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Lester Bowie: Numbers 1 & 2 (Nessa)

Thomas Conrad's review of album featuring the original lineup of the Art Ensemble of Chicago

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Cover of Lester Bowie album Numbers 1 & 2 on Nessa
Lester Bowie album Numbers 1 & 2 on Nessa

This album was recorded in two sessions in August of 1967. The band is Lester Bowie (trumpet, flugelhorn), Roscoe Mitchell (reeds), Malachi Favors (bass) and, on the second session, Joseph Jarman (reeds). It was the first release on Nessa.

Soon this quartet would name itself the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The AEC’s signature procedures were already in place for these sessions: the episodic collective improvisation; the calculated impulsiveness; the theatricality; the zany humor; the cacophonies of whistles and gongs and kazoos.

On “Number 1,” this drummer-less trio plays surreal chamber music, full of open space. From silence, phenomena emerge (a bowed bass note, an alto saxophone blast like a foghorn, splashing bells), then silence returns. The outbursts suggest John Cage in their apparent randomness. But this trio listens to one another, and often finds patterns, even something like songs, although all songs dissolve. No one had ever made such music: not blues-based Ornette Coleman, not manic Albert Ayler. It is like the musical equivalent of metafiction. The AEC laid bare the interior creative process of improvising jazz collaboratively.

On “Number 2,” gestural chamber-jazz becomes roiling masses of reeds and trumpet. Open space is no more. Horns squall, jitter and blare. It is pandemonium, except that melodies keep flying by. The secret to the AEC’s artistic (and, to a degree, commercial) success was that their noise always made music. If melodies crazily collided, it was because there were so many.

It is astonishing to ponder that this music, too modern to be widely accessible in 2017, is 50 years old. For this anniversary reissue, Nessa did not provide the historical perspective of new liner notes. They simply printed the original lame ones by Terry Martin, which prove how risky it is to accompany free music with free prose.

Preview, buy or download songs from the late trumpeter Lester Bowie on iTunes.

Originally Published