Run...run...run!!! Get the CD at all costs. It contains some of the best work of the legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago, including the classic and rarely available People in Sorrow, perhaps one of the most moving and profound improvisatory works of all time. I've been waiting for this to appear on CD for almost 20 years and finally, my prayers have been answered.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago got its start, as so many great Chicago groups did, in Muhal Richard Abrams Experimental Band of the mid 60s. First begun as Roscoe Mitchell's Art Ensemble, the group coalesced around a core of Chicagoans...Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors; along with St. Louis transplant Lester Bowie. In the late 60s, sick of scrounging for gigs, the group as a whole emigrated to Paris. There they cut a couple of albums with Phillip Wilson as drummer, though the match was not perfect. Later they hooked up with Don Moye and the classic group was formed. The AEC was original; mixing free blowing over funky grooves, strange ritualistic percussion jams, and all out free improv, always dominated by an interest in composition and underlying structure. The two albums that make up this reissue are among the best that the group ever recorded.
The first six cuts on this reissue were originally released as the album Les Stances a Sophie and mark the first appearance of Don Moye on an AEC recording. Several cuts also feature Lester Bowie's then wife, Fontella Bass, an accomplished blues and gospel singer. Theme de Yoyo is a funky 60's number that, except for the freewheeling solos and the lack of piano or guitar, could have been recorded by Lee Morgan or Cannonball Adderly. The groove is infectiously propelled by Malachi Favors funky upright work. Theme de Celine is a neo-bop piece with more freewheeling solos by the horn men. The third cut is a lovely set of variations on the haunting Montiverdi ritornello to the Lament di Arianna. In lesser hands it could sound pretentious, but the AEC subsumes the work into it's own style and makes it a haunting ritual. The Theme du Universal Love again features Bass on a modal drone ballad. Proverbes is a ritual piece, complete with the AEC's signature "little instruments" orchestrations.... all of the horn players play small percussion, including African drums, shakers, car horns, and even mallet percussion. Theme Libre is the most radical departure on the recording, a freely improvised blowout, dominated by percussion and by Jarman and Mitchell's incredible sax work.
But the real reason to get this CD is for the last two cuts. Recorded just a bit before Les Stances, these two cuts represent both sides of the classic AEC album People in Sorrow. The work begins with quiet rustlings on the "little instruments" which gradually begin to suggest the hints of a melody. This haunting melody will recur throughout the work, but always just under the surface of things, just slightly out of reach...you never realize you've heard the melody until you reach the distinctive last phrase. In between statements, and over statements and around the statements of this melody, members of the group improvise, led by Lester Bowie. His trumpet playing is the signature of this album, rich, dark and haunting. Bowie was known for his freewheeling sense of humor and almost Ellingtonian set of effects, but such is the commitment in this album that Bowie delivers his long solos completely straight, without resorting to a single joke. Jarman and Mitchell also offer searing solos on their horns, including a brilliant bassoon solo by Jarman and some wonderful soprano sax work by Mitchell. As the piece continues, the mood becomes more and more intense and spooky. (The passage where you can barely hear on of the members of the group crying as if he were a child, "mommie, there's a rat scratchin' in the walls" is devastating...capturing as it does the horror of growing up poor and in a tenement.) Finally, about two thirds of the way through the second track, a siren is sounded, over which the group finally states the theme of the work in full and then engages in the fiercest collective improvisation imaginable. After this intense free jazz freak out, the theme is stated once again in full, the siren is turned off and the work recedes again into the stillness from which it came. It is one of the most powerful examples of jazz improvisation ever.
If you are a fan of the AEC, this recording is a must. Les Stances has been available intermittently on CD, mostly in imports. But to my knowledge this is the first available recording of People in Sorrow, a situation that I am very glad has been remedied. This is the strongest work of the AEC's early career, and indeed, it may be the strongest work that they ever did. Be prepared to be moved, amazed, and disturbed. This work is one that will stay with you for a long, long time.