Nearly four years ago, Lester Bowie blew his last blat and took with him a sensibility that is as much missed as his trumpet playing. With no worthy heir to his white lab coat, jazz suffered a profound loss in theatrical wit, surgical cuts, massed brasses, pangeneric repertory, and nostalgic caprice. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, however, refused to lay down its little instruments, appearing periodically as a trio and, with the return this year of founding member Joseph Jarman, a quartet. Ending the post-Lester recording drought, two new CDs, one by each configuration, have now shown up at the same time. True believers will want both; those, like me, with limited patience for plunking and grinding percussion melees, will rejoice without cavil at the arrival of the majestic Tribute to Lester (ECM).
Recorded two years ago, it is unlike anything else in the AEC catalog, beginning with a compact overview of the group’s first 30 years. Famoudou Don Moye’s “Sangaredi,” first recorded in abbreviated form in 1987, is treated to a definitive rendition, its African rhythms smartly bubbling from the start and soon weighted with bass, gongs, and bass saxophone. Percussion feature though it is, the piece builds with compositional discretion until the chiming close, which sounds like Big Ben tolling for the dead. An extended silence leads to Roscoe Mitchell’s “Suite for Lester,” a tripartite masterstroke of concision that opens with an allusive, poignant soprano saxophone melody reminiscent of his “For Lester B,” recorded in three variants in 1997, most memorably as a hymn on Mitchell’s Nine to Get Ready. This melody, backed by empathic drums and the bowed bass of Malachi Favors Moghostut, gives way to a serene and full-bodied flute invention in the manner of Bach, complete with variation, that is in turn supplanted by a partying swing number on bass sax—all in little more than five minutes.
“Zero/Alternate Line” is what it says—Mitchell’s revision of Bowie’s “Zero,” a potent 32-bar ABAC theme introduced by the group (Bowie punched home an impressive solo) on The Third Decade. Mitchell announces the theme on alto in whole-note phrases at a dirge tempo, bringing out the melody’s belly-dancing provenance, then jaunts into tempo, working the changes that give the tune the feeling of infinite circularity—his long, freely sonorous phrases are pumped with connecting triplets. Favors’s “Tutankhamun” recalls the AEC’s genesis, having debuted as a bass solo on Congliptious, by Roscoe Mitchell’s Art Ensemble, which also introduced Bowie’s “Jazz Death?” Its marchlike descending cadences were interpreted a year later in a tour de force ensemble version (introduced by Mitchell with a poem in Joycean jabberwocky), and a few years later by him as an unaccompanied bass saxophone solo. Mitchell retains that instrument as he swaggers over a loping rhythm, imparting a eulogistic mood maintained in the bass and drum solos before returning with a madhouse soprano saxophone episode cast with impossibly long if patented phrases that never sound forced or mechanical. This is stirring, virtuoso stuff, and sets up a powerful return to the theme, with sax and bass echoing each other and the theme.
The second half of the album comprises two payoff group improvs that illuminate the AEC’s emotional extremes. “As Clear as the Sun” is a stunner. Mitchell’s soprano erupts after a bass and drums passage, and within about four minutes he enters a plane of intensity so profuse you have to laugh at the joy of it all—endless loops of sound, the piping like an aviary on uppers. It’s a miraculous display of lung control, an insanely protracted thrill ride in which the phrases sustain interest and energy, achieving a furious stasis and finally swelling and decreasing in volume like an approaching ambulance circling the block before stopping on a dime. It may not be for every mood (like watching someone do 300 push-ups, a friend said); but it’s nice to have when you need it. “He Speaks to Me Often in Dreams” is a little-instruments pastorale that should lower the blood pressure and encourage meditation in those so inclined.
I’m less enchanted by The Meeting (Pi), recorded in Wisconsin during several studio sessions last spring and documenting Joseph Jarman’s welcome return to the band after a decade. As at a concert, Mitchell’s percussion cage gets more of a workout here, along with assorted whistles and recorders. Indeed, Tribute to Lester feels like a record qua record, while The Meeting may well require the empathy of a throng rather than the fidgeting of an unevolved individual like myself. Still, there are moments.
The CD begins with a bang: Jarman’s song, “Hail We Now Sing Joy,” a hooky eight-bar melody that cleaves to the brain and inspires both reedmen to raucous flights. The sheer brawn of their saxophones produces bewilderingly profuse textures (one may even suspect dubbing, though there’s no mention of that) on Mitchell’s herky-jerky “Tech Ritter and the Megabytes” and his whirling “The Meeting,” in which the interplay is teeming and diverse. That cannot be said of the combined 30 minutes of “It’s the Sign of the Times” and “Wind and Drum,” which are spacy, quiet enclaves populated by ghostly fragments amid tinkling, jangling, buzzing, pealing, and altogether too much tranquility. What’s missing is the sensibility mourned and reclaimed in Tribute to Lester.