The first Art Ensemble of Chicago record I picked up was "Bap-Tizum", probably around its release date which I think was Fall, 1973. I don't exactly remember why, whether or not I'd heard anything on KCR (probably) or read something in downbeat. But the local record store, imaginatively named Recordland (near the corner of Main St. and Market St., Po'town) carried it as it was on Atlantic. More on that one later, but what a record.
I began backtracking, picking up what earlier releases I could find though for some reason the BYG stuff, even in later years, escaped my grasp. But the Nessas, the couple on Prestige and a few others were found.
In '75, Arista released a twofer which they titled "Paris Session", though the music therein has since seen the light of day in several other guises I believe. Recorded on July 26, 1969, it's the earliest AEC recording I have (as opposed to pre-AEC Mitchell led groups). It's very good, even if something of a grab bag affair, but it contains two stunning sidelong tracks: "Tutankhamen" (spelled "Tutankhamun" here) and one of my all-time favorite Art Ensemble performances, Roscoe Mitchell's "The Spiritual". Both, in different ways, are illustrative of what's been lacking in most modern jazz for a long time now.
I'm not sure there's a "melody" in jazz or anywhere else quite like Malachi Favors' lumbering, monolithic "Tutankhamen". It's almost anti-melodic, trundling hesitantly down its path like some just-awakened behemoth. It just sounds so ancient. If anyone can think of a precedent, I'd love to hear it. Led in by some gorgeous muted trumpet from Bowie, the theme is stated by the rather unusual tandem of bassoon and bass sax then just oozes out into the marshland. Bowie shines again and you can hear in his playing glimmers of what would occur less than two weeks later when they recorded the extraordinary "People in Sorrow". As was their custom, instruments are picked up and dropped throughout but there's never a forced sense, never any idea of using everything in the arsenal. It totally relaxed, in fact, underpinned by Favors' arco that allows the flute and trumpet to waft unhurriedly above. It gets spacey, regroups, turns sardonic, explodes in percussion--everything we came to expect from them.
But the real treasure is "The Spiritual". It's difficult to imagine how terrible any venture in this direction would be if tried today. A "story piece", it wallows in caricature and stereotypes, making no bones about it, leaving it to the listener to decide just how accurate or not they may be. Bowie sinking his trumpet into water, a totally lovely melody played haltingly on flute (Mitchell, I think) and various small percussion back up someone (Favors?) talking about going on down the road to hear "Ol' Billy Billy" tell a story. Exaggerated southern black country slang and redneck squawking trade blows amidst some of the loveliest horn playing and most sympathetic percussion they ever put on record. "Them boys gwine over to Mr. Greeeen's plantation...them boys ran off inna the swamp...Them niggers have killed my woman...I give five hunnert dollahs to the man who shoot 'em down!" It's just so, so unaffected. "What is that song you're always singin'?" "That song ain't got no name...it's just a spiritual...just a spiritual." I shudder to think how most of the Vision fest crowd would handle something like this.
The riverboat comes, there's banjo and kazoo playing and general noise-making. A percussive/whistle explosion, perhaps indicating the murder of the boys. Raging trumpet and sopranino, hallucinatory vibes (as in vibraphone), riotous piano (Jarman), pounding gongs and yelling. Favors' rock hard bass surges to the fore, steadying the craft with a rich, somber restatement of the melody over chaotic balafon, deep final strums giving way to Mitchell's anguished alto and the flute's return over whispered "I don't know"s, sighs and wails. The trumpet returns beneath the water, sinking out of sight.
An absolute masterpiece in this listener's opinion. Oh, for jazz to be in the creative state it was in '69!