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

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