PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Art Ensemble of Chicago: Tribute to Lester

Brian Houston

The Art Ensemble of Chicago

Tribute to Lester

Label: ECM
US Release Date: 2003-08-26
UK Release Date: 2003-09-12

For the past 35 years or so, Art Ensemble of Chicago has been making some of the most interesting jazz records around. Like most free-jazzers, the bands' goal has always been transcendence. But unlike most transcendents, the Art Ensemble does not focus on just moving past the physicality of existence. Rather, the Art Ensemble immerses much of their music firmly in the physical realm of human experience through the use of visceral, tribal rhythm -- a rhythm that has its origins in the African heritage of the Art Ensemble's players. The dramatics of the Ensemble's tribal rhythm set the stage for the band's second act: the free-jazz explosion past the physical dimension into the cosmic consciousness that only liberated, chaotic jazz can explore.

Sound like a lot? It is. Delve into the Art Ensemble of Chicago's catalog and you will find mysteries, surprises, challenges, and complexity at every turn.

The Art Ensemble's latest record, Tribute to Lester, finds the band playing to memorialize Lester Bowie, the former trumpeter for the Ensemble who died in 1999. The loss of Bowie and the retirement of Joseph Jarman (to follow the path of Buddha) have found the Ensemble playing A Tribute to Lester as a trio (Roscoe Mitchell, saxophone; Malachi Moghostut, bass; Famoudou Moye, drums). This move to a three-piece has left the Ensemble sounding much lighter than they have over the past three decades. Previous Ensemble affairs have typically been full of thick sound, a density that was the result of using five members plus contributors to play a plethora of diverse and often unorthodox instruments. But the current reduction of sound doesn't necessarily hurt the band, they are still intent and clear in structure and flawless on technique, it just makes some of the moments on Tribute for Lester more restrained the older Art Ensemble records.

"Zero/Alternate Line" and "Tutankhamun" are the best examples of this new restraint. These tracks are modern, urban jazz. Employing tight, concise, direct explorations of space, the music here is focused and the band is playing together on a literal path, instead of toward a cosmic center. "Sangaredi" opens the album and displays the Ensemble's tribal roots, employing multiple strands of unconventional percussion that fall like rain over a tight, restrained bass line. This track lacks a melody, choosing instead to immerse the listener in atmosphere and landscape.

"Suite for Lester" is the track for Lester. It starts off slowly, with a pensive, mournful sax. The feeling of loss is palpable. Soft drums provide an irregular beat in the background, while a slow, subdued bass echoes the cry of the horn. It's sad, but incredibly beautiful. Interestingly though, the mourning lasts for less than half the track. The melody set-up at the beginning is smoothly converted into an easy, but more upbeat melody that continues to honor Lester. The theme of this part of the track is appreciation. But even this change in tempo is converted into yet another style, a third melody that is even more upbeat -- a sound of celebration. These changes of sound mark the full tribute to Lester: mourning the absence of a friend, appreciation for the time spent and music made together, and the celebration that, particularly for the mystic which all these guys are, a true, permanent transcendence begins once the physical world passes. This last part of "Suite for Lester", the celebration melody, will be stuck in your head all day, and you'll be thankful for it.

The last two tracks on the record, "As Clear as the Sun" and "He Speaks to Me Often in Dreams", are old-school Art Ensemble: free-jazz improvisations that start slow and completely destroy the sonic continuum. This is what Art Ensemble of Chicago has always been about; this is what it has spent about 35 years doing. And sure, the band is now smaller in number, older in age, and has come together under less than ideal circumstances, but the aim of creating music that reaches beyond what can be articulated in any other manner is still with the band. And these last two tracks show it. While "As Clear as the Sun" plays in my headphones right now, there are moments where I simply cannot type. There are moments where the music forces the listener to stop and really listen, because the music cannot be processed while any other cognitive or physical actions take place. And this is how jazz transcends the listener -- through an overwhelming immersion of sound. And no one immerses the listener any better than Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.