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:: Art Ensemble of Chicago - A Jackson in Your House - Actuel
Art Ensemble of Chicago - A Jackson in Your House - Actuel
The Art Ensemble of Chicago is one of the most enduring units dedicated to free improvisation and modern jazz composition in existence. They began as a series of projects led by saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, a member of the Illinois-based non-profit Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians which is dedicated to nurturing serious, original music in Chicago's black community. In 1968, after working with several small groups, Mitchell found himself with a great line-up: himself (naturally), bassist Malachi Flavors, trumpeter Lester Bowie and saxophonist Joseph Jarman.
At that point, the group was still known as Roscoe Mitchell's Art Ensemble, and they actually recorded a couple of early records for both the Nessa imprint (Sound, which debuted what would become the defining sound of the AACM) and Delmark (Numbers 1 & 2). Ironically, the group wasn't even known as the Art Ensemble of Chicago until they relocated to Paris in 1969.
A Jackson in Your House (recorded June 23, 1969) and Message to Our Folks (August 12, 1969), both just reissued on one disc from Actuel Records, were originally recorded in Paris for the BYG label, and before percussionist Famoudou Don Moye had joined the band. For the most part, the music on these early records is a direct indication of the kind of projects the musicians had previously been involved with: free improvisation; counterpoint and modern European classical music; traditionally minded attempts to integrate African music into their sound; a significant theatric influence. The combination of these elements immediately distinguished the Art Ensemble from almost every other improvising group of the time. But there was more to them than that. Their embrace of vaudevillian humor, sometimes delivered in the form of strange spoken word sections or rough skits, lent their records a unique kind of levity that couldn't be found in the ultra-serious expressionism of peers like Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders.
The first record begins with its title track, and encapsulates many of the Art Ensemble's strengths, though in somewhat sprawling form: faux-theatric whimsy, classic jazz forms, and even some strange form of world music. And all in five minutes! But the song, while definitely offering an interesting overall mixture of sounds, can be a tad too much for me at times. Things come together better on the next song, "Get In Line." Here, the group again relies on the vaudevillian, opening with a rollercoaster head (not unlike something you might hear on a John Zorn bebop record) and gradually transforming into a burlesque march while someone shouts out the track's namesake. Then, with no warning whatsoever, begins four minutes of prime chaos. Saxes go ballistic like predatory beasts, Malachi Flavors busts out blistering acoustic basslines, and what little percussion there is spins wildly out of control. Next thing you know, someone's sounding a gong, like the cops raiding a party with hoses and smoke bombs, and the track grinds recklessly to a halt. Intense.
Things get much more civil on "The Waltz," a very short (though typically referential) waltz spotlighting the band's ease with restrained arrangements while hinting at the bawdy, dignified old-time jazz these guys obviously love. Too bad the tune is just over a minute long, because it's easily the most focused on the disc. The other tracks are quite daring, and even passionate, but possibly rough drafts. That's not a crime (especially in jazz), but it does make it just a tad harder to take in all at once.
Of course, "Song for Charles" is the centerpiece of the first album, and not just because it's longer than all of the previous tracks combined. It begins as an extension of Jarman's delicate beat poem "Ericka," but dissolves into free, lyrical phrasing from the horns and bass (with Flavors sounding eerily like a rather wired Scott LaFaro). Soon, a vibraphone enters, as Bowie and Mitchell turn a small figure into a very emphatic five-note melody, proclaiming who knows what grandeur. This moment of clarity is quite brief, though, as the group improvisation quickly begins, and in full exploratory mode. The mammoth session seems like abstract impressionism, but what impression? Sometimes strange and distorted, sometimes cold, sometimes resembling a traditional jazz torch song (especially during Bowie's soliloquy about nine minutes in). This is heady stuff, and though I can hear the dedication in the performance, sometimes the feeling loses me.
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Model: Art Ensemble Chicago Jackson
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