In 1981, ECM released the much acclaimed "The Great Pretender" by Lester Bowie and his band interpreting gospels in a contemporary and jazzy way, mixing tradition with humor and avant-garde outbursts.
Now, Jazzwerkstatt releases a double CD with the same title and with an almost similar concept. The first CD is fully in the same vein as the ECM album, with a band consisting of Fontella Bass, Martha Bass and David Peaston on vocals, Ari Brown on sax, Art Matthews on piano, Fred Williams on bass, Philip Wilson on drums. The live performance was recorded in Berlin in 1982.
The concept is almost the same : well-known gospel songs and hymns such as "Jesus Loves Me", "He's Got The World In His Hand", "I'm So Grateful", tracks which are also played like you would expect in any church, without trumpet or sax, just piano and vocals. But then you have the other tracks, "Mother's Mode + Peace", which is a long and jubilant free jazz piece, "Tobabo, Tobago" with its fun Carribean rhythm, the slow blues "It's A Mean Old World", and the rock'n'roller "Let The Good Times Roll", and ending with the hair-raising "The Great Pretender".
And you're right, this is a quick journey through the history of African American music, reverent, soulful, joyful and fun, and it will be a great addition to the fans of the ECM album.
The second CD is a totally different thing, and you can even wonder why both albums are sold together, because they have absolutely nothing in common, and with absolutely, I mean absolutely.
Next to Bowie on trumpet, we have William Parker on bass, and Philip Wilson on drums. The performance was recorded in New York in 1991, to my knowledge the only trio performance of Bowie, next to Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio album "The Ancestors Are Among Us".
The CD starts with "Cool", a bluesy duet with William Parker that will please everybody for its beautiful and sad sound, and great pulse. "Philadelphia" is a very nervous improvisation on which Bowie's sound is raw and percussive even and soulful and inventive, a real joy to hear for fans of the master. "Steel And Breath" has Wilson in a star role, thundering away on his kit, with Bowie taking up the challenge for some fantastic dialogues, reminiscent of their duo album.
How record labels present and promote their music is often a mystery, and this is again confirmed here by Jazzwerkstatt (which is for any interested buyer an absolute disaster website to find information), but that should not deter interested fans. If you are a fan of free music, just download the second CD from the usual sites. If you are a fan of Bowie, buy the whole thing.
Here is a nice example of CD1 with a similar band and similar sound.