Art Ensemble Of Chicago
Tribute To Lester


Due to geographical reasons, one night in 1984 was the only time that I had the chance to catch a concert by the Art Ensemble Of Chicago in what I consider to be their "classic" line-up: the quintet. A fantastic concert, by the way: in many ways then at the top of their game, that night the group played in front of 1.200 paying customers in a beautiful theatre with fine acoustics (even geniuses derive a certain degree of pleasure from playing in front of a big, competent, curious, involved, enthusiastic audience - naively we though this was the way things were always gonna be...). Picture those colourful costumes and all those percussions and reed instruments illuminated by the stage lights.

For this writer the most intense moment of the evening was Roscoe Mitchell's saxophone solo on Uncle, but the whole repertoire had been equally successful, with everybody's input beautifully side-by-side - and that such different compositional styles such as those by Mitchell, Jarman and Bowie could coexist in the same group had always stricken me as something just short of prodigious. (Those who want to have an idea of what happened on that night, however imperfect it may be - the concert in question having been more lively and ultimately more successful - can listen to the double album called Urban Bushmen, recorded in 1980 and released two years later; on the night I attended the group also played some material that was to be released on The Third Decade, released in 1985.)

By then it was apparent to many that the group as a collective had ceased to be the place where the individual members took their most personal material - and even then, the albums that I would have suggested as required listening to those who wanted to know why the Art Ensemble was considered to be such an innovative group would have been titles such as the wide canvas of People In Sorrow (1969) or the ideal portrait of the different personalities that is Fanfare For The Warriors (1973) - not the good, but not great albums the group was by then releasing on ECM.

By that time I was starting to lose interest in the group's recorded output, since the albums recorded for DIW seemed to lack any real urgency. The Alternate Express (1989) was the last one I bought - not bad, but: too little, too late? Instead, I continued listening to the albums released by Roscoe Mitchell, since they seemed to remain faithful to the experimental spirit that had been one of the group's traits.

Joseph Jarman quitting the group (for personal reasons) left the Art Ensemble without the saxophone player whose voice was so different from Mitchell's. And it was with much surprise that in 1999, when I had the chance to hear the quartet line-up, I saw a Bowie-less, trumpet-less quartet ("He's been sick", was what Mitchell sadly told me), where guest artist Ari Brown played the saxophone and (on that night, mostly) the piano. The concert was very good - but was it the Art Ensemble? Of course, the Favors/Moye rhythm section had been one of the best - and most personal - in jazz starting from day one, but that line-up could have been called The Roscoe Mitchell Trio.

Which brings me straight to Tribute To Lester. Bowie died in 1999, and two years ago the trio recorded this album, which was released a few weeks ago. Recent news tell of the return of Jarman, first on stage, now on record.

I want this to be clear: Tribute To Lester is a very fine album, never sentimental in the wrong way. The members play well, the recorded sound is very good. But it's Mitchell's contribution that is crucial for the final result.

The album successfully puts together some of the group's building blocks: the percussive pieces, the almost-classical arias, the blues, the bittersweet melodicism, the agitated saxophones. What makes the whole successful is the degree of control - no pastiche here, so the CD sounds more like a suite than a collection of disparate moments. The album is not at all difficult, and after just a few listening sessions the arch-like shape of the music becomes apparent. The album opens and closes with two pieces that are mostly for percussions: Sangaredi, with its forward motion, and the sad close of the very beautiful He Speaks To Me Often In Dreams, with its funeral bells.

Mitchell's Suite For Lester makes for a great variety in just a few minutes: a meditation for soprano sax, a Bach-like air for flute, a swinging moment for bass sax. Then the group revisits a theme by Bowie - Zero - and one of the most famous blues themes ever performed by the group, Tutankhamun (I hope the reader is familiar with the versions for solo double bass and for solo bass saxophone). As Clear As The Sun brings us to today - it's very reminiscent of those African-sounding arias that Mitchell plays using circular breathing on soprano saxophone. The closing track, He Speak To Me Often In Dreams, brings the record to a very beautiful - and not at all rhetorical - close.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2003 | Oct. 23, 2003