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Art Ensemble of Chicago: Don’t Call It a Comeback

Art Ensemble of Chicago in 2003: Famoudou Don Moye (front), Malachi Favors Moghostut (left) and Roscoe Mitchell

Two new CDs from the Art Ensemble of Chicago-Tribute to Lester (ECM) and The Meeting (Pi)-can be viewed, thematically, as two sides of the same coin. The former, recorded two years ago, is a rousing, decidedly unweepy tribute to trumpeter, composer and founding member Lester Bowie, who passed away in 1999; the latter, recorded earlier this year, signals the return of saxophonist and composer Joseph Jarman, who left the group 10 years ago to devote his entire energies to his Buddhist priesthood and the Brooklyn Buddhist Association.

Some ensembles fare better than others when surviving the departure or death of a member. As for Bowie, his trademark scientist lab coat and scholarly eyewear, along with his patented trumpet vocabulary of whimsical smears and sputters, played such an integral part in Art Ensemble of Chicago’s unique sound and image that his passing had the same effect as, say, when the R&B trio TLC lost Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes. Bowie’s physical absence is mournfully noticeable. But like TLC, the Art Ensemble of Chicago was wise not to attempt to replace such an inimitable force. “We’ve always been a group that never went out looking for anybody,” says saxophonist-composer Roscoe Mitchell. “If you go way back to the ’60s, we had the old quartet with [drummer] Phillip Wilson. When he left the group to join Paul Butterfield, we played without a drummer for a long time, which helped spearhead us into the small percussion instruments. It’s the same with Lester.”

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