Sunday, July 31, 2011

Flood And Tyde

Fluxus, Post-Modernism, Downtown Music and European Improvisation: a starting kit
Words: Gian Paolo Galasi

Maciunas, Fluxus ccVTRE Fluxus 1964-1975
When talking about the Downtown music scene, the 'Reaganomics', as the end of the 'Loft-Scene', postmodernism and the influence of Fluxus on avant-garde music were cited. 'Postmodernism' was a transversal movement, a tendency in contemporary culture to criticize sharp classifications - as male versus female, straight versus gay, white versus black, and imperial versus colonial - emphasizing the role of language, power relations, and motivations.

As a non-belief in objective truth, postmodernism is related to what happens in that space once called 'subjective'. A form of subjectivity not seen as a whole, but analyzed, which is disintegrated, in tendencies, influence spheres, disciplines. In a way, Postmodernism is related to the human being from a point of view that is strikingly similar to that of sociologists and anthropologists, even if 'in absence', so to speak. As Victor Turner, a British cultural anthropologist wrote in his "The Anthropology of Experience", 

'all human act is impregnated with meaning, and meaning is hard to measure […]. Meaning arises when we try to put what culture and language have crystallized from the past together with what we feel, whish and think about our present point in life'.

Victor Turner differentiated himself from Claude Lévi-Strauss structural anthropology in this, that he took up Wilhelm Dilthey idea of 'experience' and put it at the center. Experience so is the result of "the Hermeneutic circle", which is the recurring movement between the implicit and the explicit, the particular and the whole. This idea is at the core of what Turner called 'liminality'. As Charles La Shure states in his "What is Liminality?",

“liminal” first appears in publication in the field of psychology in 1884, but the idea was introduced to the field of anthropology in 1909 by Arnold Van Gennep in his seminal work, The Rites of Passage. Van Gennep described rites of passage such as coming-of-age rituals and marriage as having the following three-part structure: 1. separation, 2. liminal period, 3. reassimilation. The initiate (that is, the person undergoing the ritual) is first stripped of the social status that he or she possessed before the ritual, inducted into the liminal period of transition, and finally given his or her new status and reassimilated into society.

This is something similar to what happens in the art field. It is not by chance, in fact, that Victor Turner himself, in his "Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society" (1975) shifted on performative drama as modern forms of liminarity:

Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman - Living Cello
We tend to find very frequently that it is not a theorist’s whole system which so illuminates, but his scattered ideas, his flashes of insight taken out of systemic context and applied to scattered data. Such ideas have a virtue of their own and may generate new hypotheses. They even show how scattered facts may be systematically connected! Randomly distributed through some monstrous logical system, they resemble nourishing raisins in a cellular mass of inedible dough. The intuitions, not the tissue of logic connecting them, are what tend to survive in the field experience.

More recently, Davide Sparti (professor of Sociology of Cultural Processes and Epistemology of Social Studies), in his "L'identità Incompiuta. Paradossi dell'improvvisazione musicale" pointed at the issues of identity and social recognition as the main characteristics of improvised music. Having Michel Foucault and Annah Arendt as primary references, both involved in matters like change and freedom in the subjective experience, and their connection with social and cultural tendencies, Sparti tried to analyze improvised music - John Coltrane, the AACM, Sun Ra, Sam Rivers and Sonny Rollins are some of the musicians taken as an example - relating aesthetics choices to identity choices:

In the moment in which he detects in the improvisational event his proper and unique criterium, the jazz player seems to sentence himself to disregard and marginalization (both musical and social) […] a freeing from judgements and acknowledgments stored, without accessing to another community that can recognize the musician. [my translation in English] 

Those words are echoing the ones Anthony Braxton used when talking with journalist Graham Lock about 

'Western media's current misdocumentation and misunderstanding of 'trans-African functionalism', that is black culture and particularly jazz'

even if the perspective is slightly different in focus. Sparti is working on an attempt to describe how subjectivity is involved in the process of improvising, seeing the final shape of the 'solo', the style of the musician and his social acceptance as results, whereas Braxton's statement stressed out how and why mass media were such as reductionists: 

"The music has always been associated with the red-light district and all of that mentality, as if the music was an affirmation of lower partials, or sin, when in fact in every phase all of the masters had a viewpoint about humanity, and the music that was solidified - the science and vibrational dynamics of that music - held forth the most positive alternatives for the culture" 

In that perspective, the 'loft era' was a permanent laboratory in which musicians, as individuals, had the possibility to get in touch and work on their artistic creation, to build something similar to a community in which to share their ideas and practice their music, and a place in which to have inputs on the matters of self production and self determination as creative human beings.

John Zorn, Polly Bradfield, Andrea Centazzo, Eugene Chadbourne - 1978

The following phase, in which post-punk, contemporary music and visual arts collided with jazz and improvised music, was like the big cauldron in which different tendencies and different aesthetics merged together.

