Lester Bowie - trumpet, percussion; Joseph Jarman -tenor and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet, flute, percussion; Roscoe Mitchell - alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, flute, percussion; Malachi Favors - bass, percussion; Famoudou Don Moye - drums, percussion
A compelling and unique collective in the history of jazz, the Art Ensemble of Chicago emerged in the late '60s with a groundbreaking new sound that combined free jazz and European classical music with elements of straight ahead jazz, New Orleans marches, African music and touches of gospel music. And they presented their shows with an audacious sense of theatricality, taking the stage with painted faces and African garb while trumpeter-ringleader and resident sonic scientist Lester Bowie preferred his ever-present antiseptic long white lab coat. Their bold experiments during the '70s and '80s, following the group's motto "Ancient to the Future," opened a door for a generation of adventurous listeners and players.
A ceremonial banging of a huge gong by Famoudou Don Moye kicks off the first of four sets over a two-night engagement at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. As the last waves of that resonating gong dissipate, Roscoe Mitchell begins blowing freely on flute against a backdrop of bongos, bells, chimes and assorted hand percussion. This carries on spontaneously - a kind of spirited tribal jam calling in the spirits, representing the 'ancient' aspect of their motto -- for a full 12 minutes before Malachi Favors enters the fray, bowing his upright bass in vocal fashion on top of the simmering percussive undercurrent. As Favor's bass solo picks up steam over the course of eight minutes, he begins experimenting with impunity, delving into multiphonics and aggressive chording on his low-end instrument. Trumpeter Bowie takes the baton from Favors at the 17-minute mark as drummer Moye underscores his opening statements with thunderous mallets playing and dramatic cymbal crashes on the kit. By the 18:30 mark, all five intrepid improvisers are on their main axes, with Mitchell and Joseph Jarman picking up their respective saxophones and answering Bowie's trumpet blasts with conversational call-and-response phrases over Moye's rubato pulse that eventually morph into distinct themes. The band drops out as Favors engages in another extended and exotic bass solo before Moye ignites the ensemble with the kinetic drumming on the kit. The remainder of this first marathan improv piece, which weighs in at 46 minutes, contains an extended unaccompanied alto sax solo by Jarman that is a veritable clinic in overblowing and multiphonics and segues to Roscoe Mitchell's tongue-in-cheek, folkish theme, "Chinese Song," an old number from his 1967 solo album which is sung by the entire ensemble. "Improv 1" concludes with a cacophony of bells, whistles, kazoos and noisemakers played in free-for-all form by the renegade ensemble.
"Improv 2," which is much shorter at 29 minutes, is essentially a continuation of the uninterrupted, freewheeling group improvisation by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Opening with a salvo of duck calls and whistles, shaken sheets of aluminum and tambourines, underscored by Afro-Caribbean drumming, baliphone playing, chanting and whooping, this section may be even more outrageous than the first. This exploratory opening eventually morphs, at the 10-minute mark, into Jarman's explosive "Fanfare for the Warriors," the title track of the Art Ensemble's 1973 Atlantic album and perhaps the best example of the group's post-Albert Ayler intensity in a strictly free jazz bag. Bowie turns in a particularly scorching trumpet solo against Moye's powerful traversing of the kit on this tumultuous number. And they conclude their set with a taste from an unnamed, bluesy hard boppish theme. After taking the Great American Music Hall audience on such an exotic musical journey for an hour and 15 minutes, they are rewarded with a thunderous ovation from the adoring crowd of wide-opener listeners.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago grew out of the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble of the mid-'60s, which had in-turn grown out of Chicago pianist Muhal Richard Abrams' rehearsal band of the early '60s. Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors were all early members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a collective organized by Abrams and fellow forward-thinking composers. Lester Bowie moved to Chicago from St. Louis in 1966 and began rehearsing with Mitchell. The four musicians began working without a drummer as the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, recording the landmark Sound for the Delmark label in August of '66. In 1969, the band moved to Paris, where they met and hired drummer and Rochester native Don Moye, who had come to Europe in Detroit trumpeter Charles Moore's band. Renamed the Art Ensemble of Chicago, they recorded classic albums in Europe like Reese and the Smooth Ones (BYG) and People in Sorrow (Nessa) before moving back to Chicago in 1971. Their 1972 homecoming concert was recorded and issued as Live at Mandel Hall on Delmark.
The band's popularity grew through the '70s and their profile jumped up a few notches after being signed by the ECM label in 1977 and subsequently releasing a string of acclaimed albums through the '80s, including Nice Guys, Full Force, Urban Bushmen and The Third Decade. Jarman left the band in 1993 in order to devote himself full-time to spiritual matters. The band continued as a quartet but in 1999 Bowie was stricken with liver cancer, ultimately dying in November 8, 1999. The group continued as a trio with special guests until 2003, when Jarman rejoined the Art Ensemble lineup. Favors died in January 2004 and was replaced by bassist Jaribu Shahid. The young Chicago trumpeter Corey Wilkes later replaced Bowie in the lineup and appears alongside Shahid, Mitchell, Jarman and Moye on the group's 2006 Pi Recordings release, Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City. - Bill Milkowski