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.

16 comments:

nd said...

Hm, any thoughts on the recent (1990s & 2000s) albums, post-Bowie?

Brian Olewnick said...

Hey Nate. I never picked any of them up, though I heard bits on the radio. Nothing particularly struck me though, of course, I may be missing something. But as with many people whose career one has followed, at some stage it reaches a point of diminishing returns and you just decide to devote resources elsewhere, realizing you may end up overlooking some good stuff.

nd said...

Yeah, that's kind of my feeling. I had to review a couple of the albums (the weird disc with Harmut Geerken--Bowie's on that one--& the Pi disc The Meeting) & I found it hard going in both cases. Saw the group with Wilkes & Shahid in Guelph a couple years back; it was OK (from what I could tell from within the sleepy haze of a cold) but Jarman was weak & in general I felt it was time the bandname reverted to the Roscoe Mitchell Ensemble.

Anyway, was just askin' because the leadoff image for this post was from The Meeting!

Brian Olewnick said...

I was just searching around for a picture of them looking aged!

I do actually have that Geerken disc! (I file it under "G", though). I think Walt gave it to me. My recollection is that it's excruciatingly bad, more for Geerken than the AEC though they're not so hot either.

nd said...

Yeah, Geerken is really annoying on that one, in particular for chopping up the recording for no discernable reason during a beboppish medley (including "I Didn't Know What Time It Was"). I got rid of it a while back.

Richard said...

"Bafflingly bad" was a wonderful phrase for the CT/AEC disk. As for Taylor not playing on the Monk tunes, not playing anyone else's stuff is a long-standing thing with him. I don't have my copy of that recording at hand, but doesn't it say in the liners something about Taylor asserting that no one could do Monk better than Monk so Taylor didn't have to do Monk, or something to that effect? Diva-ish, but earned.

Brian Olewnick said...

On the face of it, I guess that may well have been Taylor's stance for a while, though he certainly covered other people's music early on, at least up to the Candid dates from 1960-61 ('New York City R&B' and 'Air').

Actually, that raises a question I've never been quite clear about. At the very end of "Silent Tongues" (1974, iirc), he does two solo encores of a piece called "After All". For my bucks, these are two of the most absolutely beautiful things I've ever heard him do. I've also seen references that the piece was a pre-exisiting one, maybe even something by Ellington(?). Anyone know the real deal?

richard said...

I'd be surprised if it were Ellington but it will be fun trying to figure it out. I'll be headed back to "Silent Tongues" and then into Duke.

Thom Jurek at allmusic.com hears all kinds of quotes, allusions and themes in CT that I can't make out.

Brian Olewnick said...

Checking AMG, I see there is in fact a Billy Strayhorn piece titled "After All". Didn't see (though I could've missed it) showing up on any Ellington albums, though it's on a Lawrence Brown release as well as an Ike Carpenter one. Hmmm....

richard said...

"After All" is on Ellington's "And His Mother Called Him Bill", and one of the versions for sale at amazon has sound clips. I always meant to buy "AHMCHB" but never got around to it. Too much good Ellington, too few dollars and hours.

Brian Olewnick said...

Jeez, I have that one. Gotta give it a closer lsten when I get home. thanks.

richard said...

you're welcome!

Brian Olewnick said...

OK, I have the Strayhorn/Ellington piece on now and, you know, I think it's the same thing, although Taylor extracted just a couple of kernels from it and concentrated on them. I don't think I would have noticed if I hadn't been listening for it, though. Wonder if there's a solo piano version around anywhere. But really interesting...

Brian Olewnick said...

Though, googling around, I couldn't find a single reference to Cecil's "After All" being the Strayhorn piece, so maybe I'm over-reading. Dunno!

richard said...

I think I lean toward coincidence, but it's a fascinating one. Taylor certainly esteems Ellington. And not every last thing he plays is something no one every played before (though a lot is!).

djll said...

Coming Home Jamaica (the Birdology release!), Tribute to Lester, and The Meeting are all solid, commendable albums. Nothing ground-breaking, but very listenable.

It's too bad the first (Atlantic/WEA) release of Coming Home Jamaica omitted the strongest pieces from the sessions, "Blue Hole/Mr. Freddy" and "C Monster," both (not coincidentally) by Roscoe Mitchell.