Initially, the term Downtown music was given to the a scene that was heavily influenced by the Fluxus movement - even if the first musician to be actively involved in Fluxus was John Cage. Fuxus was concerned, both in Europe and in the Usa, on the cutting off with linear narration, using shock as a tool to communicate more directly than in the official - at that times 'bourgeois' was of common use - world related to art galleries.

As in George Maciunias' Manifesto (1963), we can read:

"Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, 'intellectual', professional and commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, mathematical art." 

Whereas Sun Ra stated, in a 1983 interview with Graham Lock:

"I like all sounds that upset people, because they's too complacent. There are some sounds that really upset 'em and I like to shock'em out of their complacency 'cause it's a very bad world in a lot of aspects. You need to wake up." 

While Braxton's 'restructuralist' concept was an attempt to throw away the divisions between art and life, as in the romantic view of Charlie Parker as a self-destructive drug addicted but instinctive be-bop genius, Fluxus' ideal was exemplified by Maciunas with the lines

'FUSE the cadres of cultural, social and political revolutionaries into united front & action.' 

Performance, 1983. Courtesy Artservices / Lovely Music, New York

This idea of 'fusion' as revolution, against artificial division as an instrument of 'power' - bourgeois in this case, but if you take Malcolm X speeches, there were a lot of references to the Roman Empire, as a metaphor for both political and cultural colonialism - is the reason I put together references to Turner's anthropology with improvised music, Fluxus and Postmodernism. 

Even today a documentarist like Eyal Sivan puts the concept of subjectivity at the center of his work on social and political conflict, as the blind spot to start with in order to develop tools that can goes beyond a dualistic structure.

If we name a subject as someone who has a proper history, able to understand it and speak about it as to express the sense of it - that is the concept of 'hermeneutic circle': going from the 'inside', the lived experience, to the 'outside', the judgement on what experienced, and then again going 'inside', as a way to proof the validity of the given sense in the living experience -, it seems logically following the sense of what Sonny Rollins did every time he was spending some time far away from the clubs and the music business - everytime he would be able to keep success going on - in order to let his improvisational language evolve once more instead of becoming manieristic. 

Having your own language is a way to affirm newly, and in a different way, what you are, at your own risk of no more being recognized, as happened, at least at the beginning, to the musicians involved in the free jazz movement, often mislabeled as 'anti-jazz'.

As far as the Downtown scene with his many faces (conceptualism, minimalism, performance art, art rock, free improvisation are only some of them), the idea of mixing various forms of art in a provocative and apparently rough manner was related to that of getting rid of the artificial divisions between art forms, that was typical since the half of the 18th Century of the Capitalistic world.  

Globe Unity Orchestra - November 7, 1970
Kongresshalle - Berliner Jazztage Berlin, Germany

Nam June Paik installations, as an example, were also a way to communicate that the common classification of TV as a 'commercial' media and that of contemporaray music as a 'sophisticated' form of art is something that is related to a solidified and accepted use; by using TVs together with a viola you can create something in which to experience that the previous boundaries are blurring - philosoper Michel Foucault talks about something similar when referring to the 'technologies of the self'.

The idea of a new experience made possible by art means was the common and fertile ground of that period, both in New York and in many parts of Europe - almost in Central and Eastern Europe, where Dada and Surrealism developed before French Situationism and Lettrism. 

Even saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, initially a painter that worked with Paik helping him in his first performances in Germany, and other European improvisers were influenced by Fluxus elements, creating a music that was related to jazz as improvised music but in a very personal way.

Complete Communion next outputs will be dedicated to the Downtown New York movement since 1979, as far as to the European Impovised Scene. The goal of this series of articles, as of my last three on part of the AACM - even if only through the Art Ensemble of Chicago, at least for the moment - and the previous ones dedicated to the Loft-era - are meant to widen the boundaries of listening to music, giving tools in order to put music into its cultural context and have them as a whole.

Related Bibliography:
Arnold Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, 1909. University of Chicago Press, 1960
Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (1974), Cornell University Press 1975
Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (1982), PAJ Publication
Michel Foucault, Technologies of the self. In L. H. Martin, H. Gutman and P. H. Hutton (eds) Technologies of the self. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988
Graham Lock, Forces In Motion. The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton. Da Capo Press, 1988
Stewart Home, The Assault on Culture. Utopian Currents from Lettrism to Class War. Ist edition Aporia Press and Unpopular Books, London 1988. 2nd UK edition AK Press, 1991.
Davide Sparti, Suoni inauditi. L'improvvisazione nel jazz e nella vita quotidiana. Il Mulino, 2005
Davide Sparti, L'identità Incompiuta, Paradossi dell'improvvisazione musicale. Il Mulino, 2010
Fluxus. Henie Onstad Art Center, catalogue, Henie Onstad Art Center 2010

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Art Ensemble of Chicago (part 3)

A discography 1966-1973
Words: Gian Paolo Galasi

First recorded material coming out of the AEC sessions is 1966 Roscoe Mitchell Sextet "Sound"; the LP was issued on Delmark, since when run in Chicago by Bob Koester in 1953 a blues-devoted label. Chuck Nessa, just arrived there in April 1966 from Iowa City to manage Jazz Record Mart, Delmark's store, read a couple of Pete Welding's articles about the AACM in Downbeat Magazine, and when on place saw live sets by the musicians that some months later will lead to put on vynil the aforementioned album.

