art ensemble of chicago | performance of sunday november 25, 1973 berkeley community theatre, berkeley; and of monday november 26 and tuesday november 27, 1973 keystone korner, san francisco
PERFORMANCE OF SUNDAY NOVEMBER 25, 1973 Berkeley Community Theatre, Berkeley; and of Monday November 26 and Tuesday November 27, 1973 Keystone Korner, San Francisco.
Joseph Jarman / reeds and percussion, Roscoe Mitchell / reeds and percussion, Lester Bowie / brass and percussion, Malachi Favors / bass and percussion, Don Moye / drums and percussion.
Great Black Music! That is how the Art Ensemble of Chicago describes their music, and that is what it truly is. Great Black Music!
The Art Ensemble is not just a band, not even just a very good avant-garde band, but an alive cultural institution in a tradition that reaches all the way back to the griots (oral historians) of Africa.
Like the griots, who must be able to trace their tribe’s history through several generations, the Art Ensemble is about memory, about race memory, about the total Black experience from Africa to the shores of this land. Their music is at once an affirmation of a proud Black heritage and a protest of its denial/negation here.
The Art Ensemble creates sound paintings, sound dramas, mini-documentaries. Thus People In Sorrow, Reese and the Smooth Ones, Ohnedaruth (John Coltrane). But these names are at best only guides to an experience. The music already says what the words say and more, prior to and beyond their being said.
So that the form as well as the content of their music is avant-garde. And in this sense, the music of the Art Ensemble is as advanced as the most advanced contemporary music. But they draw on and absorb the past, turn it around, inside out, show it again as it needs to be seen in the now.
So that the Present absorbs the Past, the sense of the Past in the Now becomes the Now (Identity), the Now becomes the Future.
Their Sunday performance at the Berkeley Community Theatre was a highly dramatic and captivating presentation, with a fair share of hokum and hilarity. Musically, however, it seemed only a partial success – this due to a lack of connectedness between all of the thematic ideas. By contrast, their sets at Keystone Korner were mainly musical events. They largely held together as aesthetically whole units and were charged with an energy and excitement only hinted at in the Berkeley concert. Their opening set at the Keystone late Monday evening began at a level of power and intensity stronger than anything this group has put on record. (Portions of “Chi-Congo” seem closest.) The very first notes pierced the silence like a desperate cry for help. Then they drew back briefly to insert a short, near dirge-like, thematic idea; next, proceeded for 25 minutes through thick textures of sound close in intensity to the opening.
Jarman, his face painted in streaks of red and blue, began on tenor saxophone, with Mitchell on alto and bass saxophones and Bowie on trumpet. Behind the horns, Favors – in long, white field garb and Vietnamese cone-shaped hat – plucked hard, single bass notes and thick clusters of chords, while Moye beat his drum skins and cymbals nearly into oblivion. Bowie, who must be the only trumpet player playing who can hold his own in the midst of screeching, screaming saxophones, blasted out an earth-moving solo in his contemporary/Armstrong style, then played long, held notes against Mitchell’s whining alto sax. Suddenly it all subsided into a web of short, intersecting motifs, though Favors bowed long, stringy bass tones underneath. Moye rolled deep, tympani-like sounds from his drums.
Then, just as quickly, this too faded and Bowie stood alone, twisting and contorting his body into knots so that he could coax the right sound from his instrument. Jarman soon joined him, searching his way among his “little instruments.” He played vibraphone for awhile, then strode back and forth ringing a large school bell. Mitchell chimed in on bass sax. Bowie still blew away! Several quieter percussive sections followed, then a brief resurgence of the free beginning. Then, with Jarman and Mitchell on tenor saxophones and Bowie on trumpet, they broke into a steaming, smoking Kansas City blues that recalled McShann and Basie and a host of other Southwest bands. Jarman weaved his way through a “jassy” solo while Mitchell, Bowie and Moye played the part of the crashing rhythm sections of the day.
In all, a fantastic piece, a success on every level.
But the three other pieces at Keystone Korner were just as good, or nearly so. “Reese And The Smooth Ones,” which followed the same night as the set described above, was probably even more relaxed, though the ending – also based on a 4/4 rhythmic motif – seemed slightly tired, not with the punch of the first set. Tuesday evening began with a beautifully impressionistic “People in Sorrow.” This performance would have been every bit the equal of the Art Ensemble’s already fine recording of same, were it not for a slightly bizarre interruption some ten minutes into the piece. At this point, there began a rather loud knocking noise from a room above the Keystone which continued intermittently for nearly five minutes.
The knocking occurred at an extremely quiet part of the performance and was most distracting both to the audience and to the musicians. Bowie and Jarman completely left the podium while Mitchell, Favors and Moye continued with a sense of “the show must go on.” During this time, Mitchell actually took one of his most stark and finely shaped alto solos of the entire three days’ performances, though it is doubtful everyone in the audience was relaxed enough to enjoy it. At any rate, by the time he had finished, the knocking had ceased, Bowie and Jarman had returned, and the piece proceeded as planned. Despite the weird incident, it was a beautiful and quietly powerful performance in a class with the best work the Art Ensemble has done.
