Sunday, September 27, 2009

What’s On: The Art Ensemble, 1967/68

[originally written 29 Sept. 2003]

The Art Ensemble 1967/68, Nessa NCD-2500A-E (1993, edition limited to 2500 copies)

As the slip-cover states, “This is a comprehensive collection of recordings by the Art Ensemble before the geographical qualification was deemed necessary.” In other words, while they were still a ‘local’ band, before traveling to Paris in ’69 and laying down more incredible recorded music in a single year than any band has any business doing. This five-disc set pulls together three proto-Art Ensemble of Chicago LPs on Nessa—Roscoe Mitchell’s Congliptuous, Lester Bowie’s Numbers 1 and 2 and Old/Quartet under the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble name—and adds lots of unreleased material from the sessions that produced those records.

The music is great — loose and fun, probing, frenetic, funny, sombre, angry. The principals — Roscoe Mitchel, Lester Bowie, Malachi Favours, Joseph Jarman — are even now fully developed in their instrumental approach, already sounding like their mature selves of later years. It’s great to have a few takes of “Carefree” on hand to examine — this little number which was originally intended to be the A side of a 45 RPM single (!) shows up twelve years later as the tag to “South Side Chicago Street Dance” on Full Force (ECM, 1980). And listening to Roscoe’s “Solo” again (over and over) brought back the incredible force of inspiration this piece had for me when i first heard it about twenty years ago. Mitchell manages an incredibly singular and cohesive sound-world in a simple theme which is played on alto sax and celesta and embellished with bike horns, gongs, harmonica, cymbals and other touches. The playing is measured and patient, the music other-worldly.

I’ve had these recordings on in the car for over two weeks now, a period only occasionally punctuated by bits of NPR so as not to lose complete touch with “reality” (doesn’t really help, btw). It’s incredible to hear this material at such a distance, knowing how it was to influence an entire school of improvisation following it. (Not single-handedly, of course—i’m aware of that.) It’s also interesting to compare with the early English free improvisation scene of the time (John Stevens, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, etc.), a comparison i’m currently making only mentally. I’ll have to pull some of that material out soon and report in.

I originally wrote this entry on September 29, 2003, for a blog that i’d planned but never started. I just stumbled across the three entries i’d written and figured they might be of some value here, particularly as this recording relates directly to my next planned posting.

There’s another, very loving entry about this recording at the Bad Plus’s entertaining and erudite Do The Math blog. It even includes info about how to contact Nessa and (possibly) procure the discs. My guess is that they’re sold out by now, but it’s possibly worth a try.

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