"Sound", rapidly followed by Joseph Jarman's "As if it were the Seasons" and "Song For", Anthony Braxton's "3 Compositions of New Jazz", Muhal Richard Abrahms' "Levels And Degrees of Light" and Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre's "Forces and Feelings", was AACM first and yet accomplished statement about the new aesthetics.

The record is opened by 'Ornette', a piece dedicated to Texan altoist, in which r&b shrugs (McIntyre on tenor), intertwining bass lines (Malachi Favors with Lester Lashley on cello), colourful, pointillistic and hard-grooving drums (Alvin Fielder), Lester Bowie's flamboyant trumpet and Roscoe's provocative woodwinds were openly paying homage to the maestro while at the same time were posing themselves as new cornerstones for the music to come. 

 "distortion is the medium of communication, as the players create in overtones, harmonics tones, imprecise pitch, high and low tones that extend the ranges of the instruments" (John Litweiler, The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958, Poole, Doorset: Blandford Press, 1985)

'The Little Suite' is 'a suite of colors […], a rural Halloween, ritual march of children on the way to mischief', as J.B. Figi put it on the original liner notes; in fact this composition will be model for all the similar pieces, like 'A Jackson In your House', in which marching band music is stretched, enlarged, with an accent on grothesque very similar to that of Captain Beefheart re-contextualizations of the blues.

More colours were added to the piece thanks of harmonica, clarinet, whistles, interspersing here and there the music with ritual elements to reach an onomatopoeic effect, while in 'Sound' we're brought in fields more related to contemporary music de-contextualization by what would become from now on AEC's constant effort to put a ritual attention on music by the listener with the use of bells, half-filled water-cans, rattles, and the likes.

In the previous article Jospeph Jarman's first solo efforts were yet commented, just to point out how much his 'little instruments' were fittingly and coherently in line with what John Litweiler would describe in his "The Freedom Principle: Jazz after 1958" (New York: Da Capo Press, 1984), as "the discovery of space". But first record in which four original future Art Ensemble (Mitchell, Jarman, Bowie, Favors) played together was 1967 Lester Bowie's "Numbers 1 & 2".

The record was released under new Nessa label, created under Roscoe Mitchell suggestion by Chuck Nessa himself. All material recorded by future AEC was reissued in 1993 on a 5CD box set (now unluckily unavailable) titled "1967/1968 The Art Ensemble", in which Mitchell "Congliptious" and "Old/Quartet", Bowie "Number 1 & 2" and previously unreleased material were collected together and digitally published for the first time. The box in currently out of print, while single outputs, reissued singularly by Delmark under Nessa's supervision on 1998, are still available.   

All elements of AEC music were brought together here to their higher levels. 'The suspension of the rhythmic articulation through a continuous patchwork […]; extended solo performance on monophonic woodwind instruments […], mockery on jazz establishment'. (Francesco Martinelli, "Art Ensemble of Chicago", Musica Jazz, 2003)

In 'Jazz Death?', from 1968 "Congliptious", recorded under the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, Lester Bowie asked the question' Is jazz, as we know it, dead?', answering, at the end of his solo trumpet lines coming out back and forth from the stereo channels, 'it depends on how many things you know'.

Maybe to know more, in August 1969 Bowie convinced his fellows to go to Paris. As many before them (Dexter Gordon, Bud Powell), AACM members were hoping to find a finally more open-minded audience and a wider distribution for their music and records. There, Jean-Luc Young and Jean Georgakarakos were organizing the Actuel Festival (named after their jazz magazine) in order to collect money to run their own label, BYG, with friend Jean-Luc Young.

While the label would document further exhibitions of AEC members and other free jazz musicians like Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, Alan Silva, Sun Ra, Sonny Murray and Steve Lacy, their performance at the American Center for Students and Artists put confusion on journalists minds. In fact the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet, added with Anthony Braxton and Steve McCall, would be named as AACM on Jazz Magazine by Paul Alessandrini.

Later on, the name "The Art Ensemble -- Of Chicago" as put on bills, will became the official name under which records like "A Jackson in your House", "Message to Our Folks" and "Reese and the Smooth Ones" were issued by the French label, as Freedom/Arista "Tutankhaman", "The Spiritual" and Pathé's "Les Stances A Sophie" and "People in Sorrow".

More than 20 records were issued by the AEC during his stay in Paris. The ones quoted here above are the most important. "A Jackson in Your House" is opened by a title track in which little instruments introduced a stranded Dixieland song, while 'Get in Line' is parodistically evoking a disastrous and out of discipline squad.

