The Art Ensemble of Chicago are one of the most long-lived, cutting-edge and eclectic groups in jazz, a troupe that’s insisted on doing things on its own terms. If course, it hasn’t always been easy - they’re more popular in Europe than America (gasp! what a surprise), and major labels haven’t exactly engaged in bidding wars for them. All the more reason the jazz world was set on its collective ear when they singed to ECM Records in the late 70s. In the context of the times, ECM=white/European improvisation and AEC=black/African-American improvisation, and never the twain shall meet, or something. People forget that in their early days, ECM issued albums by Dave Holland (his classic Conference of the Birds
w/Braxton & Rivers), Circle (Corea/Braxton/et. al.) and Marion Brown (Afternoon of a Georgia Faun
). Anyway, the AEC and its spin-offs/side-projects released some of their best, most vibrant and, ironically, most accessible stuff on ECM during 1978-1997, and this edition of the :rarum
series gives a superb cross-section, with the added dimension of its selections being chosen (as are all in this series) by the artists themselves.
Highpoints include "Charlie M," a warm and cheerfully, sardonically ragged tribute to the late Charles Mingus that’s rich with sanctified gospel-informed earthiness and emotive hard-bop, with wonderful crackling Lester Bowie trumpet; the kaleidoscopic "free" montage/travelogue "Folkus" that draws strands from African and Southeast Asian folk music, John Cage, Pierre Boulez, Charles Ives and empathetic free improvisation; and the beautiful ethereal elegy "Prayer For Jimbo Kwesi," on which Joseph Jarman’s playing on the synthesizer that sounds curiously Irish and not unlike the ambient musics of Harold Budd and Brian Eno and the techno-ethnic sounds of Jon Hassell, until it evolves into gentle, mournful waltz that sounds very South African. There’s also a track apiece from the (also fine) solo/side projects by Lester Bowie and Roscoe Mitchell. I know it’s practically a cliché w/ me, but if the shoe fits, kick yourself with it, I say: this is a magnificent, virtually essential collection of "avant-garde jazz" that NO ONE WITH AN OPEN MIND NEED BE AFRAID OF.