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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

50 Years of AACM: 1975-1984

The AACM retrospective week continues today with our highly subjective, entirely personal, and completely non-representative list of albums plucked from our own collections to represent what the recordings of the AACM and it's musicians have meant to us as enthusiasts of the music. Today, the years between 1975 and 1984.

By Colin Green, Martin Schray, Matthew Grigg, Paul Acquaro, Stef Gijssels

Air – Air Song (Whynot/Trio Records, 1975)

This trio set new standards in musicianship and integration. Henry Threadgill (reeds, flute), Fred Hopkins (bass) and Steve McCall (drums) came together in New York – to where many AACM musicians had moved by the mid-70s –  to perform ragtime music in a play but this, their first album, was recorded in their native Chicago.

“I got into writing for people rather than just writing music,” said Threadgill, “it kills accompaniment and puts everything on an equal footing”. This can be heard throughout the album: Threadgill skilfully unpacks the themes, moving seamlessly from refined to acerbic. Hopkins, as adept at playing arco as pizzicato, weaves his sonorous bass lines through the trio, and McCall’s drums provide a counterpoint equal to the other instruments. This is genuine chamber music – there aren’t so much solos as passages where the others stop playing – but it’s not through-composed; there’s plenty of room for improvisation, of which all three were masters, shifting in and out of time at will. Dance of the Beast is free jazz at its tumultuous best – it could have been recorded last week, not forty years ago.

Air went on to record a number of other albums and stretched out more – particularly live – as they pushed this kind of playing even further. Another favourite is Open Air Suit (Arista Novus, 1978), the first I heard, picked up in the second hand section of a record store. Those were the days.

It’s a mark of Air’s stature that Trio X, one of the leading saxophone trios since, named their ninth CD “Air: Above & Beyond” (CIMPoL, 2007). You’d think twice before claiming that. (CG)

Creative Construction Company - CCC 1 & 2 (Muse, 1975)

If there is one true AACM band, it's the Creative Construction Company, which consists of all its most prominent members,: Anthony Braxton on alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet, flute, contrabass clarinet and chimes, Leroy Jenkins on violin, viola, recorder, toy xylophone, harmonica and bicycle horn, Leo Smith on trumpet, flugelhorn, French horn, seal horn and percussion, Muhal Richard Abrams on piano, cello and clarinet, Richard Davis on bass, and Steve McCall on drums and percussion.

Even if the records are from 1975, the recording is five years older, and it is a landmark recording for the kind of music that would find more traction later, a music which favored group improvisation as an ensemble, developing a common sound and sonic flow instead of successive solos by the various band members. There is no rhythm, no themes, no imposed structure, no compositional elements, just six instruments and more co-creating a mindblowing musical spectacular, of the kind that few would have heard before. And it works, it even works beautifully, because these artists have played and rehearsed together often, but also because they have the fantastic discipline to listen and move as one, without putting their own instrument in the forefront. This is not a free-for-all blowfest, but a major musical achievement.

I prefer the first volume, but both are really good. As a listener, you just have to go with the flow and listen to the myriad of things happening in this often dense forward moving stream of sonic threads, with calmer moments and avalanches, crazy outbursts and magnificent exuberance.

Eugene Chadbourne reviewed Vol. 2 too - for Allmusic - writing, "Braxton and company were going somewhere else of great interest by not relying constantly on jazz chops or a standard rhythm section sound, and the guests on this date seem to be blocking the road". I guess this is one of the most ridiculous comments have I've ever read. (SG)

Roscoe Mitchell: Old Quartet (Nessa, 1975)

Roscoe Mitchell’s Old/Quartet was released in 1975, however, the album is a private recording from 1967. The band actually captures the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble (which would later become the core of the Art Ensemble of Chicago) only with Philip Wilson on drums and percussion – and according to John B. Litweiler it was one of the greatest bands in jazz although it lasted only for six months. The quartet proves Mitchell’s outstanding qualities as a bandleader who controls the improvisation from behind the scenes just by changing sound colors, interspersing short motives or switching dynamics. Moreover, Old/Quartet presents where Mitchell’s music comes from (the opening track “Old” is a classic, slightly varied New Orleans blues with an ostinato bass), the current state of the art (the central tracks “Quartet 1 and 2” are free improvisations) and where he was headed to (the closing track “Solo” presents Mitchell in a solo performance). With this band the seed was sown, there was a recourse to tradition, freedom to improvise, the so-called “little instruments”, room for quiet passages, as well as silence contributing to the overall structure. And above all there are Lester Bowie’s distinctive lines and Malachi Favors’intense bass. (MS)

Anthony Braxton With Muhal Richard Abrams – Duets 1976 (Arista, 1976)

This may sound odd but I first heard Duets '76 on the radio a couple years ago. Mind you, WKCR out of NYC is not your typical radio station and it just so happened they were in the middle of a Braxton marathon. As for the song, it was 'Composition 40p'  and the unbelievably fun and rich tone of the contrabass clarinet in contrast with Muhal Richard Abram's piano work captivated me. I finally found a copy of the LP and have enjoyed it throughly since.