Maybe aware of the difficulties for listeners to follow on record a set that, performed on stage, is supported by masks - Bowie with a white goan and stethoscope, Favors and Jarman with Afrikan signs on face and sometimes half-naked, Mitchell dressed as an American bourgeois tourist - and by the intimate climate created by percussions at the beginning of every exhibitions, AEC opted on record for using Jarman's poems like 'Ericka', gospel-like choruses - as 'Old Time Religion' on "Message to our Folks"  - and short dialogues Beckett-style in order to give music an open legibility and a more narrative setting.

"People in Sorrow", a 40 minutes length suite divided on two parts on record and the soundtrack for the movie "Les Stances A Sophie" are probably the most beautiful outputs of AEC's Paris period. In both records eastern-like statements were stressed more than in previous records. Since the beginning of their activity some of the members compositions - Lester Bowie's 'Number 1' being a good example - presented a horn line acting like a drone, with multi-octave effects-like in order to give the music a polytonal structure on which the other musicians can improvise.

But in 'Theme de l'amour universel' this structure was directly related to Eastern music, with a great work on tabla and pipes, and an arcoed bass directly droning in answer. While Fontella Bass and Famoudou Don Moye joined the band, giving a more refined brilliancy and fluidity and introducing a new reliability on both soul / r&b ('Les Stances A Sophie') and classical baroque music ('Variations sur un theme de Monteverdi'), as a result of a more confidential approach to established styles of music, French stay is interrupted after AEC appearance in Radio Louxembourg.

Here, the Radio Broadcaster introduced the musicians asserting their connivance with the Black Panther Party, that since 1967 was obtaining consent between European revolutionary movements and intellectuals, said that French writer Jean Genet became directly friend with Angela Davis during the shooting for a film based on both biographies by director Roger Vadim.

But for the musicians, that meant the beginning of permanent control by French police over their incomes and relationships up to a point in which, after the constant control of their permissions to make concerts and the seizing of their instruments from their apartment in Saint Leu sur la Foret, Bowie - initially fervently promoting their Parisian diaspora - and fellows decided to come back in America.

Newly residing in Chicago, the AEC put a couple of important records for Atlantic, a major label responsible for the success of both Ray Charles and John Coltrane before the latter moved on Impulse!. On "Fanfare for the warrior" the AEC is supported by Muhal Richard Abrams on piano. The cover is showing on a bright red field an ancient warrior mask, while 'Illinstrium' opened the record with a Jarman poem hymning to Odwalla, a warrior idol, and to transformation and transcendence.

Following, 'Barnyard Scuffel Shuffel' - a shuffle, indeed, with the horns freely and atonally speaking out loud over bass line, with piano and drums square and fast rhythms, and a beautiful quintet rendition of 'Noonah', one of Mitchell's first compositions. 'What's to Say' is a brazilian-like free form experiment, while 'Tnoona' is full of circular breathing and microtonal intervals and Abrahms on piano shows his full mastery as a pointillistic and improvising reincarnation of Debussy's idea of impressionism. 

Recorded at the Ann Arbour Blues and Jazz Festival in 1972, introduced to the audience by John Sinclair, poet and intellectual, friend of Allen Ginsberg and Stokely Carmichael - the activist and honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party - and featuring Muddy Waters alumnus and sonic terrorist with the electric Miles Davis band Reggie Lucas on console, "Bap-Tizum" is the best live statement of the Art Ensemble captured up to there.

The sound of the band is balancing in more quiet, meditative setting as in 'Unanka' Malachi / Mitchell duet, or in lullaby-like 'Immm', while Bowie lyrical statements and half-valves explorations are less directly patchworked within a group layering, serving more as introduction than directly involved in a post-modern like flux, while the ten minutes long 'Onedarut' is still reminiscent of past blasts and intertwining, and 'Odwalla', in a version totally different than in the previous records, start to be the final signature of AEC live shows.

Finally the five musicians started experimenting and widening their own paths to music. Roscoe Mitchell created the Sound And Space Ensemble, widening his palettes for wind instruments, percussions and voice. More later, he would start to collaborate with contemporary composer/accordionist Pauline Oliveros, and baritone Thomas Buckner, working also in the electroacustic improvisation with Evan Parker since 2008.

Lester Bowie gave shape to the Brass Fantasy, with which he worked on traditional jazz repertoire. and pop music. Famoudou Don Moye with the Percussion Summit came into gospel and African heritage, while Joseph Jarman, after ECM records and related tour, became a follower of Zen meditation and started his Aikido dojo - a non-invasive martial art - training center.

But the AEC history is alive still today even after Bowie's departure in 1999 and Favors' in 2004. Trumpeter Corey Wilkes and bassist Jaribu Sahid, both AACM alumni (the latter also a member of Roscoe Mitchell's Note Factory).

