Urban Bushmen

Art Ensemble of Chicago

album cover

A New Kind of Jazz Storytelling

Left. Right. Left. When the marching starts, it feels like it's only gonna be a momentary diversion. Or at least you hope so. It keeps going. LeftRightLeft. And then along comes Lester Bowie, the impish magician of the trumpet, playing a military reveille, more or less straight. Commands are shouted in the distance, and pretty soon the whole Art Ensemble of Chicago is in step. The woodwind players Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell swap clarinet lines like they're on the streets of the French Quarter.

This surreal but not quite grand processional, part of a tune called "Sun Precondition Two/Theme for Sco," reflects the special genius of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the five-piece group responsible for some of the most vividly imagined free jazz of the 1970s and '80s. Rather than attempt linear narratives, the members of the Ensemble go after sprawling scenes—that march is one of several wide-angle, highly visual portrayals on this two-disc live set, which was recorded in Munich in 1980. Others include a percussion exchange with tuned woodblocks, "Bush Magic," that sounds like it's happening in an African village square. Then comes an opposite extreme, "Urban Magic," during which solo passages are punctuated by (what else?) whistles and sirens.

The soloists handle themselves well, but the Art Ensemble's music sinks or swims on the strength of the constantly shifting structures going on behind them. Everyone plays several instruments—Jarman alone is credited with twenty-two, including the full range of saxophones, bass pan drums, and bassoon—and because they're actively involved in creating the atmospheres, the asides they drop in are often as interesting as whatever's in the spotlight. That's the beauty of free jazz as practiced by the Art Ensemble: It thrives not on one big idea but a thousand little ones.

Genre: Jazz
Released: 1982, ECM
Key Tracks: "Bush Magic," "Sun Precondition Two/Theme for Sco," "New York Is Full of Lonely People," "Ancestral Meditation"
Catalog Choice: Nice Guys; People in Sorrow
Next Stop: Lester Bowie: The Great Pretender
Book Page: 28

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