Finally, there was “Ohnedaruth.” Moye began this piece alone – on conga drums – then was joined by Bowie, then the others. For most of this performance, the level of intensity matched or surpassed that of the opening of Monday night’s first set. Everyone was outstanding, but Moye completely outdid himself, several times raising the entire force of the piece to a point you thought surely had already been reached. The only problem of these performances, if there was one, seemed to me to be the tendency to end each piece with a rather catchy rhythmic line. (Only “People in Sorrow” did not conclude in this way.) Though this manner of ending worked to excellent effect in the opening piece at Keystone Korner, it was used enough additionally that it came to be expected. This tended to destroy the effect it otherwise could have had.
It also tended to negate rather than to complement the passages that preceded it: because to the extent that the line becomes expected, it tends to take the audience “off the hook” (in the sense that the audience begins to suspect, or feel, that whatever serious/transcendent elements a piece may contain, that they can all be absorbed into the lowest common denominator of the traditional 4/4 rhythmic motif). So that the way in which these final lines come across can actually be crucial in determining whether or not an entire piece succeeds on the terms it was presented. Though the pieces performed here were too powerful that they could possibly have been “destroyed” in this way, it seems worth taking note of what could be a negative tendency.
This one reservation aside, these performances of the Art Ensemble of Chicago were a great cultural event for San Francisco and for the entire Bay Area.
Henry Kuntz, 1973
The Art Ensemble of Chicago web page
selected Art Ensemble of Chicago recordings
Art Ensemble of Chicago biography:
The Art Ensemble of Chicago is an avant-garde jazz ensemble that grew out of Chicago’s AACM in the late 1960s. The group continues to tour and record through 2006, despite the deaths of two of the founding members.
The Art Ensemble is notable for its members’ use of costumes and face paint in performance. Also of note is the Ensemble’s multi-instrumentalism, especially the use what they termed “little instruments” in addition to the traditional jazz lineup; “little instruments” can include bicycle horns, bells, birthday party noisemakers, wind chimes, and a vast array of percussion instruments (including found objects). These two characteristics combine to make the ensemble’s performances as much a visual spectacle as an aural one, with each musician playing from behind a large array of drums, bells, gongs, and other instruments.
Members of what was to become the Art Ensemble performed together under various band names in the mid-sixties, releasing their first album, Sound, as the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet in 1966. The Sextet included saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, trumpeter Lester Bowie and bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut, who over the next year went on to play together as the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble. In 1967 they were joined by fellow AACM members Joseph Jarman (saxophone) and Philip Wilson (drums), and made a number of recordings for Nessa.
As noted above, the musicians were all active multi-instrumentalists: Jarman and Mitchell’s primary instruments were alto and tenor saxes, resepctively, but they played many other saxophones (ranging from the tiny sopraninio to the large bass), flutes and clarinets. In addition to trumpet, Bowie played flugelhorn, cornet, shofar and conch shells. Favors added touches of banjo and bass guitar. Over the years, most of the musicians dabbled on piano, synthesizer and other keyboards.
In 1969, Wilson, left the group to join blues singer/harmoncica player Paul Butterfield’s band. That same year, the remaining group travelled to Paris, where they became known as the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The immediate impetus for the name change came from a French promoter who added “of Chicago” to their name for purely descriptive purposes, but the new name stuck because band members felt that it better reflected the cooperative nature of the group. In Paris the ensemble’s distinctive music with percussion roles dispersed throughout among the quartet was documented in a range of records on the Freedom and BYG labels. They also recorded “Comme à la radio” with Brigitte Fontaine and Areski Belkacem as a drummerless quartet before welcoming percussionist Famoudou Don Moye to the group in 1970. The ensemble returned to the United States in 1972, and the quintet of Mitchell, Jarman, Bowie, Favors and Moye remained static until 1993.
In 1970 the ensemble recorded two albums with singer Fontella Bass, then Lester Bowie’s wife. These were The Art Ensemble of Chicago with Fontella Bass and Les Stances A Sophie. The latter was the soundtrack from the French movie of the same title. Bass’ vocals, backed by the powerful pulsating push of the band has allowed the “Theme De YoYo” to remain an underground cult classic ever since.
Upon their return to the States, they came to prominence with two major releases on Atlantic Records: Bap-Tizum and Fanfare for the Warriers. Members of the group made the decision to restrict their appearances together, allowing each player to pursue other musical interests. It seems likely that this has contributed to the longevity of the ensemble. Despite the self-imposed limitations the Art Ensemble managed to release more than 20 studio recordings and several live albums between 1972 and 2004.
The makeup of the ensemble changed in 1993, when Jarman retired from the group to focus on his practice of Zen and Aikido. Bowie died of liver cancer in 1999, and the group continued as a trio (featuring a number of guest artists in their performances) until 2003, when Jarman rejoined the ensemble. In January of 2004 Favors Maghostut died suddenly during the recording of the group’s latest album, Sirius Calling. The group was joined for their 2004 tour by trumpeter Corey Wilkes and bassist Jaribu Shahid, but it remains to be seen whether they will become permanent members of the ensemble, though a 2 CD live release by this quintet from 2004 is scheduled for release in 2006 on Pi Recordings.
Ensemble members embrace the performance art aspects of their concerts, believing that they allow the band to move beyond the strict limits of “jazz”. Their operating motto is “Great Black Music: Ancient To the Future”, which allows them to explore a wide variety of musical styles and influences; the band’s distinctive appearance on stage also reflects this motto. As Jarman describes it,
So what we were doing with that face painting was representing everyone throughout the universe, and that was expressed in the music as well. That’s why the music was so interesting. It wasn’t limited to Western instruments, African instruments, or Asian instruments, or South American instruments, or anybody’s instruments. (Joseph Jarman interview)