I've long been of the opinion that there are six Art Ensemble releases that stand above the rest and that, conveniently enough, they fall into three pairs:
First are the two masterpieces on Nessa, "People in Sorrow" and "Les Stances a Sophie". As I mentioned earlier PiS was recorded a scant two weeks after the Paris session but in terms of maturity of conception, it seems to have advanced several large strides. As wonderful as I find "The Spiritual", this album-length piece--while touching briefly on a few of the theatrical aspects of the earlier track, is much more a throughgoing whole, much deeper. The gorgeous, plaintive melody (Mitchell) glues the work together, surfacing periodically but it's the deliberate pace, the willingness to remain somber and restrained for about the first 85% of the piece that's especially striking. This also serves to increase the surprise at the abrupt shift toward the end of Side Two when the shrill double-reed drone (a shenai?) appears and the melody grows urgent, if not strident. Just a wonderful fully realized work. I've seen many listeners rank this at the top of the AEC's output, something that would be tough to argue with.
Well, except for Sophie, maybe....This may have been the second AEC album I heard; I recall ordering it from New Music Distribution Service pretty quickly after having heard "Bap-Tizum". Great cover, too, Roscoe looking especially cool. Incidentally, I just noticed checking at AMG that "Certain Blacks" is listed with a recording date of 2/12/70; my copy on Inner City was without a date. I assumed it was from around the same time, but hadn't realized it pre-dated Sophie by five months. It goes to a point I was going to make later that, as great as their stuff was from this period, they were by no means absolutely consistent, "Certain Blacks" being something of a blowing session, not bad, but not as profound as other work they were doing contemproaneously. Anyway, back to Sophie: Has there ever been a greater example of avant jazz/rock/funk hybrid than "Theme de Yoyo"? Not in this listener's book. I love Miles as much as the next guy, but this song has killed me from Day One and continues to do so decades on. Everything perfect, even from a pop song standpoint, given its length--nothing goes on too long, each statement is precise and impassioned, Fontella Bass' voice just oozes sex. What more could you want? And the rest of the album is just about as good. Again, they managed to achieve an amazing level of maturity in a short time. There's not a wasted sound here. And Don Moye....it's like a championship baseball team calling up a superstar from AAA. Cemented everything.
The second pair originally came out in the US on Prestige, of all things, the first simply called "The Art Ensemble of Chicago" and subtitled, "with Fontella Bass", the second "Phase One". The first seems to have pretty much disappeared--I don' think it's part of the current Atavistic reissue series (some correct me if I'm mistaken). [Whoops, I think I'm wrong, happily; just found it] Wonderful photo of Bass on the back; looks like frlom around the same time as this one. Each album features two side-long tracks. "How Strange/Ole Jed" opens with a fantastic African (Afro-Cuban) percussion/chant that I'm guessing Moye brought in. If anyone knows the source, please let me know. Interestingly, the section concludes with exactly the same conga pattern as the piece at the beginning of "Bap-Tizum". The main theme, a folk tale about Ole Jed falling into a well, sounds to me like the work of Favors with its southern inflections. It harkens a bit back to "The Spiritual", Bass laughing through some of the lyrics, before turning more somber near its end, all low horns and flute before a very short but riotous finale. Lovely piece. Mitchell's "Horn Web" (what a great title!) is more overtly experimental, beginning with an intense Moye solo before encountering a handful of pointillist blasts, then a soft arco bass/muted horns passage. Will's fascination with Mitchell's structural use of sound is in clear evidence here, the piece unfolding in slabs. There's what appears to be some group improvisation (I wonder if any rules were in effect) but even here, his flute acts like a sheepdog. It's spacey, something the AEC was often (sometimes justafiably) criticised for being, but here it all gels--diaphanous without evaporating entirely. There's a hint of the "Odwalla" theme buried inside as well some luscious horn harmonies.
Getting longish here. I'll continue with the other three later....