ECM Records didn't put out the daring first albums of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but the German label did produce some of that exciting and enduring band's best developed and tightest programs.
Manfred Eicher, who followed the AEC from its earliest incarnation, released the band’s first ECM album eleven years after having heard the 1967 releases of trumpeter Lester Bowie’s Numbers 1&2, which featured saxophonists Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell, and bassist Malachi Favors. The German producer heard in that album “a new and exciting model for improvised chamber music, opening a fresh chapter after the seismic achievements of Coltrane, Ornette and Cecil Taylor had brought “jazz to a culmination of sorts.”
Thus, the crucial components of the Art Ensemble aesthetic were already in place before the musicians sat down, at an outside cafe, for the group shot that graces Nice Guys‘ cover. They’d lived and worked together, touring the U.S. and Europe, rehearsing rigorously, negotiating with independent record producers. Mitchell embodied discipline and structural rigor. Jarman liked the organic, additive quality of starting softly, before adding verbal and theatrical quirks. Bowie, happy to explore his trumpet’s squelched blurts as well as its golden tones, connected with the timbral and hyper-melodic webs Mitchell and Jarman created. Favors provided a propulsive through-line, while Moyé stiffened the group’s over-or-under structures, and upped its momentum. His mastery of African, Asian and homemade percussion added a pan-ethnic dimension.
The Ensemble: building up to ECM
The first albums by the “Art Ensemble of Chicago” were A Jackson In Your House, Reese and the Smooth Ones and Message to Our Folks, recorded in Paris in 1969 by the BYG/Actuel label. All were iconoclastically drummerless. They employed deft use of “little instruments” such as finger cymbals, bells, gongs, squeeze toys, ocarinas and harmonicas, juxtaposed against the usual brass, reeds/winds and upright bass so as to challenge the instruments’ conventional hierarchy of importance. This had been an innovation advanced by Roscoe Mitchell, necessitated when drummer Philip Wilson had found no time to make music outside of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
They also made some adjustments to their repertoire with ECM by fashioning tracks to radio-play length, notably on Nice Guys‘ titular piece, which lasts less than two minutes. They also concentrated on tunefulness, with “Ja,” “597-59,” “Dreaming of the Master,” “Charlie M,” “Old Time Southside Street Dance,” “Funky AECO,” “Walking In The Moonlight,” “Zero” and “New York Is Full Of Lonely People” all highlighting clear themes and horns in harmony. However, seemingly diffuse extended improvisations, such as the 18-minute “Magg Zelma,” were recorded so that all nuances were tangible.
These actions are evidence of the master plan they’d always had, connecting with the greater visibility and the distribution possibilities of ECM after having projects released by small independents (Nessa, Delmark, BYG/Actuel) and medium level jazz labels (Atlantic, Prestige, Arista/Freedom).
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Art in the box
Included among the 21 cds in ECM’s 50th anniversary extravaganza boxed set, The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles are a run of four albums by the eponymous troupe – from 1978’s Nice Guys through 1985’s The Third Decade. They brim with bold melodies and frenetic improvisations, solid and slippery rhythms, broad dynamic ranges and abstract dramatic episodes, performed as complex suites by some of the most penetratingly critical, coherently unified virtuosi on the jazz planet.
Not to downplay the rest of what’s in this 13-inch cube of a sonic treasure chest. The Art Ensemble’s “associated ensembles” features their friends from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music: Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, Jack DeJohnette as well as farther-flung peers including British saxophonist Evan Parker, bassist Barry Guy and drummer Paul Lytton, and such younger collaborators as Vijay Iyer, Craig Taborn and Corey Wilkes. Together, they made music so spontaneous, original and exploratory as to defy dating, to withstand time.
It would take a full day to listen to the whole thing straight through, and even longer – 50 years? A lifetime? – to absorb everything that happens in the music, or as Lester Bowie might call it, “all the magic.” No problem. It’s all so incisive, enjoyable, provocative, there is no hurry.