4: R509a Twenty B; 5: Red Moon In The Sky/Odwalla. Disc XVI – Jack DeJohnette: New Directions-1: Bayou Fever; 2: Where Or Wayne; 3: Dream Stalker; 4: One Handed Woman; 5: Silver Hollow. Disc XVII – Jack DeJohnette: In Europe 1: Salsa For Eddie G. 2: Where Or Wayne; 3: Bayou Fever; 4: Multo Spiliagio. Disc XVII – Jack DeJohnette: Made In Chicago 1: Chant; 2: Jack 5; 3: This; 4: Museum Of Time; 5: Leave Don’t Go Away; 6: Announcement; 7: Ten Minutes
Personnel – includes Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors Maghostut, Famoudou Don Moye – with Leo Smith, Dwight Andrews, Bobby Naughton, Charlie Haden, Kenny Wheeler, Hamiet Bluiett, Donald Smith, Fred Williams, Phillip Wilson, Fontella Bass, David Preston, Art Brown, Art Matthews, Stanton Davis, Malachi Thompson, Bruce Purse, Craig Harris, Steve Turre, Vincent Chauncey, Bob Stewart, Rasul Siddik, Frank Lacy, Hugh Ragin, George Lewis, Matthew Shipp, Craig Taborn, Jaribu Shahid, William Parker, Tani Tabbal, Gerald Cleaver, Evan Parker, Anders Svanoe, John Rangecroft, Neil Metcalfe, Corey Wilkes, Nils Bultmann, Phillip Wachsmann, Marcio Mattos, Barry Guy, Paul Lytton, Vijay Iyer, Harrison Bankhead, Vincent Davis, James Fei, Tyshawn Sorey, William Winant, Kikanju Baku, Jack DeJohnette, John Abercrombie, Eddie Gomez, Muhal Richard Abrams, Larry Gray, Henry Threadgill
Released – 2019
Label – ECM (2360 679 2089) – 18-CD Set