Depending on whom one might talk to the Art Ensemble is one of the cornerstones of the free-jazz/avant garde movement or jazz blasphemers of the highest order. Five master musicians, each inspiring the others to greater musical heights while at the same time working within the confines of a collective to deconstruct what jazz had become at the time. The Art Ensemble was the extreme realization of the initial experiments of "Interstellar Space"-era Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Sun Ra.
The main visionaries behind the Art Ensemble were multi-reedists Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, who between them can masterfully play every saxophone or flute ever built. Each of them is a powerhouse musician but as far apart on the compositional spectrum as two players can be. Mitchell assaults the ears of audiences with thick flurries of notes; Jarman is as masterful playing the silence between notes as he is with any other instrument. In the Art ensemble trumpeter Lester Bowie was the bridge connecting Mitchell and Jarman: always decked out in a lab coat, Bowie would use soft accents to allow Jarman to match Mitchell's volleys or step out front to allow Mitchell to concentrate on shading Jarman's soft tones.
Jarman left the Art Ensemble in 1993 and converted to Zen Buddhism, effectively robbing Mitchell of a conspirator and counterpart. Bowie's death in 1999 spelled an end to the band as we know it. These days Mitchell explores his muse in outfits like the neo-classical trio Space or the weight of his band, the Note Factory. Jarman has married his Art Ensemble past and Buddhist present to create spiritually serene soundscapes when he's not busy tending to his New York dojo.
They still play together from time to time. Their June 15th performance of improvised compositions at Chicago's HotHouse (the first of a two night stand) is one of the highest profile gigs they've done together in recent memory. The bridge connecting Mitchell to Jarman for these performances was none other than Wadada Leo Smith. One of the most unique characters in jazz and himself an AACM veteran, Smith, a Rastafarian from Mississippi who's played with everyone from Anthony Braxton to Henry Kaiser, afropop star Thomas Mapfumo to free-jazz drumming phenom Susie Ibarra, and onetime holder of the Dizzy Gillespie chair at Cal Arts, was in his element. Smith played clusters of notes in a sort of call-and-response to Mitchell on wood flute. Jarman added texture to the improvisation with Buddhist bells and hardware store wind chimes. Other times, Mitchell would handle rhythm using gamelan instruments and hotel lobby bells, while Jarman would melodize on bass flute, pan, and soprano sax while Smith would softly blow on a muted trumpet.
The most riveting improvisation of the night was also the most simple. Jarman played a single note from a tambourine, paused for about five seconds, then played the note again. Smith assisted Jarman on percussion via shakers. Mitchell strapped on a tenor saxophone and held a single note using circular breathing. With Jarman and Smith not breaking the rhythm, Mitchell began to hammer the note. Mitchell would then play various riffs and scales always coming back to that same single hammered note at the end of each run. It was something the Art Ensemble did all the time, something that only musicians who trust each other unconditionally would ever try.