Monday, January 10, 2011

1987: Art Ensemble of Chicago

This review appeared 24 years ago in the Watsonsville Register-Pajaronian. Though the Art Ensemble of Chicago continues to record and perform, they have lost founding members Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors. You can purchase some of their nearly four dozen albums, or try some videos over here.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago made their Santa Cruz debut last night at the newly remodeled Kuumbwa Jazz Center. The five multi-instrumentalists, who have played together for over twenty years, delighted two capacity crowds with a stunning display of virtuosity.

The Art Ensemble grew out of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music, founded in the mid-60's to teach jazz to Chicago's urban youth. They, along with other AACM graduates, were inspired by and expanded upon the "free jazz" explorations of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and others. Recently, in a series of records for ECM, the Art Ensemble have shown a knack for a more melodic style of jazz that has lost none of its quirkiness.

Last night's show was not a series of tunes per se, but rather a seamless, 75-minute voyage through a variety of moods, styles, and structures. At times wildly improvisatory, at others painstakingly rehearsed, it was all delivered with good humor.

Each musician, given room for a solo, showed both a mastery of his instrument and a cheerfully unconventional approach to it. Malachi Favors strummed and plucked his standup bass like a giant ukelele. Roscoe Mitchell took his alto sax well beyond the limits of its upper register. Joseph Jarman performed stately meditations on both soprano and tenor sax. Don Moye threw himself into a pyrotechnical drum break. And Lester Bowie, whose trumpet soared all night long, stood and uttered a squawking, coughing, sputtering solo that had his colleagues mugging behind him.

Favors, Moye and Jarman, all in traditional African dress with painted faces, occasionally set their instruments aside to choose from a small army of whistles, horns, bells, conch shells, bird calls, and gongs. Jarman also made expressive use of a synthesizer. Bowie, in his customary white lab coat, abandoned himself to dance when the rhythm section's swing became irresistable. Only Mitchell, in a suit and tie, was conventionally dressed, befitting his sober demeanor.

Throughout their history the Art Ensemble have pursued the delicate balance between spontaneity and discipline that characterizes the best in jazz. Last night they walked that thin line with authority, in a concernt marred only by its brevity. Having them here in Santa Cruz was, as promoter Jerry Percy put it, "a dream come true."

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