“The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Related Ensembles” is an epochal celebration of one of the great bands of the last century. And it is delivered in late 20th century format.
Massive CD box sets were go-to Christmas gifts in the era before all-access streaming and retro vinyl, and at 21 discs, this is one of the largest of the form, although smaller than the 24-disc RCA Ellington centennial, or the 200-disc Mozart 225th anniversary collection.
These anthologies are an argument for the artist’s importance. The material may be filled out with an obsessive’s wealth of alternative or incomplete takes, or, as in this case, collect recordings long available independently, albeit curated in a numbered edition with all the original art interleaved with brief appreciations by various writers and musicians.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago were the prime champions of the Chicago-based Association for Advancement of Creative Music. Their early work had a strong affinity for the free-form expressionism of pioneers like Coltrane and Cecil Taylor, but by the time this collection starts had evolved into a winning balance of approachability and abstraction. While never easy listening, their trailblazing compositions left enough breadcrumbs in the melodic/harmonic maze for audiences to follow. Their performances mixed ritual and intense/humorous play arguably captured at its most listenable during their association with ECM.
It was an unlikely match, even if both label and band celebrate their 50th anniversary this year. ECM was known for chamber productions with the crystalline clarity of a Nordic night. In the early '80s, that was a great setting for Keith Jarrett, Gary Burton, and Burton’s young sideman Pat Metheny. The Art Ensemble was consciously African, hot, unrestrained, spiced with chaotic unpredictability. The combination worked well, arguably cutting back on the intensity but also revealing complexity and intelligence of the interplay. The five records of that fire and ice artist and label collaboration are the heart of this collection.
The balance of the box set is filled out with releases featuring key band members, trumpeter Lester Bowie and/or saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell as leaders or sidemen. Not to downplay the contributions of saxophonist Joseph Jarmon, bassist Malachi Favors, or percussionist Famodou, Bowie and Mitchell were the Lennon/McCartney of the band. With his waxed goatee and white lab coat, in contrast to the Afro-centric tribal garb and face-paint of the others, Bowie was the McCartney of the duo. His music was accessible, warm, and full of life. His Brass Fantasy was not averse to mixing up jazz standards with pop/rock hits like “I Only Have Eyes for You” or the Platters' “The Great Pretender.” Mitchell, by default, was the Lennon; more avant-garde and exploratory. If Bowie’s later session tended toward melodic accessibility, Mitchell’s were more abstract and impressionistic, if still based on swing. Fiery improvisations have seldom been so pristinely recorded.
The recordings stretch from 1979’s “Nice Guys” to 2013’s valedictory “Made in Chicago.” There are a host of great players who appear in the later groups- Vijay Iyer, Henry Threadgill, Jack DeJohnette, John Abercrombie. The sessions are not chronologically-sequenced; Bowie, who died of liver cancer in 1999, is still alive and playing on the 20th CD, “Jack DeJohnette New Directions In Europe.” Appropriately so. However much you liked and admired The Art Ensemble and the cloud of groups that followed in its slipstream, Bowie was the player you could love.