Art Ensemble of Chicago

DIW (import)


DIW (import)


Rob Brown Trio

Silkheart (import)


Schlippenbach Trio

FMP (import)


Peter Brotzmann Octet 1968

FMP (import)


Hal Russell NRG Ensemble

Hal Russell Music (cassette only)

When the Art Ensemble of Chicago left home to conquer the world, more than two decades ago now, “energy music” was the dominant line of jazz development. It was violent music, in ultrafast tempos with horns screaming in honks and high overtone squeals, joined by rhythm sections that never provided a beat. It was surely exciting music to hear, and moreover, like early, “pure,” bebop, it achieved a kind of philosophically ideal musical state.

The Chicagoans’ discoveries were, by contrast, a humanizing force. They gave form to the new jazz, and a uniquely wide range of sound, expression, and emotion. Moreover, each of the Art Ensemble players–trumpeter Lester Bowie, saxmen Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell, drummer Don Moye, and bassist Malachi Favors–was a major jazz figure in his own right, a strong personality who had made important personal discoveries; together at their early best they achieved a level of ensemble playing that had occurred rarely in jazz, perhaps in no more than five short-lived groups in the music’s nine-decade history.

For some years now the Art Ensemble’s recordings have been scarce in America, so it’s good that Japan’s DIW label, which has been documenting the group regularly, now has an American distributor. Time and people change, of course, and if the Art Ensemble is no longer a single, five-headed musical entity, its players still share, to a unique extent, a distinctive musical vision. The high point of Art Ensemble of Soweto, their newest release, is “Fundamental Destiny,” an excellent Joseph Jarman theme with three solos that are unusual in their unity of feeling: tenor sax (Jarman?), trumpet (Lester Bowie), and alto (Roscoe Mitchell?) each create phrases that generate the next phrase, in beautifully developed lines, and likewise each solo seems to generate the next solo. (Bowie’s sense of contrast is so fine as to rival Dizzy Gillespie’s.) Other tracks offer further explorations of territory that seemingly only the Art Ensemble explored. Mitchell’s alto is the center of “Fresh Start,” around which the others move and comment; the piece is a collective improvisation on trills and a four-note theme fragment. And “The Bottom Line” is a dark, lorn world of long tones rumbling low, low down in the bass clef, like hot lava at the bottom of a volcano.

The title Art Ensemble of Soweto derives from the presence of the Amabutho Male Chorus on half the disc. These are five rich-voiced singers who bring their own traditional-sounding repertoire from South Africa, with the kind of paradoxes that characterize South African music. The main paradox here is the contrast of their melodies and harmonies, so simple, sweet, and hymnlike, with the anguish of their lyrics, sung mostly in Zulu. For instance, from the song “African Woman”: in English, “I wanna praise you African woman. . . . You raise the white children . . . “; then in Zulu, “Don’t raise children that turn on your children and kill them.” The Art Ensemble provides catchy countermelodies and rhythmic pulse to accompany the vocals, but unlike South Africa’s own jazz exiles the Chicagoans offer no organic fusion of the separate traditions; even so, the meeting of the two quintets is a delight to the ears.

Today the tragedian has overtaken the comedian in Bowie’s bent-note trumpeting, while Jarman and Mitchell have found a new, less angular, less virtuosic kind of lyricism; in fact, it’s impossible to guess which of them plays which lovely tenor solo in “African Woman.” Famoudou Don Moye remains the most colorful of drummers, while Malachi Favors Maghostut still offers the earthy wisdom of four generations of Chicago jazz bassists. The latter two are the only Art Ensemble members who still live here. The band almost never plays here anymore–their set last fall in the AACM Festival was their first local appearance in more than two years–but at least we now have their recordings.

Alto saxman Oliver Lake, from Saint Louis, was one of the Chicagoans’ earliest associates; he spent the summer of 1967 here, playing with Bowie, Mitchell, and others, and on one occasion in the 70s he even replaced Mitchell in the Art Ensemble. Trio Transition With Special Guest Oliver Lake shows how far he has moved from the Chicagoans’ early inspiration. The trio–pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Reggie Workman, and drummer Freddie Waits –is a resolutely 1963-style rhythm section offering a special kind of musical refinement: these are harmonically sophisticated, all-purpose, hard-bop band players. They’re essentially self-effacing, highly skillful craftsmen with quick musical ears and a big repertoire of responses; their primary objective is to kick their horn soloists along with aggressive swing and inspiring accompaniments, and Lake joins them with great enthusiasm.

In this conventional context Lake largely appropriates Eric Dolphy’s alto saxophone style, nowhere more than in “November ’80,” with wide, wild leaps of notes as he slips in and out of drummer Waits’s samba patterns. Like Dolphy’s, Lake’s sense of solo organization is free association; though his ideas are also sunshine-bright, he lacks something of Dolphy’s manic quality, and where Dolphy verged on atonality, Lake deals in free tonality here, achieving impact with lightning jumps from key to key in “Effie,” for instance. Much of the disc’s pleasure lies in his clashes with the rhythm section, as he steps backward in time to offer a pre-Art Ensemble kind of improvising. Oliver Lake is certainly an important player in today’s jazz, yet much of his work has been clouded in ambiguity; it’s good, then, to hear the wholehearted alto playing on this disc.

Young New York altoist Rob Brown says he was inspired by, among others, Roscoe Mitchell, Albert Ayler, and Ornette Coleman. In fact, from time to time in Breath Rhyme, on the Danish Silkheart label, he sounds exactly like each of these three major players. He becomes Mitchell at his most jagged and thorny in the title piece, and the Mitchell influence goes much deeper than that in “Firewalk,” as Brown offers truly imaginative developments while sustaining a flowing musical line. Ayler is recalled in the splintered sustained tones that lead to broken squalls in “Escape Velocity.” Most often of all Brown reproduces Coleman. His wide vibrato and his upward leaps as he changes key freely are pure mid-60s Coleman, though melodically, as “Awake” especially makes clear, he prefers the earlier Coleman. And some of the themes he composes to surround his melodic improvisations–such as “PB” and “The Light”–are very much in the early Coleman tradition.