Braxton plays his assortment of woodwinds, including the Eb clarinet, clarinet, the sopranino sax, alto sax, contrabass sax and the aforementioned contrabass clarinet. The opener, Eric Dolphy's 'Miss Ann' is rollicking, and the closer 'Nickie', credited to both Braxton and Abrams, is a lovely ballad. In between, the music the duo makes is expansive. From the push and pull of 'Composition 62' which builds excitement through its extended abruptness to the duo's  joyful, and slightly askew, rendition of 'Maple Leaf Rag' which seems out-of-place, yet, perfectly logical. The latter providing a connection between early jazz and the forward thinking music that was coming from the members of AACM. Throughout, the improvisation and interactions are impressive, but really, it's that syncopated riff on the contrabass clarinet that makes me smile every time. (PA)

Revolutionary Ensemble: Revolutionary Ensemble (Inner City Records/Enja, 1977)

If it is true that the 1970s avant-garde had a lighter touch to free jazz than the sometimes aggressive, loud and iconoclastic 1960s version, then the Revolutionary Ensemble is the personification of this thesis. With their chamber music approach and their unusual instrumental combination they opened up new opportunities.  Here was a band with a dominant violin out front, given plenty of room by bass and drums, which wanted to “reveal to the seer and listener the music of nature” (Sirone). Additionally, on this live 1977 date, each of the members doubles or triples up on other instruments so there are a variety of textures and timbres, including kalimba, flutes (in the opening track “Clear Spring”), and piano. But mostly it’s Leroy Jenkins’ elegant violin improvisations, his expressive use of pitch and Sirone’s free spirit, his lightness and handiness with the bow, that predominate. Once again it became obvious how important more quiet parts were as a counterbalance to sound for many musicians of the AACM context. (MS)

Roscoe Mitchell: Nonaah (Nessa, 1977)

If I had had to choose only one AACM album I wanted to review, it would have been Roscoe Mitchell’s Nonaah. When I came across it first and listened to the opening lines of the title track it made my jaw drop. The story behind the track, which was recorded in Willisau in 1976, is that the people waited for Anthony Braxton but he couldn’t make it on time. So the promoter announced (in the nicest Swiss German accent, by the way) that they had to improvise (!) and that Roscoe Mitchell would fill in for Braxton. You can hear how disappointed, even angry some of the people were. And then Mitchell hits the stage and plays the eight-tone-phrase over and over again as if he was driving a huge stake in the ground (it lasts nine minutes!) – and the reaction of the audience is everything from puzzlement to uproar to pure rapture. “Nonaah” is a mixture between a fanfare (indeed the line first actually was created for the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s “Fanfare for the Warriors”), heavy metal, serial music and free jazz, it bookends the album (at the end Mitchell plays it in a quartet with Joseph Jarman, Wallace McMillan and Henry Threadgill, which is also great). Additionally, the album includes great duos and trios – but it’s the title track that is worth buying it alone.  It is confrontation, satanic ritual and ferocity in one. A real must have! (MS)

Lester Bowie - African Children (Horo, 1978)

On a double vinyl album, trumpeter Lester Bowie is in a band with fellow AACM members Amina Claudine Meyers on piano, organ and vocals, Malachi Favors on bass, Phillip Wilson on drums and non-AACM Arthur Blythe on alto saxophone. It's a typical Lester Bowie album, one that is as broad in scope as it is lacking in musical unity, yet somehow all tracks are by themselves of very high quality. The first side, "Amina", is determined by an open post-boppish expansive and flowing spiritual theme, with the piano taking a lead role, as well as Meyers' wordless singing, and Bowie and Blythe adding phrases and beautiful soloing. The second side starts with a ten-minute solo trumpet piece, a real in-the-moment avant-garde effort, closer to European improv than jazz, and is followed by the boppisch "Tricky Slicky", with walking bass and all, a great rhythmic foundation, even if Wilson's drums is insufficiently picked up by the mikes. Luckily he can start with the intro on side 3, again a twenty-minute piece, called "Chili Macdonald", a joyous Afro-Carribean piece, yet full of echoing theme phrases and frenetic free soloing, that completely explodes into free jazz, ending with sad bluesy trumpet. The last side is a tribute to Fela Kuti, and digs deep in the Nigerian's soul funk approach, with Amina Claudine Meyers doing some fantastic work on the organ, and Malachi Favors doing funky bass work as we've seldom heard him, yet this would not be Bowie if the whole thing was not completely deconstructed in the meantime, with rhythms that disappear, horns that go haywire, with a bluesy theme suddenly re-emerging and back to Fela.

