Emerging in the fertile 1960s free jazz scene in Chicago and members of the remarkable collective called the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM), which included such performers as Henry Threadgill (covered here recently) and Anthony Braxton (who soon will be), three members of the quintet later known as The Art Ensemble of Chicago came together through the recordings of saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, who recorded three albums from 1966 to 1969 that featured trumpeter Lester Bowie and bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut. Saxophonist Joseph Jarman then became associated with this trio and, by 1969, the Art Ensemble was officially formed. A year later, the group was augmented by drummer and percussionist (though everyone had an impressive batterie of percussion instruments which distinguished the AECO) Famoudou Don Moye, who was born in Rochester, New York and studied in Detroit before emigrating to Europe when he joined the Ensemble in 1970.
With its members playing an incredible multitude of instruments, some wearing African clothing and face paint, while others wore "Western" garb, and performing music that, by turns, could be fantastically powerful, intense and serious and then joyful, humorous and irreverent, the band combined a striking visual component with a totally catholic approach to sound that set them apart from anyone else in the jazz world.
The Art Ensemble spent most of its earlier years in France, where a series of notable recordings for the BYG/Actuel label were made, some of which will make their appearance here down the road. In 1972, the group had its first appearance at an American festival, when it performed at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, held at a field named for the famed blues performer Otis Spann, on 9 September 1972.
Introduced by John Sinclair, poet, radical founder of the anti-racist White Panthers, and manager of Detroit's legendary rock band, the MC5, the group performed a 45-minute set that is comprised of unusual titles like "Nfamoudou-Boudougou," "Immm," "Unanka," and "Oouffnoon," and the music is generally as impressionistic as the titles with the first track displaying all the percussion pyrotechnics the group used so effectively over the years. "Unanka" features an unusual sax/bas duet with Favors and Mitchell, whereas Mitchell's frenetic soloing is underscored by Moye's percussion in "Oouffnoon." "Ohnedaruth" highlights Bowie's powerful and innovative trumpet playing and the use of Jarman and Mitchell's deep, rich bass saxes creates a memorable piece that is a highlight of the set. By the time the band settled into the perfect, tight swing of "Odwalla," (proof, if needed, that the Ensemble could play "in the tradition" and not just so-called "free jazz") the audience had gone from enthusiastic to crazed and the roar that rose up after the AECO completed this mind-blowing concert is remarkable and spine-tingling. It makes you wish you'd been there to experience the aural and visual spectacle and, 40 years later in a few weeks, it sounds fresh and not dated, at all.
Also surprising was the fact that this record was released on the major label, Atlantic, which was then making its greatest profits from the likes of Led Zeppelin, though there was an impresive jazz resume with the label, including with John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman recording for it in the late 50s and early 60s. Michael Cuscuna, who had done a great deal of jazz production, was in the audience and convinced the label to release this album as an unedited whole, capturing the excitement and unpredictability of one of the best of all jazz ensembles.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago: Bap-Tizum (Atlantic, 1973)
1. Nfamousdou-Boudougou 4:16
2. Immm 5:31
3. Unanka 10:44
4. Oouffnoon 3:25
5. Ohnedaruth 15:00
6. Odwalla 5:42