ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO

Tribute to Lester
ECM 1808

ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO
The Meeting
PI Recordings PI07

Could the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) continue performing after the November 1999 death of Lester Bowie following 30 years of close collaboration? Sure, each members had his own side projects over the years and the band had survived the defection of reedman Joseph Jarman in 1993, but going on without the flamboyant presence of the lab-coat wearing trumpeter appeared impossible.

As Bowie once famously replied to another question: “Well, I guess it all depends on what you know,” and chuckled evilly. Not only did the three remaining members regroup to turn out TRIBUTE TO LESTER, but then the unexpected happened. Jarman brought his collection of reeds to mesh with the sounds from fellow reedist Roscoe Mitchell, plus bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut and percussionist Famoudou Don Moye on THE MEETING, although the title may suggest a non-permanent hook-up.

Unfortunately since these CDs were recorded Favors too has passed on. An unshowy tower of strength in this band and with Kahil El Zabar’s Ritual Trio, his death from pancreatic cancer in February may finally make perpetuating the AEC impossible.

Perhaps this was already suggested by the music here. As a three-piece and/or four-piece configuration, the band already seemed to be in a weakened state, at least in contrast with its earlier, more muscular work. On the evidence of the two CDs, the group’s more precious, microtonal tendencies, appear to have been reinforced at the expense of the outrageous humor Bowie sometimes brought to the bandstand. Furthermore the preternatural, stillness Jarman apparently exhibits as a teacher of Buddhism makes its way into the quartet session as well, making it too low-key when more exuberance would have brought forth more musical contrasts.

Perhaps reflecting the ascendancy of drummer Famoudou Don Moye, percussive sounds predominate on the discs, with more of a rhythmic drive exhibited on the Chicago-recorded TRIBUTE TO LESTER than the other CD. Both bassist Favors and multi-reedist Mitchell play percussion as well here, but at least the harder pulse gives more vitality to the proceedings, something a memorial to a fallen comrade should have. Conversely, some respite from these showcases for AEC-described “little instruments” is provided by Mitchell’s sax wizardry.

During the course of the nearly 14-minute “He Speaks to Me Often in Dreams” for example, it appears as if the three are wandering around the studio hitting and banging percussion tools by chance. They’re not, of course, and the textures created by shaking Mitchell’s percussion cage as well as Moye’s congas and what results from others pealing bells, buzzing door-bells, shaking maracas and hitting xylophones sums up one part of the AEC’s appeal. Intermittent, panpipe-style sounding from flute finally turns this final track into a threnody, though.

Mitchell’s bass saxophone drones go up against the mix of percussion on “Sangaredi”, while Moye’s ruffs, rolls thumps and flams are pierced by circularly breathed tones from the saxman on “As Clear as the Sun”.

That breathing exercise may put the reedist in the company of Euro improvisers like Evan Parker, but, on the other hand, some of the other tunes are pure Afro-American funk. “Zero/Alternate Line” is a hard and heavy line that features a gentle shuffle beat, a walking bass and Mitchell fielding multiphonics that manage to suggest both New Thing frenzy and Gene Ammons-like South Side jumps. “Tutankhamun” is a honking version of an AEC classic from the 1960s. As Favors’ fingering keeps the beat going, Mitchell, on tenor, scoops out lower tones from his bell, then creates a ney-like sound from his sopranino growling out double tongued excitement.

THE MEETING could have benefited from a bit of this excitement. Although Jarman’s reed and percussion arsenal is added to Mitchell’s, the overriding feel of the session is so reductionist that the listener may feel as if he has wondered into a microtonal recital. Adding another member to the band still doesn’t make this disc, recorded in different sessions at Madison, Wisc., sound like a full-fledged AEC disc.

“Tech Ritter and the Megabytes” and “Hail We Now Sing Joy” are the two atypical tracks, but together they barely add up to 11 minutes. The first is a Mitchell-created funky march that may or may not honor Bowie’s brass band proselytizing. At least with the composer huffing away on bass sax and Jarman’s clarinet lines spanning the others’ beats, it moves at an energetic pace. The former has a catchy melody, with the words of praise sung in a pleasant, off-key fashion by Jarman. His alto solo seems to relate more to pre-AEC Eric Dolphy-Ornette Coleman style than the band’s individual take on the tradition, with only Favors’ on-the-money bass work holding everything together.

Most of the other pieces take the unobtrusive experimentation in the percussion lab concept to an immeasurable extreme. Except for some ethereal flute tones, odd whinnying sax lines and indistinct whispers on the penultimate track, every other sound seems to involve low-key percussion expelled at a languid pace. Bells ring and jingle, a toy vibraphone resonates, gongs boom minutely, finger cymbals shake, triangles are hit and hand drums struck.

Perhaps the most egregious — and certainly, at nearly 19 minutes — most extended example of this appear on “It’s The Sign of the Times”. Although supposedly divided into four solos and an ensemble section, the entire track seems to be one of a piece, and a lowercase excursion at that. On and off sounds such as scrapes, crackles, reed buzzes and kazoo-like whistles predominate, with pitches coursing forward for a coupe of minutes at a time then vanishing. At one point you hear a serene flute line upfront, with gongs being manipulated in background, at another drum rolls followed by a serpentine alto or soprano saxophone portion that opens up into bowed bass motion and some shaking percussion hits. The overall effect is eerily metallic, like electronic collages but — obviously — without the surge of electricity.

Dispassionately listening to both CDs, make you hope that events prove otherwise and these won’t be the AEC’s less-than-stellar swansongs. But even before Favors’ passing, it’s evident that neither 1+1+1 nor 1+1+1+1 adds up to five.

- Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Tribute: 1. Sangaredi 2. Suite for Lester 3. Zero/Alternate Line 4. Tutankhamun 5. As Clear as the Sun 6. He Speaks to Me Often in Dreams

Personnel: Tribute: Roscoe Mitchell (sopranino, alto, tenor and bass saxophones, flute, whistles, percussion cage); Malachi Favors Maghostut (bass, bells, whistles, gongs); Famoudou Don Moye (drums, congas, bongos, counsel drum, bells, whistles, gongs, chimes)

Track Listing: Meeting: 1. Hail We Now Sing Joy 2. It’s The Sign of the Times A. Malachi Favors (solo) B. Roscoe Mitchell (solo) C. Joseph Jarman (solo) D. Don Moye (solo) E. Ensemble 3. Tech Ritter and the Megabytes 4. Win and Drum 5. The Meeting 6. Amin Bidness 7. The Trian to lo

Personnel: Meeting: Joseph Jarman (wooden flute, C flute, flute and bass flute, Eb sopranino clarinet, clarinet, sopranino, alto and tenor saxophones, percussion, wooden stand, drum, bells, whistles, gongs and table vibraphone); Roscoe Mitchell (sopranino, alto, tenor and bass saxophones, piccolo, flute, bass and great bass recorders, whistles, percussion cage); Malachi Favors Maghostut (bass, percussion); Famoudou Don Moye (drums, African drums, congas, bongos)