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.