This is Lester Bowie's music, taking the entire African musical tradition on board, full of joy, fun, yet at the same time taking it further, into realms these sounds have never seen, re-arranging it all for more modern times, and beautifully so. Great band and great album. (SG)

Leo Smith, Peter Kowald, Günter Sommer – Touch the Earth - Break the Shells (1979/1981, FMP)

This CD merges two previous vinyl releases. In terms of nationalities, the trio merged America, with West and East Germany, but musically – and most importantly – it was a merger of three musicians keen to extend the boundaries of free jazz, incorporating the rest of the world. Before World Music became a distinct genre, Smith (trumpet, flugelhorn, flute, thumb piano), Kowald (double bass) and Sommer (drums, percussion) integrated rhythms, textures and tonal colouring from a variety of cultures and idioms, producing something that is nowhere in particular and everywhere in general.

One of the features of their music is its highly focussed, sometimes abbreviated manner. Smith tends to favour aphoristic phrases interspersed with pauses, where silence becomes a positive. Sommer alternates between keeping time and subverting it, juggling with an array of skins, sticks and styles, but always with an ear for group sound and the bigger picture. Kowald searches for sympathetic or contrasting timbres, making quicksilver changes between plucked runs, thick glissandi, bowing below the bridge, and even using his bass as a percussion instrument. It’s music in a continual state of metamorphosis.

It can also evoke different moods. Radepur Im Februar, reflects the title: slightly bleak, with Smith sketching phrases in outline before his muted trumpet picks up pace. In Unlost Time Sommer’s pounding drums give the piece a ritualistic quality.

This kind of improvisation is now common currency, but one should not underestimate the effort required to loosen the shackles of the familiar, run with the unexpected, and avoid pastiche. (CG)

 Art Ensemble of Chicago - Nice Guys (ECM, 1979)

This is again one of these strange multi-faceted albums, full of quirky genre shifts, alternating Afro-Carribean dance ("Ja") with absolute avant-garde adventures ("597-59") and ending with the long and majestically bluesy annex blowfest "Dreaming Of The Master", yet it is of interest because it's AEoC's first release on the prestigious German ECM label, giving them sudden visibility and audibility to much wider audiences, and the album currently has even twelve issues in various forms and formats.

The band is Lester Bowie on trumpet, celeste and bass drum, Malachi Favors Maghostut on bass, percussion instruments and melodica, Joseph Jarman on saxophones, clarinets, percussion instruments and vocals, Roscoe Mitchell on saxophones, clarinets, flute and percussion instruments, and Don Moye on drums, percussion an vocal. And somebody plays their trademark bicycle horn, but that remains uncredited.

"Nice Guys" is a great introduction to the strange world of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It's relatively accessible, it's wonderfully produced, showing us around in the theatrical playground of African music in all its aspects, brought by a band of nice mavericks, whose personal skills and musical inclinations merge beautifully in this sonic melting pot. (SG)

 George Lewis: Homage to Charles Parker (Black Saint, 1979)

Looking at the title of this album you might expect a modern version of Charlie Parker’s bebop classics, maybe even new interpretations of his compositions. But then you are on the wrong track. George Lewis said that the approach of Homage to Charles Parker was influenced by Miles Davis’ quotation in which he had answered “criticism about not playing Duke Ellington’s music on an Ellington tribute concert by saying that performing at the highest level was the best homage one could give.” Lewis (tb) assembled an excellent band (Douglas Ewart on bass clarinet, Anthony Davis on piano and Richard Teitelbaum on electronics) and based his compositions on Charlie Parker’s life and afterlife. The music on Homage to Charles Parker includes deep and dark drones, electronics and free improvisation. Especially Teitelbaum’s electronics build exuberant textures which make the music appear as if a deeply relaxed John Coltrane was jamming with Tangerine Dream. You might call this spiritual ambient jazz, but Homage to Charles Parker is just a surprisingly accessible album proving the influence modern classical music had on AACM musicians. The Penguin Guide to Jazz awarded this album with five stars and called it one of the “Essential Jazz Records.” (MS)

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble: Three Gentlemen from Chikago (Moers Music, 1981)

The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble’s first album highlights two crucial aspects of the AACM which have to do with their African heritage – Great Black Music and Ancient to the Future. Both concepts are based on historical awareness, spirituality and African polyrhythms. So it is not surprising that the leader of this band is a percussionist:  Kahil El’Zabar – who is joined by saxophonists/clarinetists Ed Wilkerson and “Light” Henry Huff.  From the very beginning the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble has explored traditional sound colors and instrumentation and combined it with smooth, funky jazz grooves and a certain soulfulness on the one hand and free improvisation on the other. Tracks like “Brother Malcolm” with its addictive ostinato saxophone riff or “Moving of Seasons”, which is constructed from the sombre contrast of saxophone, bass clarinet and El’Zabar’s bamboo flute, are perfect examples of that. Today, the Ensemble still exists and it presents El’Zabar as a great folk soul singer in the tradition of Terry Callier. (MS)


Unknown said...

Thank you so much for the series! Immensely enjoyable to read, and I love the personal touches in the reviews. One of my favorite Braxton albums during this time is Creative Orchestra Music 1976.