Art Ensemble Chronicled in Massive ECM Box Set


ECM founder Manfred Eicher writes that he saw new possibilities in the improvised music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

(Photo: Roberto Masotti/ECM Records)

In the comprehensive, 296-page booklet that accompanies ECM’s 21-CD box set Art Ensemble Of Chicago And Associated Ensembles, label founder Manfred Eicher states that, from the time he launched the label in 1969, it was his desire to work with Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors, who named themselves “The Art Ensemble of Chicago” after transplanting from Chicago to Paris in the summer of that same year.

The band’s music, Eicher writes, “seemed to propose a new and exciting model for improvised chamber music, opening a fresh chapter after the seismic achievements of Coltrane, Ornette and Cecil Taylor had brought ‘jazz’ to a culmination of sorts.” That impression deepened after Eicher witnessed AEC concerts in Paris and other cities, “where the polystylistic complexity of the music was paralleled by the uniqueness of the presentation, with movement, costumes, face-paint, and billowing clouds of incense smoke.”

In 1978, after ECM producer Thomas Stöwsand introduced Eicher to the band, he recorded the Art Ensemble’s Nice Guys, as well as the eponymous album by drummer Jack DeJohnette’s band New Directions and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s Divine Love, each featuring trumpeter Lester Bowie. Over the next four decades, Eicher generated four more AEC albums (Full Force, Urban Bushmen, The Third Decade and Tribute To Lester), and another 13 dates that embody what he describes as the “lines of influence radiating outwards” from it.

Prepared in acknowledgment of ECM’s 50th anniversary in 2019, this compilation includes four Bowie-led albums from the 1980s—I Only Have Eyes For You and Avant Pop by Brass Fantasy, and The Great Pretender (an instrumental quintet with his then-wife, vocalist Fontella Bass) and All The Magic (a double-disc set—one features the same unit augmented by vocalist David Peaston; the other is a phantasmagoric solo recital by Bowie).

On In Europe, from 1980, Bowie again played with New Directions (which also featured guitarist John Abercrombie and bassist Eddie Gomez). A more recent DeJohnette location date, Made In Chicago (2015), features the leader with Mitchell and Henry Threadgill, his classmates at Chicago’s Wilson Junior College in 1962 and 1963, and their mutual mentor, Muhal Richard Abrams (1930–2017). DeJohnette has led or been a sideman on more than 70 ECM sessions, beginning in 1971.

In addition to Mitchell’s appearances with the Art Ensemble, the collection includes his double-disc 2017 extravaganza Bells For The South Side, which features nine musicians, including Tyshawn Sorey on trombone, piano, drums and percussion; Nine To Get Ready (1999) and Far Side (2010), both by The Note Factory; and two iterations of a 2007 project called The Transatlantic Art Ensemble, one led by Mitchell (Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2), the other by saxophonist Evan Parker (Boustrophedon).

ECM’s state-of-the-art production values are palpable on the recordings from 1978 to 1985. As Paul Steinbeck observes in his 2017 book, Message To Our Folks (University of Chicago Press), audio engineer Martin Wieland “accurately captures the Art Ensemble’s unique sound spectrum while bringing out nuances in the high frequency range that had been neglected on the band’s earlier recordings.” Steinbeck quotes AEC percussionist, Famoudou Don Moye, as saying, “It sounds like us.”

“I think Manfred showed people how to run a successful recording company,” Mitchell remarked, perhaps remembering that Nice Guys and Full Force each sold 40,000 units in the United States alone. “They pay all the royalties, they’re often present at the recordings, and they help with getting tours and concerts. They pay special attention to detail.”

The oft-reserved Mitchell was particularly effusive about the box set’s booklet, a feat of design ingenuity and editorial intelligence that does the music justice, augmenting well-reproduced album covers with a slew of archival documents and photographs, and essays by luminaries like George Lewis, Vijay Iyer and Steve Lake. “ECM has totally outdone themselves here,” Mitchell exclaimed as he glanced through a digital version of the booklet. “They put some effort into this. These are serious people here.”

The Art Ensemble of Chicago is planning to release a new album—featuring live and studio tracks—on the Pi Recordings label around the time of the band’s performance at the 2019 Big Ears Festival (March 21-24) in Knoxville, Tennessee.

“This is exciting,” Mitchell said. “I’m ready to get back to my eight hours of practicing a day.” DB

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