ART EN­SEM­BLE OF CHICAGO The Art En­sem­ble Of Chicago And As­so­ci­ated En­sem­bles

Avant-jazz mu­sic’s most charis­matic outfit, com­piled by ECM. By John Lewis

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For half a cen­tury now, The Art En­sem­ble of Chicago have been a car­toon­ish pres­ence in the usu­ally aus­tere world of avant-garde mu­sic. In con­cert, they turned free im­pro­vi­sa­tion into a com­pelling pan­tomime – sax­o­phon­ist roscoe Mitchell might have veg­e­ta­tion grow­ing from his hat; trum­peter Lester Bowie would wear a white lab coat; bassist Malachi Fa­vors and drum­mer Don Moye would wear tribal body paint, while Joseph Jar­man once came on stage wear­ing naught but a sax­o­phone sling. Be­tween them, they’d play hun­dreds of in­stru­ments – from conch shells to gongs, from duck calls to bi­cy­cle bells, from squeaky toys to the gi­ant bass sax­o­phone – their play­ful im­pro­vi­sa­tions punc­tu­ated by to­tal si­lence and by ec­static, thrash­ing dis­so­nance. They re­jected the cat­e­gory of ‘jazz’ and in­stead de­clared their out­put “Great Black Mu­sic: From An­cient To Fu­ture” – fit­tingly, the Art En­sem­ble dipped back in time to mu­sic that pre-dated jazz (jug bands, chain-gang hollers, an­tique blues, African re­li­gious rit­u­als, baroque dances) and pro­jected for­ward to an avant-garde mu­sic that de­fied cat­e­gory.

The wild­ness that the band dis­played in con­cert was, how­ever, rather dif­fi­cult to cap­ture on LP. 1969’s punky, rit­u­al­is­tic

Mes­sage To Our Folks is a good start­ing point for cu­ri­ous rock fans, but many of their early al­bums were rather scrappy record­ings for French and Amer­i­can indie la­bels that never re­ally cap­tured their ap­peal. That was un­til this most Afro­cen­tric of out­fits were signed – to many peo­ple’s sur­prise – by the ‘whitest’ and most Euro­pean of jazz la­bels, ECM.

It was ac­tu­ally a good fit for a band that, de­spite their roots in Chicago’s ex­per­i­men­tal scene, had de­vel­oped strong links with the Euro­pean avant-garde (they ac­tu­ally came into be­ing while

ex­iled in Paris in 1968). And Man­fred Eicher’s Ger­man la­bel rein­vig­o­rated the band, al­low­ing them the time, space and bud­get to record in sonic de­tail. This mam­moth, 21-disc boxset com­piles ev­ery­thing that AEoC mem­bers have recorded for ECM over the last 40 years, from the four al­bums re­leased be­tween 1978 and 1984, to myr­iad projects that Bowie and Mitchell recorded with other heavy­weight mu­si­cians, in­clud­ing Kenny Wheeler, Char­lie Haden, Jack DeJohnette, Wadada Leo Smith, Evan Parker and Muhal richard Abrams. The AEoC’s ECM de­but,

Nice Guys (1978), is a fine start­ing point. From the drunken swing of the ti­tle track, to the reg­gae-tinged “Ja”, to the Miles Davis trib­ute “Dream­ing of The Mas­ter”, this is a thor­oughly ac­ces­si­ble and con­fi­dent se­lec­tion, while the glo­ri­ously spooky “Folkus” shows how serene and at­mo­spheric free im­pro­vi­sa­tion can be. The 1980 al­bum Full Force (fea­tur­ing the In­dian-tinged im­pro­vi­sa­tions of “Magg Zelma” and the free­wheel­ing Min­gus trib­ute “Char­lie M”) was fol­lowed by a con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous dou­bleal­bum Ur­ban Bush­men (the best doc­u­ment of their in­sane live shows); while The Third

Decade, their fi­nal band al­bum for ECM in 1984, lurches from an­cient to mod­ern, from trad jazz (“Walk­ing In The Moon­light”) to brassy hip-hop (“Funky AECo”) via John Cage-style min­i­mal­ism (“The Bell Piece”).

Just as in­ter­est­ing are the myr­iad spin-offs that Art En­sem­ble mem­bers have recorded for ECM. Lester Bowie’s first two ECM al­bums are a whim­si­cal mix of funk, gospel, doo-wop, salsa and be­bop, all the time us­ing his im­pres­sive reper­toire of smears, growls and whin­ny­ing squeals, while the two al­bums with his Brass Fan­tasy – 1985’s

I Only Have Eyes For You and 1986’s Avant Pop – see him cover­ing a se­ries of un­likely pop songs, from Whit­ney Hous­ton to Wil­lie Nel­son, from Fats Domino to the Dells, with a New or­leans-style march­ing band fea­tur­ing Bob Ste­wart on tuba.

Bowie’s death in 1999 did rob the AEoC of its most glo­ri­ously un­hinged mem­ber: 2001’s Trib­ute To Lester is poignant but rather more as­cetic than pre­vi­ous Art En­sem­ble re­leases. And sub­se­quent it­er­a­tions of the band are dom­i­nated by the rather more as­trin­gent roscoe Mitchell, whose more orches­tral in­stincts are given full vent on his two al­bums with the Transat­lantic Art En­sem­ble. 2007’s Com­po­si­tion/Im­pro­vi­sa­tion Nos 1, 2 & 3 and 2008’s Bous­tro­phe­don see Mitchell and Minneapolis pi­anist Craig Taborn joined by a Euro­pean outfit, led by cir­cu­lar-breath­ing sax­o­phon­ist Evan Parker. There are lengthy im­pro­vi­sa­tions, writ­ten-through cham­ber orches­tral works for strings and wood­wind, with some star­tling so­los from the likes of Parker and flautist Neil Met­calfe.

Part of the Art En­sem­ble’s USP was to avoid pi­anos or gui­tars on their al­bums, so it’s sur­pris­ing to hear their mem­bers in more or­tho­dox jazz set­tings. New

Di­rec­tions, a 1978 Jack DeJohnette al­bum fea­tur­ing Bowie on trum­pet and a fiery John Aber­crom­bie on gui­tar, is a charged ses­sion where Bowie de­ploys his full bat­tery of un­usual ef­fects over Aber­crom­bie’s woozy chords, while 2015’s Made In Chicago is a com­pelling piece of im­prov. But still, those dis­tinc­tive Art En­sem­ble qual­i­ties – fid­gety, funny, funky and febrile – are present through­out.

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