Tuesday, February 06, 2007
I don't think the Art Ensemble released anything for five years after Fanfare. 'Chi-Congo' (which I don't have) dates from '73 but I think it was released much later. 'Kabalaba' was one of the four albums to appear under their own imprint, AECO (the others being solo efforts from Jarman, Moye and Favors). They all came out in '78 as I recall, though this one was recorded in July, '74 at the Montreux Festival. Abrams is still in tow, but the live performance illustrates how sketchy they could be. Some hot moments, mucho doodling.
But in '79, they signed with ECM and out came "Nice Guys" (recorded in '78). I think it's safe to say that many, many people got their first exposure to the Art Ensemble via ECM and that this explains, at least partially, why "Nice Guys" and "Full Force" show up on many best of AEC lists. They're good albums, very good, but I can't help but think that their high ranking has more to do with these having been the first time many listeners heard this sort of thing. The same, of course, could apply to my high ranking of those previous six albums, who knows? Listener-friendly things like Bowie's "JA" (inspired, I take it, by his lengthy sojourn in Jamaica where I recall reading that he was treated as something of a big celebrity) and Mitchell's title cut opened the door, I imagine, to wary listeners but in the process (imho) lowered the probity quotient. Side Two works much better, concluding with Jarman's "Dreaming of the Master", a piece that can hold its own with pretty much anything they ever recorded.
There was something of falling into this habit on AEC releases for quite some time: One really outstanding piece and a bunch of OK ones. "Full Force" had Bowie's "Charlie M" (although I give it an extra point for one of the all-time stupendous song titles: "Magg Zelma"), "Urban Bushman", a live double disc, had a couple: Bowie's "New York Is Full of Lonly People" and Mitchell's beautiful "Uncle" (a rephrasing of "Eeltwo" from his solo album on Sackville, iirc, not having yet replayed it) [edit: relistening to "Urban Bushmen", almost all of it holds up better than I would have thought] and "The Third Decade", their last for ECM from '84, had Mitchell's "The Bell Piece". They're still good recordings, but it seems clear that the well is beginning to go dry. There's another odd one from around this time which I have on Praxis with the title, "Among the People", though it was reissued in recent years by Leo as "Live in Milano" as part of their Golden Years of New Jazz (yeesh). The title track is actually a sidelong version of "Tutankhamen" and an intriguing one. The other two tracks, "Shango King" and "Choosing a Cracker" are less rewarding.
Switching over to DIW, there was some hope for a less "clean", more rough-edged music to emerge and, to an extent, that happened. There's a bit more rawness but I don't think anything could prevent a natural downhill slide into a perfunctory kind of craft as opposed to inspiration. Something like "Live in Japan" hits all the required points--Ohnedaruth, a quirky song, a percussion piece, a quasi-bop number, Odwalla, but it's like ticking off agenda items. Everything's competent, nothing's inspired. Bowie was by now drifting into relatively lightweight concerns like his Brass Fantasy, Jarman into increasingly new age-y forms of mysticism. Mitchell seemed to be devoting more energy to his own projects; you almost had the sense that they were keeping the AEC together as a concern more from a sense of obligation than desire. There was an enjoyable album of covers, including a very hot version of Fela's "Zombie" (with some great Moye), but clearly they're running out of steam.
The last LP I have is "The Alternate Express", a 1989 date. I continued to hope against hope and purchased a number of AEC discs, though they were by and large disappointing. One partial exception was "Art Ensemble of Soweto" and that was due almost entirely to the presence of the wonderful Amabutho Male Chorus. I think the last disc I bought was the bafflingly bad collaboration with Cecil Taylor on which, for reasons I can't fathom, Taylor didn't play on the two Monk covers. Maybe someone knows the rationale behind this decision. I last caught them in a Jarman-less performance at Avery Fisher Hall maybe 7-8 years ago. I don't recall too much aside from enjoying Mitchell's percussion cage. With Bowie and Favors gone, it seems pointless to continue but I guess they're doing so.
Not to dwell on the lower points in their career, though. From 1969 to '75 or so, they produced some of the most beautiful music on the planet and for that, I'm profoundly grateful. Thanks, gentlemen.