Despite jazz’s reputation as America’s most innovative, experimental music, many fans and musicians regard so-called avant-garde artists with suspicion and disdain. Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor are beloved icons today, but they were widely regarded as charlatans during the ’50s. With vocalists now hot items with the majors, 21st century mavericks must depend on independent and foreign labels for exposure. None of which has deterred musicians like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Marty Ehrlich, Matthew Shipp and Russell Gunn.
The Art Ensemble’s history extends back nearly four decades, when multi-instrumentalists Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman teamed with trumpeter Lester Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors and percussionist Don Moye to create a group that celebrated jazz and challenged long-held notions about what defined it. The Ensemble spurned standard repertory in favor of original compositions that featured sprawling sections and collectively improvised passages. Their work allowed room for relentless personal dialogues, but also demanded immense discipline and technical prowess. With Bowie’s death in 1999 and Jarman’s recent retirement, the group are now a trio. Their new album Tribute to Lester (ECM)their first original music in nearly 20 yearsreveals that the three survivors remain a formidable unit.
The losses of Bowie and Jarman have forced stylistic changes, most notably more restrained pieces containing longer unison passages. There’s also none of the intense, often spectacular sax dialogues between Mitchell and Jarman that once were Ensemble staples. Instead, on cuts like “Tutankhamun” and “Suite for Lester,” Mitchell compensates by playing with a fluid, mournful quality, building the drama until Favors and Moye suddenly increase their rhythmic edge, before soaring above them to punctuate the proceedings with added fury. While maintaining the tension between freewheeling solos and group sound that’s always been a hallmark of their music, the current Ensemble deliver more poignant, reflective pieces than they used to. On “He Speaks to Me Often in Dreams,” though, they prove they still can deliver those fiery, resounding numbers that cause some listeners to shrink in confusion.
Fans yearning for the older Ensemble style might prefer The Meeting (PI), a recent reunion date between Jarman and his mates that includes a beautiful Jarman original “Hail We Now Sing Joy” and the magnificent “It’s the Sign of the Times.” On the latter, every member provides a powerful statement before concluding with an even more impressive group piece. The album highlights the subtle differences in approach between Jarman, who is superb on soprano and tenor, and Mitchell, who is brilliant on alto and tenor, but less distinctive on soprano. It’s also a reminder of how a second horn voice can provide welcome tension and competition, something that’s missing from the trio date.
A star multi-instrumentalist with the Human Arts Ensemble in the ’70s, Marty Ehrlich is a prime example of how the Art Ensemble concept influenced their contemporaries. Since his 1985 solo debut, Ehrlich has played on a host of landmark sessions, consistently demonstrating dazzling technique on various flutes, saxophones and clarinets. Line on Love (Palmetto) features him heading an excellent quartet, while The Long View (Enja/Justin Time) spotlights his compositional acumen as a 21-member crew play a six-movement original and a concluding piece called “Postlude.”
Though Ehrlich served as executive producer for The Long View, the disc has its weaknesses; movements often take too long to unfold, and there’s less emphasis placed on solo statements than on transitions, orchestrated passages and majestic opening and concluding moments. Ehrlich wrote the work in collaboration with painter Oliver Jackson, and, as far as providing sonic colors and thematic consistency, everything works. Trouble is, there’s little of the energy or individual vitality that’s usually heard on an Ehrlich session.
The latest efforts of trumpeter Russell Gunn and keyboardist Matthew Shipp stretch jazz’s idiomatic boundaries from different directions. Gunn’s Ethnomusicology, Volume 3 (Justin Time) continues his juggling act between improvisational pieces, R&B-influenced tunes and hip-hop beats, while also mixing acoustic and fusion-inflected numbers featuring electric instruments. Gunn is a powerful soloist, but he often limits his contributions by inserting them into restrictive settings. He skewers jazz purists on “The Critic’s Song,” offers pithy protest lyrics and biting trumpet lines on “John Wicks” and “Stranger Fruit,” and pays homage to his roots on “East St. Louis.” Ethnomusicology works best when Gunn, vibist Stefon Harris and saxophonist Kebbi Williams expand the disc’s loose jams, but it bogs down when the music plays second fiddle to less imaginative rhythmic settings.
Matthew Shipp’s Sessions: The Sorcerer (Thirsty Ear) has a jazz foundation and a rock/electronica sensibility. Shipp’s whirling synthesizer work and violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain’s spacey phrases converge with the plucked bass of William Parker, the shifting rhythms of percussionist Gerald Cleaver and the clever to maniacal solos of clarinetist Evan Ziporyn. Though Shipp and his cohorts sometimes threaten to implode, they credibly execute the disc’s 12 pieces, most of which remind listeners of fusion’s promising early years.
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Wonderful! We're hoping Knoxville puts something like this together, too. It's a fantastic concept!!