Art Ensemble of Chicago Discography:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Art Ensemble of Chicago (part 2)

A short introduction to the music and the musicians
Words: Gian Paolo Galasi

Photo by Jacky Lepage

One, two, three, there's a Jackson in your house
All that he will do is chase you too and watch you in the tub
Turn around and act the clown and scratch you in the rump
One, two, three, there's a Jackson in your house
And he will never catch a mouse.

Roscoe Mitchell, born in 1940 in Chicago, studied clarinet and baritone saxophone, before switching on alto after joining the army. There he became Albert Ayler friend, and the two played together in Heidelberg, Berlin, in 1959, where Roscoe also took lessons under the first clarinetist of the Heidelberg Symphony. His first appereance on record is on John Gravenites 'Whole Lotta Soul'. His first group as a leader was dedited to hard bop, even if soon he took distance from both that language and free jazz:

"I spent a lot of time really trying not to play a melody - you know, anything that sounds like a melody I tried not to play it... and I spent a lot of time doing that... I spent a lot of time playing melodies... I spent a lot of time playing things that are very dense... I spent a lot of time playing things that are very sparse... I spent a lot of time studying very complicated rhythms and so on and so forth... so when I played sax solo it was like more than one instrument....". (Roscoe Mitchell interviewed by Beppe Colli, 1999)

Mitchell added to alto flute, piccolo, baritone and bass sax, percussion instruments (some of them self-built), with which he constantly experimented until today. "The Maze" and "The Percussion Cage and Music on the Go" are some of his percussions-only works. In the latter, Mitchell plays a self-built percussion set that is similar to a cage, to be played from within.

Mitchell's style on saxophones was defined as 'post-bop'. A perfect example is 'Nonaah', from the same-titled 1978 record. If free jazz delivered melody from harmonic constrictions, and Sun Ra improved the richness and complexity of music with open space (electronic keyboards, ring modulators, percussions) and textures (the interlacing of the instruments, furious and continuous playing, influencing also people like John Coltrane in his proper innovations), Roscoe Mitchell and his mates incorporated silence and dissonance, giving shape to a more meditative (even if not always quiet) setting.

The use of tri-tones, noises (bells, toys, clacsons) and percussion instruments was related to the introduction of different colors in music. As far as soloing, 'Nonaah' (a piece for alto sax only) is a great example of Roscoe Mitchell's way to introduce tension and release in music structures - which is a way to give time an aesthetic shape - in a different way than using the resolution of dissonances. Mitchell's short fractured and distorted statement is repeated with the last note taken for a longer time at every new exposition, but from a certain point this note is more and more distorted, and not prolonged, until all the notes are modulated in different combination with pauses, far from relying on continuous flowing, harmonic intervals or melodic inventions.

The effect is similar to that of a continuously reshaped mantra, with a sound constantly enriching of resonances. Another element in Mitchell's syntax, was that of a widely prolonged sound, to which he would add another note or fracture it in smaller parts with hints and nods of breath. Mitchell's style became the most important alternative to Coltrane's 'sheets of sound' for an entire generation of players, and combined with circular breathing was and important reference until today. Musicians involved in avant garde jazz, from Mats Gustaffson to Ken Vandermark, pay, at least virtually, their debt to Roscoe.

Joseph Jarman started his career as percussionist. In the 1950s he studied at the DuSable High School (the same as Johnny Griffin and Gene Ammons). In 1965 he plays "Imperfections on a Given Space" under John Cage's direction.

“It was great, - Jarman recalled in an interview - we were moving all around, just doing our thing while he controlled the acoustics. (...) Prior to that, I'd been reading his books, studying his music, in fact I had everything that had ever been made by him. I was very impressed with his work, and when I met him, it was even better. He was, like, cool! He wasn't like [affects robotic voice] 'Yes -- I'm -- Cage -- you -- must -- o -- bey.' He was like, you know, 'how are ya?'”.

Anton Webern is another composer Jarman cited frequently.

"Well space, there's such an infinite variety. It can be concentrated and non-moving, or sometimes it's so fluid and rapid, you think it's still not moving at all! I was very impressed with Anton Webern, this composer. I was very impressed with his view and concept of time and space in music. Of course, there's been many others, but if I were asked for a reference, that would be my primary one. Then of course, there's the whole "jazz" lineage.

I've been informed by both sides, jazz, western music, Asian music, African music, all sides, because I've been interested in the sound of the universe, and that sound is without limit. As a matter of fact, I bought a recording that NASA recorded of sounds in space and when you turn it on, it sounds like anything else you're hearing all the time. Hear that, that just went by? (Jarman imitates a passing car) You hear that same sound on the space machine, and there's nothing out there except infinite silence!". (Joseph Jarman interviewed by Jason Gross)

Since 1967 Jarman began playing solo, a practice that will become widely diffused between AACM members - Anthony Braxton's "For Alto" is 1969. Joseph Jarman was also a poet: lyrics for 'Odwalla' and 'Ericka' are all his, but he also published various poetry books, and his mates were heavily affected by him, as far as Roscoe Mitchell recently worked on E. E. Cummings and Charles Baudelaire in Thomas Buckner's "Full Spectrum Voice". First records under his name were "Song For" (1966) and "As if it were the Seasons" (1968), and were featuring bassist Charles Clark, drummer Thurman Baker, pianist Christopher Gaddy.

