The Art Ensemble of Chicago always seemed at ease when the tapes were rolling, even if focus wasn’t at the top of the priority list. Some of their early recordings revealed a band ready to go wherever inspiration took them, even if it meant noodling. That said, it’s impressive how strong these two 20-minute-plus tracks sound, considering the group was not a proper unit at the time (1967). Originally released in the 1993 box set 1967/68, this disc features what would become the core of the band-saxophonists Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell, trumpeter Lester Bowie and bassist Malachi Favors-along with drummer Thurman Barker and, on one track, additional bassist Charles Clark. Nessa’s Terry Martin recorded this music in part at Lester Bowie’s home as the group prepared an audition for a Polish jazz festival.
“A to Ericka” darts around deftly from what sounds like European circus music to avant-classical, with plenty of space left open for unhinged free blowing. Throughout, it never loses direction and maintains good humor. Early on, members punctuate melodies with shouts of “Hey!” like a dance troupe. Before the track ends, toy instruments, slide whistles and train whistles emerge, and the whole group sends the recording levels into the red during some hot collective improv.
“Quintet” sounds looser but still consistent. Bowie whines, chortles and bubbles over Barker’s cymbal rolls in the opening minutes, before everyone joins in. During a duet, the emotionally direct rapport between Favors and Mitchell (on soprano) is imposing enough to silence free-jazz detractors. The bassist also has a few pensive moments to himself. Ultimately, both tracks reveal the beginnings of a beautiful relationship.