For those interested in the early days of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, these are good times. Nessa Records recently followed up its 2011 release of Roscoe Mitchell’s previously unheard, pre-AEC gem Before There Was Sound (1966) with Early Combinations, a selection of recordings originally included in the landmark set Art Ensemble 1967/68. This Charly Art Ensemble set collects three albums the band recorded in Paris for the French BYG label in 1969. As historical a document as it is, shot through with an outspoken ’60s vibe, the music sounds remarkably fresh.
It can be argued that the drummer-less Art Ensemble featured here, following Phillip Wilson’s departure and before Famoudou Don Moye’s arrival, is the band in its purest state. To be sure, the AEC would go on to record greater albums, but over the years it became a bit predictable and, not unlike the Beatles, more a collection of individuals than a unified band. The BYG recordings, sponsored by Actuel magazine, contain music that is as spontaneous as it is thematically rich. It features some of the deepest and loveliest playing by saxophonists Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, trumpeter Lester Bowie and bassist extraordinaire Malachi Favors, as well as some of the band’s most antic and atmospheric sounds.
A Jackson in Your House is highlighted by the circus-like title track; “Ericka,” a coolly charged, marimba-dappled, spoken-word declamation on ’60s themes; and “Song for Charles,” a long, lyrical tribute to the band’s recently deceased compadre Charles Clark. Message to Our Folks, which boasts some of the AEC’s most accessible music, moves with good humor from gospel (“Old Time Religion”) to bebop (“Dexterity”) to funk (“Rock Out,” featuring Favors on Fender bass and Jarman, briefly, on guitar).
Recorded the day after Message to Our Folks, Reese and the Smooth Ones seamlessly combines Mitchell’s “Reese” and Bowie’s “The Smooth Ones.” Broken into two parts in the album era but meant to be heard as one continuous 41-minute piece, it offers some of the Art Ensemble’s bluesiest playing, fiercest solos and even some symphonic-type effects. Throughout, the band digs into its famous toy chest to decorate the sound with bells, whistles, harmonica, steel drums, gongs and other assorted “little instruments.”
The members of the Art Ensemble also are featured, as a band and as session players, on Jazzactuel, a reissued three-disc anthology of BYG recordings featuring high-profile free-jazz trailblazers such as Don Cherry, Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp, Paul Bley and Sonny Sharrock, as well as artists still deserving of wider recognition, including Frank Wright, Clifford Thornton, Burton Greene and Alan Silva, whose Celestial Communication Orchestra has the distinction of featuring Steve Lacy alongside Mitchell and Jarman. Most of the music in the collection, which also represents the psychedelic movement, was recorded in 1969. The overlapping of personnel-Braxton accompanying French trumpeter Jacques Coursil, to give one other example-reflects the communal spirit of the times.