It was the death of both Clark and Gaddy to lead him to definitely join Mitchell and Lester Bowie, after recording trupeter's "Numbers 1 & 2" debut in 1967. Jarman background as a percussionist influenced AACM members in adding percussive 'little instruments' to their formula. Listening to "As if it were the Season" can be a good introduction to his music. Playing alto while accompanied by Fred Anderson on tenor saxophone, William Brimfield on trumpet, Christopher Gaddy on piano and marimba, Charles Clark on bass, Steve McCall and Thurman Barker on drums, Derek Jarman's woodwinds lines are very different from Mitchell's.

Every sound is more thin, as flutes and little percussions have the lead role in first part of 'As if it were the Seasons' , the piece; the ensemble playing is also more fluid and circular, while layers of sound and instruments usually creates a dramatic crescendo both in singular voices and in their interweaving. Interestingly enough, Sherry Scott vocals and interplay with the band is very similar to what Andrew Cyrille, Jimmy Lyons and Jeanne Lee did later on "Nuba", in 1979.

Lester Bowie started his career playing trumpet in jazz and r&b locals in St. Louis. Albert King, the blues master, was one of his first mentors. Lester moved to Chicago in 1965 to follow her wife's Fontella Bass career. In 1967, Fontella's 'Rescue Me' became a hit and the song symbolized black people engaged in the army going to Vietnam. But soon Bowie started to wide his expressive palette, and so he came in contact with Muhal's Experimental Band. Before joining, he was still collaborating in St. Luis with Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake, later members of the World Saxophone Quartet.

First impressions recollected by Lester Bowie about his Chicagoans co-workers:  

 I saw all these maniacs in the same room. It was quite unsettling there for a while. But it was like I was at home. I mean, you've got so many of these complete, like, eccentric individuals, but playing together and really doing some different kind of music. I found it quite exciting”.  

Bowie's style on trumpet is reminiscent of Cootie Williams and Bubber Miley, of dixieland, brass bands, soul and rhythm and blues. His voice is peculiar in that mix of ancient and modern influences, using his voice in a lyrical but sometimes also grotesque manner.

"Lester Bowie  […] played trumpet flamboyantly, with broad, sweeping gestures, and created extraordinary timbres, from full, rich tones to human-sounding growls, whimpers, and mock-laughter, in his melodies. His innovative sounds and free-wheeling sense of rhythm yielded musical lines that encompassed a range of expression rare for jazz; comedy and tragedy as well as abstraction came within his scope." (from the Encyclopædia Britannica)

Malachi Favors is the older member of the AEC. Being in AACM since its beginning, he joined Roscoe Mitchell quartet in 1966. Before, he worked with pianist Andrew Hill in the mid-50s. Major influences were Oscar Pettiford (Favors took his first bass after seeing him during a Duke Ellington's Orchestra gig) and fellow citizens Wilbur Ware and Israel Cosby. Self-taught on bass, he learned how to play following Ware and Jodie Christian records, and reading music books. As he joined Hill's group, he enrolled Wilson Junior College, where he met Roscoe Mitchell at a wedding (Abrams was also present) where the reedist was playing.

Other fundamental formative experiences were working with Sun Ra and attending at African ballets.  

“I saw this African ballet and I just felt that this music belonged in jazz, in so-called jazz. I remember once I came in, we were going to have a concert or a rehearsal or something, and I came with these little instruments, and Roscoe asked me, "What are you going to do with that, man?" I said, "I'm going to play them in the concert!" And from then on, after that, we just started elaborating on little instruments. Pretty soon Roscoe and Joseph and Moye, they were little instrument kings!”.

Finally, in 1970, drummer Famoudou Don Moye completed AEC's line-up. Born in Rocherster (NY) in 1946, after graduating at Detroit's Wayne State University Don Moye in 1968 joined the "Detroit Free Jazz Band", touring through Europe and North Africa. Here, he met Randy Weston, at that time playing with Moroccan percussionists, so he had the opportunity to learn about African music rhythm and techniques belonging to different tribes. After a brief stay in Rome, Don Moye travelled to Paris in 1969, where he met and played with Steve Lacy, Pharoah Sanders, Sonny Sharrock and Art Taylor. Here, he also met the other members of AEC and, after recordings their first album together, "Chi Congo", they started touring and issuing Lps massively.

Also master on Caribbean percussions, and in his early years performer of both drum and bugle corps - musical marching units similar to a marching band, consisting of brass and percussion instruments, performing in competitions, parades, festivals, and other civic functions - during his youth, Don Moye part of church choirs - influence that he developed further in his solo career - and, as Lester Bowie, a member of St. Louis BAG.

