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November 2003

Art Ensemble of Chicago
Tribute to Lester
ECM Records
Art Ensemble of Chicago
The Meeting
Pi Recordings
Lester Bowie Brass Fantasy
When the Spirit Returns
Dreyfus Records

In 1978, Art Ensemble of Chicago performed at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art without Lester Bowie, who was touring Europe with Jack DeJohnette's New Directions. The news was met with disappointment, even apprehension. Without even looking up from assembling his arsenal of woodwinds and percussion, Roscoe Mitchell told a small group of early arrivals that the spirit the AEC was dealing with was much greater than any one of its members and it would not be deterred. It took about 30 seconds after the opening gong for Malachi Favors Moghostut, Joseph Jarman, Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye to prove the saxophonist right and all but make the audience forget that the Great Pretender hadn't made the gig. So, the idea of the AEC going on after the trumpeter's passing seems perfectly natural, just as it did after Jarman's retirement in 1993. And there's something vaguely appropriate that the AEC's first two recordings without Bowie have hit the street almost simultaneously, with Jarman performing only on one. It's a reminder that the spirits come and go as they will.

Certainly, the trumpeter's absence is more sharply felt on Tribute to Lester, particularly on Bowie's jazz-savvy "Zero," which he recorded with the AEC and the Leaders. Even during Mitchell's piquant alto solo there's a nagging sense that a channel has dropped off and Bowie will bleat his way in at any moment. The same goes for the reprise of Favors' loping "Tutankhamun," which dates from the AEC's early Nessa sessions. Still, the trio is able to sustain compelling levels of energy, as is the case with "As Clear as the Sun"-which reiterates Mitchell's status as a pioneering soprano stylist-and vivid, morphing palettes of percussion colors. Additionally, the AEC's ability to completely surprise the listener remains very much intact, the case in point being Mitchell's "Suite for Lester"; though it is rooted in Mitchell's explorations of baroque music, it nevertheless has a dry comedic undercurrent that, in concert, Bowie could use to trigger a house full of laughter just by raising his eyebrows.

The exponential ensemble weight gained by a second horn is immediately felt on Jarman's "Hail We Now Sing Joy," which opens The Meeting with a simmering midtempo swing and the type of simple melodic kernel Jarman used in AEC anthems like "Dreaming of the Masters." (A more obscure antecedent is at work on Favors' "It's the Sign of the Times," as four of its five sections are comprised of solos by each musician, reminiscent of the first side of Mitchell's Congliptious LP).

On tunes like Mitchell's "Tech Ritter and the Megabytes," the second horn is essential to flesh out the quasi-funked staccato phrasing. The overlapping of Jarman's wood flutes and Mitchell's recorders enhances the watercolorlike delicacy of "Wind and Drum," while their sparring saxophones on Mitchell's title tune is crucial to the track's molten intensity. The AEC is a different ensemble with Jarman, but he would probably be the first to say it's not better-just different.

Only Lester Bowie could have produced a body of work that spanned the audacious solo 1967 piece "Jazz Death?" to an album of reconstituted pop hits like When the Spirit Returns without being crass or cynical (issued here in the U.S. for the first time). The mix of show band, brinkmanship, romanticism, and mischief Lester brought to Brass Fantasy was regularly misjudged during his lifetime, and perhaps this 1997 album, which includes covers of chart-toppers by TLC, Babyface and the Notorious B.I.G., will prompt a reassessment of this aspect of his work.

A serious agenda drove Brass Fantasy: the relationship between jazz and popular music in the wake of jazz once being popular music. And Bowie rarely let a tune go by without pushing some serious buttons, be it through a gratingly glitzy flourish in an arrangement or a belchlike texture at precisely the wrong moment. With jazz snobs, he was playing "Gotcha," because Brass Fantasy was irresistible; with everyone else, it was, "Welcome to the party." Come as you are to When the Spirit Returns.

Originally published in November 2003
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