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Art Ensemble of Chicago: Coming Home Jamaica

The jazz world would be a poorer place without the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a fact that becomes ever clearer with the passage of time and fashion’s fickle pendulum dance. The AEC, by now, has to be viewed as a group which has, more than any other, managed to combine pageantry, mayhem, and stylistic laboratory experiments for over 30 years now. We’re reminded of their past by reissues on Delmark, but also reminded of their extant vitality by their latest recording. Recorded in Jamaica in 1995, this song set presents the leaner, meaner quartet version of the AEC, with trumpeter Lester Bowie, reedman Roscoe Mitchell, bassist Malachi Favors, and drummer Famadou Don Moye. The sonic persona may be less dense here, but what remains familiar is a tacit narrative design over the course of the song set, a poetic program in action. Following the rough, lanky quasi-shuffle of Bowie’s opening tune, “Grape Escape,” Mitchell’s anthemic “Odwalla Theme” gets a slower, cooler treatment than usual. Mitchell’s writing can lean towards the cerebral, as with the short lament “Jamaica Farewell” and the pensive abstraction of “Malachi.” For island flavors, a chanking reggae pulse underlies the simple melodic motif of “Strawberry Mango,” colored by strange abstract cymbal crescendos, and the album goes out with the sweet tune of “Lotta Colada.” Ancient to the future, inside and outside of jazz orthodoxy, the AEC is leaning forward into the next millennium.

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