"Moye's extremely active, pattern-based polyrhythmic style lent the group a drive and cohesion that they had (to some degree) lacked. Along with Jarman and Favors, Moye took to wearing African face paint and clothing in performance with the Art Ensemble. Moye has long been active in contexts apart from the Art Ensemble." (Chris Kelsey, All Music Guide)

Following -- A commented discography.

Bibliography on web

Official site
An unofficial site, full of interviews and essays
An interview with Roscoe Mitchell
An interview with Joseph Jarman
Lester Bowie, his stay in Kalakuta Republic and Fela Kuti

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Art Ensemble of Chicago (part 1)

An Introduction
Words: Gian Paolo Galasi

The Art Ensemble of Chicago in Nervi 1979

The Art Ensemble of Chicago is one of the most revered groups of improvised music, even outside of the jazz community. At the beginning of the new Century, Motorpsycho and Jaga Jazzist Horns gave shape on their split album "In the Fishtank" (Konkurrent, 2003) to their rendition of the 'Thème de Yoyo'. In those same years, to pick up a reissue of ESP-Disks featuring Sun Ra and Albert Ayler, or BYG-Actuel records dedicated to Milford Graves and Alan Silva, or even to be astonished by one of the last Coltrane live performances newly put on Impulse! was finally possible for a wider and younger public.

People could immerse way ahead back in the history of jazz, and that was a refreshing and exciting experience, for all those educated by the likes of Slint, Tortoise, Gastr Del Sol or Godspeed You Black Emperor! to be curious about past and present forms of music more focused on expanding structures and dealing with sound, more that previous post-modern indie-rock or grunge-existentialist generation.

Adventurous listeners (and musicians, at least the younger ones, those more interested in developing something more personal on their own) were also putting their ears on heavy psychedelia rooted in kraut-rock (Can, Neu!, Popol Vuh), in that part of English progressive music formerly known as 'Canterbury rock' (Soft Machine, Henry Cow, that were collaborating with the South-African The Blue Notes / Brotherhood of Breath),  and contemporary music (John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen) so to have a more complete picture of the past century perspectives on music.

The internet was also full of resources for those who wanted to go deeper with that music than The Wire or other reviews on both sides of the Atlantic were doing on paper: Matthew Goodheart notes on Cecil Taylor music, wide portions of socialist Frank Kofsky's writings on the 60's ideals surrounding and infusing both John Coltrane and Malcolm X; Perfect Sound and Bagatellen's essays and interviews, and, more obviously, lots of files to download, listen to and share, waiting for a physical reissue to put on shelves.

In the meantime, Mr. Anthony Braxton was coospirating with sonic terrorists Wolf Eyes from Victoriaville's stage, while sampled by white hip hop minstrel Buck 65 along with Richard Teitelbaum, while David Sylvian was engaging Evan Parker and Derek Bailey for his "Manafon" and "Blemish" records. I didn't have an older brother happy to live again the golden age of Pop Group, Barry Adamson's Magazine and The Slits collaborating with Neneh Cherry - but what about the Manchester-born bassist recruiting Matana Roberts, that a month ago issued a record for the Constellation label? -, but it doesn't matter.

Coming back on topic, for thirty-something listeners The Art Ensemble of Chicago was the more affordable experience to start with, along with the Sun Ra Arkestra. Because of the constant presence of two major works like the couple of Atlantic outputs, in which the use of percussions, their relative 'straightness' and fluidity can be considered a good hint in understanding and appreciating their theatrical attitude. It is impossible to introduce the Art Ensemble of Chicago (from now on AEC) without talking about the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).

In order to introduce the AACM, those words by Anthony Braxton can be considered an excellent syinthetic statement:

"The AACM musicians [...] not only they demonstrated a solo music, they've demonstrated ensemble music, orchestral music, music in the conventional systems, music in their own systems and their own relationship to time and rhythm; [...] People talk about the AACM as if it represented one set of values or one area of research, but it was a dynamic spectrum: no one was interested in establishing a single collective voice. It was a restructuralist school, a union of restructuralist thinkers".

Apartment Building in Chicago's "Black Belt"

"The history of African Americans in Chicago dates back to Jean Baptiste Point du Sable’s trading activities in the 1780s.[1] Fugitive slaves and freedmen established the city’s first black community in the 1840s. By the late 19th c., the first black had been elected to office.

The Great Migrations from 1910 to 1960 brought hundreds of thousands of blacks from the South to Chicago, where they became an urban population. They created churches, community organizations, important businesses, and great music and literature. African Americans of all classes built community on the South Side of Chicago for decades before the Civil Rights Movement. Their goal was to build a community where blacks could pursue life with the same rights as whites." (from Wikipedia)

The 'Black Belt', which was the city's ghetto (even if socially well notched) was inhabited by almost all Chicago's black population - over one million of people -, struggled by being overcrowded, by unemployment and by the lowering of education and life standards since 1918, when the Migrations were increasing the amount of black people living in his boundaries.

