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Art Ensemble of Chicago: Tribute to Lester

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.

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