Clip: After setbacks, Art Ensemble of Chicago sounds reasons for hope
- After the sad Elvin Jones news, and after hearing that Ray Charles is in
pretty frail shape, I want to post this somewhat sunnier review of the
surviving Art Ensemble members' performance.
After setbacks, Art Ensemble of Chicago sounds reasons for hope
May 3, 2004
BY KEVIN WHITEHEAD
The University of Chicago's Mandel Hall is home turf to the Art Ensemble of
Chicago. The flagship group of the city's '60s avant-garde used to play in
a student union in the building before relocating to Paris in 1969. Three
years later, they recorded the belated homecoming "Live at Mandel Hall" for
Friday night they returned, to a house packed with well-wishers and jazz
dignitaries. Expectations were high. So were the stakes.
In recent years the AEC has suffered the deaths of two original members,
trumpeter and jester Lester Bowie in 1999 and bassist Malachi Favors
Maghostut in January. And on two CDs released in 2003, "Tribute to Lester"
and "The Meeting," the band sounded creatively exhausted.
Still, there were reasons for hope. Co-founder Joseph Jarman has returned
after a long absence, and for this gig fellow saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell
recruited two of his frequent collaborators, bassist Jaribu Shahid and
Chicago trumpeter Corey Wilkes.
Also aboard, from Mali, was Baba Sissoko, who sang and played in more or
less traditional West African style. His instruments are a small,
two-stringed lute, a n'goni, and an hourglass-shaped "talking drum."
The music, like the stage, was dominated by Mitchell's, Jarman's and Moye's
vast percussion racks.
Within a long introduction, there were slow progressions from lower to
higher pitches and spare to dense textures, proof of the close listening
needed to pull off such airy improvising.
As ever, their set was punctuated by louder percussion jams. These segments
were well integrated with the jazzier, horn-oriented stuff, and, at times,
the thunder of multiple drummers behind a saxophone solo was quite
The Art Ensemble sounded revitalized, but still, Bowie's irreverent brand
of neo-minstrel comedy died with him. Mitchell's careening,
perpetual-motion saxophone solos were inspiring, and he blended very well
with Wilkes, who gently echoed Bowie's bent notes and blown raspberries
without sacrificing his own brasher high-note style.
Jarman, alas, declined to join their jousts; every time he began to engage
the other horns he quickly shied away
Did the Art Ensemble break new ground? Not really. Did they deserve the
crowd's thunderous ovations? Not entirely. Was the concert way livelier
than last year's CDs? Absolutely.
Kevin Whitehead is a jazz critic for National Public Radio's "Fresh Air."