In 1961 Sun Ra and his Arkestra, that was also an idea of community and living together, definitely left Chicago for New York. The same year, pianist Richard Abrams (then named 'Muhal', which means 'first') put together with Donald Rafael Garret the Experimental Band. Abrams was at the time the most wanted pianist by the great soloists coming to the city to play gigs, including Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon. Garret was clarinetist and bassist, played with Sun Ra and Rashaan Roland Kirk, and is present on John Coltrane's "Live in Seattle". Both musicians were at the core of a group of players that developed jazz in a different direction than the 'new thing' generation. Trumpeter Lester Bowie

“It was just the guys brought in music, and we just played it. I mean, it was like just a normal rehearsal, like any other band, except the music was a bit different. But we just all came and met, and they passed out the charts, and then we would run through . . . Let's say in a particular evening there were five or six charts we would run through, from Braxton or from Muhal or whoever. (...) I mean, it was interesting music. Muhal is one of the great composers and arrangers. It was really exciting. And the thing that's really so nice about the AACM -- you had all these individuals.

I mean, you had Threadgill's music, you had Braxton's music, Roscoe's, Joseph's. I mean, it was just unbelievable, the difference in the approaches. So they were all really very fresh. We weren't really everyone coming out of the same thing (...) we had done quite a few concerts together anyway, before he [Jarman, ndA] formally joined the group. We had been working together. As a matter of fact, we had done big things with his group and our group. We used to have some quite interesting programs in the AACM. You wouldn't believe some of the combinations of individuals and instruments that we had. (...) We'd have Joseph in Roscoe's band and in Braxton's band, and just so much excitement, so different."

AACM circa 1968

So Lester Bowie, reedists Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre bassist Malachi Favors, trumpeter Phil Coran (after he left Sun Ra), drummer Steve McCall and pianist Jodie Christian. Almost at the same moment, in St. Louis, the Black Artist Group (Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, David Murray) start to develop their own music and soon came in contact with the Chicagoans. About the music they were playing, Lester Bowie said:

"I remember the first festival we did. We hooked up with the guys from St. Louis who formed an organization similar to the AACM, from our example -- they started a group called B.A.G, Black Artists' Group, in St. Louis. There was another group in Detroit. So we started having exchange concerts and having our own mini-festivals. 

I remember the first time that the St. Louis guys came up, and the Chicago guys were kind of chesty, "Hey, we got this down" -- we were kind of chesty. Hey, Lake and LeFlore and Scrooge, they came up, and they was like walking all over us. Hemphill . . . They were walking all over the AACM cats! It was so exciting, just the music . . . To hear so many people within this so-called . . . That's why Malachi says "so-called free." People, when they think of free music, they just have one thing in their mind, [sings incoherent line], and that's all that happens. But there's so much more expression and emotional depth in that sort of music. And when they came up, it just kind of shocked everyone just to realize just how great musicians are wherever they happen to be from. They don't have to be from New York or Chicago, or you don't have to have ever heard of them -- and they are just outstanding”

From the Experimental Band sorted out Phil Corhan's Ethnic Eritage Ensemble and Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, on which from now on we will focus since the next article.

As Joseph Jarman:  

“Well, remember that we were all members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. So we had developed a kind of bond that was spiritual as well as political as well as financial, and through the auspices and the philosophy of the AACM, we were able to manifest this Art Ensemble group, to share and do everything together, and that was very unusual for a group to do. Until Muhal Richard Abrams and Phil Cohran founded the AACM, we had never had that experience, except when were in Muhal's Experimental Band, which was a band that didn't perform publicly. We just went into this place to rehearse, take our music and that'd be it. After two or three years, we had to perform 'cause the place that was allowing us to rehearse needed to know we were actually doing something there! (laughs) That was the Abraham Lincoln Center on Chicago's South Side. It was after that the AACM was founded, and it was based upon that experience that we were able to generate what became known as the Art Ensemble".

Related Bibliography

Chicago Commission on Race Relations. The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot. 1922.
Drake, St. Clair, and Horace R. Cayton. Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. Rev. ed. 1993.
Philpott, Thomas Lee. The Slum and the Ghetto: Neighborhood Deterioration and Middle-Class Reform, Chicago, 1880–1930. 1978.

Lewis, George. A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Shipton, Alyn. A New History of Jazz. London: Continuum, 2001.
Jost, Ekkehard. Free Jazz. Da Capo Press, 1994
Lock, Graham. Forces In Motion. The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton. New York: Da Capo Press, 1988
Litweiler, John. The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958. Poole, Doorset: Blandford Press, 1985
Wilmer, Valerie. As Serious as Your Life: John Coltrane and Beyond, London: Serpent's Tail, 1977