Two very strong personalities join Brown on these sessions: drummer Dennis Charles, a master of interplay, playing possibly the best he ever has in his 30-odd-year career, and the marvelous bassist William Parker, who is so strong and sensitive that he may well be the Malachi Favors of New York. Brown’s composing breaks through the conventional theme-solos-theme format with solo and duet sections, unisons and counterpoint, and routines that help each track acquire its special identity–another legacy of Mitchell? Brown may be an eclectic player at this point in his career, but his imagination and his formal instincts reveal a basic integrity that may well result in important, original music. This disc deserves attention.

While the Art Ensemble and their AACM friends were creating a new kind of jazz in the 60s, a generation of European musicians had begun a similar quest. Machine Gun, from the German label FMP, is a reissue of an early adventure by some of the best of them, including drummer Han Bennink and tenor saxophonists Peter Brotzmann, Willem Breuker, and Evan Parker. None was yet a distinctive player when these sessions were recorded. Their medium was energy music, screaming with immense savagery; the saxes together sound like three simultaneous steam drills, almost out of control. It’s happy, hair-raising stuff, and as with leader Brotzmann’s hero, Albert Ayler, there are composed routines that lend shape to the improvisations.

One of those young saxophonists, Evan Parker, went on to become an innovator of jazz sensibility–perhaps jazz’s last innovator–and he is the center of attention in the Schlippenbach Trio’s 11 bagatelles, or as they say in gay Paree, Elf Bagatellen, now available from FMP. Like the Chicagoans, Parker is perfectly at ease in the free, fluid medium of sounds in space; in several distant tracks here he makes faint, barely formed sounds in a dream void. Most of the time, however, his tenor and soprano sax music presents a surreal world in which all familiar sounds are misshapen (imagine if everyone around you suddenly turned into a gargoyle), no notes are in any known human scale, and lines are composed of gnarled, knobby, splintered tones flying off in all directions. This is certainly not energy music, but something far more dangerous: a vision, ominous, complex, and frighteningly real. What’s especially devastating about Parker’s soloing here, since he’s playing at his very best, is the relentlessness of his logic, the inevitability with which his phrases move.

The medium is free improvisation: no themes, no chord changes, no set rhythm or any other structural outline–the music’s shape comes directly, unencumbered, from a most basic human instinct, the urge to form. The Schlippenbach Trio is Englishman Parker, German pianist Alex Schlippenbach, and German drummer Paul Lovens. Unsentimental, thoroughly dedicated to “outside” playing, Schlippenbach likes to offer dense, dissonant lines at the fastest possible tempos, as though he were a less obsessive Cecil Taylor; he also likes to invent ballad settings, without, however, abandoning free tonality. Lovens participates wholly on the level of the others, never accompanying, but punctuating and initiating realms of discourse with nervous reflexes and a great range of drum sounds. Incidentally, this fine trio reunion disc was recorded about six weeks before they came to Chicago to perform at Southend Musicworks last summer.

At least in America, major-label policy and small-label economics now forbid the recording of any jazz except revivalists, borderline pop-jazz, and players based in the bop era: all of the discs reviewed above (all are CDs, by the way) are imports. The dilemma: how can U.S.-based creative musicians be documented? One solution is to hire a studio and record your own tapes, as Hal Russell and his NRG Ensemble have done with Hal on Earth. Purely apart from the AACM, Russell was also exploring in the 60s; only over the last decade, as he’s found excellent young multiinstrumentalists to work with, has it become clear that he’s another important figure in today’s jazz.

It’s NRG’s huge book of compositions that makes the band. Steve Hunt composes strange collages such as the happy title piece, which runs from weeping saxophones to humping funk rhythms to fast, screaming collective improvisations; Hunt is among the very best of today’s liberated drummers, and in Mars Williams’s “Dance of the Spider People” he also plays a carbonated vibes solo. Brian Sandstrom composes minimalist jazz-rock fusion, such as “Raining Violets,” which is simply a repeated note and a scale–the piece becomes mad humor as the two strident saxophonists play variations together. And Sandstrom also plays powerful bass, blatting trumpet, and chattering guitar on the date. Kent Kessler is this quintet’s all-purpose other bassist, and he contributes a rare ballad to the set: “Autumn Squeeze,” a fetching melody with a smile in its two-trumpet dissonances.

Mars Williams plays tenor sax with a violently big sound and extremely diffuse ideas; but he has a singular advantage: he inspires the most excited, imaginative abstractions in Russell’s own playing. This time Russell plays mostly trumpet and tenor sax, the latter wildly, with exhilarated screams. Among his compositions here, “Ode to Monica Chavez” is very Art Ensemble-like, with muted trumpet over three low didgeridoos, while his “Lunceford” is an antic variation on Jimmie Lunceford’s 1937 swing hit “For Dancers Only” and his “Hal the Weenie” is full of horrifying musical ghouls. Much of the music here is high energy, or NRG, stuff, and all of it is stimulating.

Periodically, it seems, exploratory jazz becomes an underground phenomenon while waves of fashion run their courses; the current paucity of recordings is a good example. Chicago spots such as Southend Musicworks, Hot House, and Club Lower Links do a good job of serving the music’s audience, fortunately, and the crowds that thronged last fall’s AACM Festival could hardly be considered underground. The growing numbers and involvement of the music’s listeners are surely one sign that the recording situation is bound to improve.