When Lester Bowie died, the impact was a bit like the death of John Lennon, at least in the jazz world. Bowie was a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, one of the most enduring and influential group’s in the post-1965 history of the music. Before any Beatle-philes go crying foul, let me just say that equating the AEC with the Fab Four isn’t as lame brained as it might seem. Both had a lasting effect on 20th Century music, drawing in facets of other cultures and championing an experimental spirit that routinely undermined existing musical conventions.
Over the span of three decades Bowie served as the AEC’s chief tone scientist, injecting liberal elements of funk and humor, and playing his part to the hilt by garbing himself in the trappings of a mad professor at the group’s countless concerts. With his passing, many wondered if the Ensemble would continue, filling the chasm-sized hole with a new voice, or soldiering on as a four-piece. Joseph Jarman’s departure soon after seemed to signal the death-knell and the remaining members focused on solo projects for several years.
Tribute to Lester comes as encomium to their fallen comrade and a reinvigoration of the AEoC esthetic. Bowie’s life and spirit are the subject and reedsmith Roscoe Mitchell, bassist Malachi Favors and drum-doyen Famoudou Don Moye are on hand to make it happen. Joseph Jarman is still absent at this juncture, though he would rejoin at the dawn of 2003, helping the Ensemble complete a project for the Pi label that has recently seen release as The Meeting. For this ECM date each man doubles on a customary cache of ‘little instruments’ including an array of whistles, gongs, bells, chimes and other percussion devices. Mitchell’s bulging satchel of reeds runs a wide register spectrum from flittering sopranino to lugubrious bass saxophone.
The opening “Sangaredi” coalesces out of a somewhat typical percussion panoply into a roiling vehicle for Mitchell’s bottom riffing bass sax atop a rigorous wash of gongs and chimes. On the temporally brief “Suite for Lester” the trio cycles from floating sopranino flanked by arco bass and hand drums into a chamber-style showcase for Mitchell’s sweetly gliding flute, rounding finally into groove-guided tenor, bass, drum romp that has more in common with the current crop of post-bop purveyors. Each section is touched on all too briefly and begs for further elaboration; the disc’s running time would have allowed it. Mitchell plants his feet for harder tenor during the “Zero/Alternate Line” medley, but it’s really Moye’s show as the drummer builds off a variety of tempi to create a colorful rhythmic slideshow projected against Favor’s stanchion sturdy bass lines.
Favors’ “Tutankhamun,” a signature piece dating back to at least the band’s early ’70s heyday, weds tumescent bass sax to a sparse shuffle beat of rotund bass, rolling snare and textured cymbals. Completing the program, the album’s lengthiest cuts, “As Clear as the Sun” and “Speaks to Me Often in Dreams” fly by. The former tailspins a bit from a prolix sortie by Mitchell’s soprano, but the atmospheric latter sets a course for the far-flung locales of the chimerical percussion islands as all three players make a beeline for their respective stashes of ‘little instruments.’ Suddenly the trip’s over and we’re back at the starting gate, all the more reason to cue up another tour. It’s hopelessly cliché, I know, but this really is the sort of disc that demands repeated listening.
The living chapter on Bowie’s contributions to the Art Ensemble might be closed in a pragmatic sense, but his legacy and influence will continue to flourish in the rich body of music he left behind. As evidenced by the loving homage here, his surviving comrades are still feeling and acting on it. I can almost picture the man in his white lab coat and spectacles, smiling from on high.
[Originally published 9/5/03 @ Dusted Magazine]
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