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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Art Ensemble of Chicago, "Urban Bushmen"

Art Ensemble of Chicago
"Urban Bushmen"
ECM (1982)

1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

When you’re a jazz band, it’s less important that you have a superstar such as Miles Davis heading the group than that everyone in the band is in sync with each other. There are plenty of groups that have had five members playing with amazing synchronization. The difference between them and the Art Ensemble of Chicago is that the AEC works with up to 300 instruments (the number they reportedly brought with them on the European tour on which they recorded “Urban Bushmen”). Primary saxophone player Joseph Jarman is listed as playing 22 in the album in the liner notes. Moon describes it as “not one big idea but a thousand little ones.”

There is however, at least one big idea at play in this recording, if not the entire career of the AEC: The group’s common theme is connecting the worlds of city music and ancestral music. The buffet of instruments, along with tribal costumes and face paint, help cement the idea. This is a live album, but the band is perhaps better seen than simply heard, because the group marches and acts in accordance with its music.

The “thousand little ideas” better describe the style of jazz music that the AEC performs. The group, much like Air and the Muhal Richard Abrams Orchestra, two groups we have already looked at, emerged from the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an organization responsible for a large amount of free jazz artists. The number of solos here is very limited in comparison to music like that of Louis Armstrong; more emphasis is put on the interplay of the five musicians, resulting in Moon’s “thousand little ideas.”

The variety in interplay results in a variety of musical textures as well. “Sun Precondition Two/Theme for Sco” illustrates a number of them. It opens with four minutes of rapid soloing from drummer Don Moye. It then launches into an unusually organized (relatively organized for the AEC) New Orleans march complete with shouts from the band’s most well-established member, Lester Bowie. After four minutes of that, the song collapses into a cacophony of instruments and siren sound effects. Other tracks, like “New York is Full of Lonely People,” are much slower and less dense, creating a visual of empty, late night streets.

As for the band’s main theme of city versus country, back-to-back tracks “Bush Magic” and “Urban Magic” illustrate the point nicely. The former uses an interesting variety of percussion (most effectively the mark tree instrument, for an ethereal element) and whistles to create a forest feel. Jump to “Urban Magic” and horns and clarinet introduce the city feel. By the middle of the track, the rhythm has “evolved” into a modern jazz club number.

The group hits on all cylinders for both urban and ancestral locales. This group is one of the most inventive and entertaining live jazz groups of all time, and the only disappointment on this album is that you can’t see it happening.

INTERESTING FACT: The drink Odwalla is named after the track “Odwalla/Theme” from this album. The song is supposedly about a man who leads his people “out of a gray haze,” and the drink’s creator said his product leads consumers away from “the dull mass of over-processed foods.”

"Malichi" (Note: This is not from "Urban Bushmen." Alas, I could not find any YouTube links to that album, but this song gets the point across.)

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