Tuesday, January 23, 2007

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!


Anonymous said...

hey brian, nice writing! I really enjoyed this. As you know I am also going back over the early AEC stuff a lot and I have also been listening to TUTANKHAMUN, the first track is amazing for all the things you talk about, but the second, Mitchell's 'The Ninth Room' does it for me even more, Mitchell's solo is incredible, and has had me stumped for years! This counterpoint stuff that he was doing between the horns and the tuned percussion (bells etc) is completely amazing. It is so 'suggestive' of so much more than what actually gets played, as is so much of the 'story pieces' that you talk about. Vocals, let alone words and text is not something talked about that often concerning the AEC so it was great to read about this also...

Brian Olewnick said...

Hey Wil, yeah I liked the sychronicity with you asking about Mitchell the other day and me just getting to the AEC section of my collection. Needless to say, I'm very interested to hear how you translate what you learn from these guys into your own music.

Anonymous said...

for me Mitchell's music is fascinating for many reasons, but one the biggest things that strikes me about him is how he nearly always approached improvisation from the perspective of a composer, someone who really worked with FORM in an incredibly advanced way in terms of constructing the over all picture.
I hear his stuff like he is nearly always working with 'systems' for improvisation, groups of sounds/notes/textures that have multiple possibilies, things that lead to others but always with intent.
Braxton (and Threadgill) works in similar areas of course but although Mitchell can sound kinda dry sometimes and a bit academic he never leaves me cold like Braxton does sometimes...
it's hard for me explain this stuff so I hope it makes sense.
And of course the AEC for me (among other things) is an ever reminder to not be limited to one "style" or "method" of making music, that multiple things are always possible, either isolated or at the same time.

Brian Olewnick said...

Yeah, I think you see his concern with form from the earliest recorded work like "Sound" and, more so, on things like his solo from "Congliptious", THKHE (an amazing piece).

Have you kept up with his recent work, Will? I think the last thing I have from him is maybe "Hey Donald", a pretty bland, relatively straight ahead recording. I did like "Nine to Get Ready" on ECM when it appeared, though.

But I mentioned a few months back when I saw him at the Vision Fest this year, it was rather diappointing. Not that the music was bad but that it sounded almost exactly like what he was doing on "The Flow of Things" 20 years ago (and not as well).

I know the newish disc with Muhal and George Lewis has garnered raves, but I'm skeptical. (Now that I mention it, if you don't have it already, pick up his Quartet disc on Sackville with those two and Barefield. The version of "Tnoona" on that is fantastic, talking about form.

Anonymous said...

The most recent I have is SOUND SONGS, his solo double CD, which actually isn't that recent, 96 or so me thinks. There are some great things on this disc, maybe somekind of 'round up' of many ideas worked on over the decades but I have no problem with that.
I saw him play (for the first and only time) last year in Paris with the AEC and he did some stuff that still blew me away, some of the circular breathing stuff which maybe hasn't changed as much as it has continued to develop.
I don't know that quartet recording, would like to hear it...
To be honest there aint much (any?) jazz from today that makes it to my cd player and stays there for longer than 10 minutes(!), but then again there aint much impro music that does either at the moment ... to me heaps of it lacks ... well, form ! (even in all it's most abstract forms)!

Anonymous said...

I just re-read my last statement,
I sound like THE total jazz old fogey! Ha!

Brian Olewnick said...

You are, Will, you are.

I'd forgotten that I had a vinyl copy of "Message to Our Folks", though it's the Affinity reissue, not the BYG original. Another wonderful album. "Old Time Religion" is classic--who could pull that off nowadays? And "A Brain for the Seine" is another expansive, utterly imaginative side-length piece. This was recorded August 12, 1969, a day before Woodstock began.

Anonymous said...

yeah, I have MESSAGE TO OUR FOLKS and A JACKSON IN YOUR HOUSE on the same double disc, and they are both full of these kind of story pieces,
you go from good ole dixie, to an army drill, to a lovely waltz, to that old time religeon, bird, to rockin out,
classic jarman guitar on rock out! awesome, yeah today's jazz world wouldn't even laugh I don't think, when musicians tend to do dip into stylystic stuff like this now it is always minus the irony, humour and the kind of sadistic sense of parody that the AEC had..

Herb Levy said...

I miss the Art Ensemble's early episodic structures too.

If you were to consider the whole disc as a work, perhaps some of Mitchell's most recent recordings, like Sound Songs, come close to this form, but most of the individual units are discrete rather than flowing between the zones.

I can imagine some Zorn fans arguing that some of his collage-style works may be similarly evocative, but I don't hear much of it that way (with the possible exception of certain realizations of some of the game pieces).

But for me, the closest thing currently may be some of Braxton's Ghost Trance pieces, in which there's a sort of loose rhythmic core over which sub-groups and soloists from a larger ensemble put together montages of improvised collage elements from earlier Braxton compositions as well as collectively improvised sections. It doesn't happen everytime, but when it does it seems to have some of the same "magic" happening.

These pieces don't seem, to me, at least, to have much of the same ritual/theatrical feel to them, but when it's happening, the intuitive quality of the flow of the sections may seem similar.

I'll have to listen through some of what I have to come up with some specific recorded performances to point to in this regard.